Representation (arts) - History

History

Since ancient times representation has played a central role in understanding literature, aesthetics and semiotics. Plato and Aristotle are key figures in early literary theory who considered literature as simply one form of representation. Aristotle for instance, considered each mode of representation, verbal, visual or musical, as being natural to human beings. Therefore, what distinguishes humans from other animals is their ability to create and manipulate signs. Aristotle deemed mimesis as natural to man, therefore considered representations as necessary for people's learning and being in the world Plato, in contrast, looked upon representation with more caution. He recognised that literature is a representation of life, yet also believed that representations create worlds of illusion leading one away from the "real things". For Plato, representation, like contemporary media, intervenes between the viewer and the real, creating illusions that lead one away from "real things". Plato believed that representation needs therefore, to be controlled and monitored due to the possible dangers resulting in its ability to foster antisocial emotions or encourage the imitation of evil.

Aristotle went on to say it was a definitively human activity. From childhood man has an instinct for representation, and in this respect man differs from the other animals that he is far more imitative and learns his first lessons though imitating things. Aristotle discusses representation in three ways

  1. The object: The symbol being represented.
  2. Manner: The way the symbol is represented.
  3. Means: The material that is used to represent it.

The means of literary representation is language. An important part of representation is the relationship between what the material and what it represents. The questions arising from this are, "A stone may represent a man but how? And by what and by what agreement, does this understanding of the representation occur?"

One apprehends reality only through representations of reality, through texts, discourses, images: there is no such thing as direct or unmediated access to reality. But because one can see reality only through representation it does not follow that one does not see reality at all… Reality is always more extensive and complicated than any system of representation can possibly comprehend, and we always sense that this is so-representation never "gets" reality, which is why human history has produced so many different and changing ways of trying to get it.

Consequently, throughout the history of human culture, people have become dissatisfied with language's ability to express reality and as a result have developed new modes of representation. It is necessary to construct new ways of seeing reality, as people only know reality through representation. From this arises the contrasting and alternate theories and representational modes of abstraction, realism and modernism, to name a few.

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