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By Will Heath

Standard Formal Rack

Bonsai and Photograph by Budi Sulistyo
Illustration by Will Heath

"I remember one day when Juan Gris told me about a bunch of grapes he had seen in a painting by Picasso. The next day these grapes appeared in a painting by Gris, this time in a bowl; and the day after, the bowl appeared in a painting by Picasso." - Jacques Lipchitz

The debate about imitation in art has been waged since the first artist saw the work of the second artist. As history shows, even some of the greatest artists of the world could not agree on whether imitation was an advantage or disadvantage to the artist.

Today this debate often arises in relation to the art of bonsai, where works that follow the traditional guidelines of styling are negatively referred to as "cookie cutter bonsai" and are often criticized for a lack of originality. Paradoxically, those bonsai which the artist has taken away from the traditional guidelines and are truly unique are criticized for not following the "rules." The artist is caught in a catch 22 in which he can neither imitate nor be original without harsh criticism from his peers.

Imitation has to be one of the most widely misunderstood terms in art theory, as well as one of the most looked down upon techniques in art itself. Such focus is put on originality today that the slightest hint of imitation is quickly chastised. Strangely, it was not always this way, in fact, it wasn't until after the Romanticism Movement wrongly compared imitation to copying that imitation became looked down upon and described as a "vehicle of unoriginality" by many.

In art theory, imitation means not only the copying of nature but also of the best masterpieces, imitation isn't defined or meant to be defined as copying art stroke per stroke, or in our case, branch by branch, but instead as a way to converse with and learn from what was the best of the past, an interpretation that was already well received in the tradition loving and conservative East when the art of bonsai was refined.

In the East an artist's greatness was often based on his ability to recreate existing forms of art. To this day we can see this mind set present in the bonsai being produced, with few exceptions, the typical helmet shaped foliage of conifers of the Japanese bonsai and the "S" shaped trunks of the Chinese exports are prevalent.

This outlook on imitation was followed in the West also up until about the time of the Renaissance and there it turned from a successful tool for the education of the artist to a rote copying form that led to its dislike, thanks to the practice being institutionalized by the academies.

The history of these practices is what shapes our perceptions of imitation today. There is little wonder that the majority of people look down upon imitation and considers it as mere copying and void of originality. Yet, there is a great deal to be learned from the masters of the past as well as the living masters of the day.

So how do we relate all this to the art of bonsai? Can we learn from the lessons of those who went before us?

"Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing." - Salvador Dali

In many ways we are doomed to imitating for we must imitate nature to some degree or the bonsai stops being an idealized vision of a tree and becomes something else, like topiary. We don't copy nature in the strictest sense; instead we practice emulation of the best of nature. But beyond this, is it acceptable, is it educational, is it allowable to copy the works of those greater than ourselves in order to learn the techniques, to reproduce the results, to build a solid foundation that we can build on with our own originality?

The prejudice against imitation is so strong that many beginners to the art hurt themselves by refusing to copy what has come before and insist that originality is the key to success for them, regardless of the fact that, more often then not, their attempts fail artistically. These same beginners often also ignore the traditional guidelines, stating that rules were made to be broken and they blindly continue producing bonsai that are neither based on past art, traditional guidelines, nor solid artistic principles. It is little wonder that these same individuals proclaim bonsai as a craft and not as an art form.

"It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation." - Herman Melville

The few artists who do produce original work that differs from the norm and which show creativity and originality are often criticized for straying from the traditional guidelines. A few rare examples of highly original bonsai styling can be found in the work of Walter Pall with his naturalistic style, Nick Lenz with his strangely intelligent and somewhat gothic work, Lisa Tajima with her pop bonsai that defies convention, Masahiko Kimura with his amazing deadwood, the Punk Bonsai movement practiced by the likes of Ulf of Berlin, and even the Crash Bonsai of John Rooney.

Some of the above examples are very successful artistically, others border on Kitsch, which is which varies depending upon the viewer and the reining public opinion of the day.

On the other hand, those who do use imitation to learn are often chastised for producing cookie cutter bonsai and for lacking originality. It would seem that there is nowhere for the aspiring artist to turn.

It is my opinion that an aspiring bonsai artist must have a solid foundation to build on and that this foundation can only be gained by studying and imitating the techniques of past and existing masters. Only after this foundation is built should a artist build upon it with their own originality.

We should encourage those who break from tradition and create original bonsai based on traditional techniques that work artistically We should also encourage those who imitate the work of masters both past and present. It is both methods that will raise the level of talent and art in bonsai and I feel that without either, bonsai will never reach the level that is needed to raise it to a recognized and respected art form.

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Primary sources

1. Institutio Oratoria (http://honeyl.public.iastate.edu/quintilian/index.html) at Iowa State
2. Wikipedia - (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quintilian)
3. Petrarch's Apes: Originality, Plagiarism and Copyright Principles within Visual Culture (http://web.mit.edu/comm-forum/papers/alfrey.html) by Penelope Alfrey at Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Other material

1. A Note on Imitation and Forgery in Art - http://www.umich.edu/%7Eengtt516/forgerysource.html at Michigan State

For further reading on imitation and its history in the arts see:

Dictionary of the History of Ideas - http://etext.virginia.edu/cgi-local/DHI/dhi.cgi?id=dv3-27
The University of Chicago :: Theories of Media :: Keywords Glossary :: mimesis - http://www.chicagoschoolmediatheory.net/glossary2004/mimesis.htm

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