Art's Important Moral Work

imitative arts imitation painting

Graham McAleer for AdamSmithWorks

Adam Smith had a life-long interest in the arts.  He was surely a man of taste.  However, his biographer, Dugald Stewart, suggests Smith’s interest in the arts and fashion was primarily “on account of their connexion with the general principles of the human mind” (Essays on Philosophical Subjects, 173).  Smith, it seems, was ever the theorist.  
If Adam Smith's biographer Dugald Stewart is right, we should expect to find Smith teasing out the connection between the arts and ethics.  Smith’s long essay “Of the Imitative Arts” compares and contrasts painting, tapestry, sculpture, and topiary and advances the general thesis that “the disparity between the imitating and the imitated object is the foundation of the beauty of imitation.”  A work of art succeeds, “because the one object does not naturally resemble the other, that we are so much pleased with it, when by art it is made to do so” (EPS, 183).  
As an example, Smith gives the difference between a three-dimensional model of a fruit and a fruit painted in a picture.  The three-dimensional model is crafted to a high degree of imitation, but we are soon bored, he argues.  By contrast, the fruit painted in the picture retains our interest.  It is the guile of the painter in bridging the disparity between a fruit and pigment on a flat surface that underwrites our interest in the painting.  There is no similar gulf between clay molded into the shape of fruit.  Our response to art is, in large part, our response to the hints of artistic cunning:
“The nobler works of Statuary and Painting appear to us a sort of wonderful phaenomena, differing in this respect from the wonderful phaenomena of Nature, that they carry, as it were, their own explication along with them, and demonstrate, even to the eye, the way and manner in which they are produced” (EPS, 185). 
Disparity is also basic to the problem of ethics.  Smith speaks of each of us as beings set apart:

“By the wisdom of Nature, the happiness of every innocent man is, in the same manner, rendered holy, consecrated, and hedged round against the approach of every other man; not to be wantonly trod upon, not even to be, in any respect, ignorantly and involuntarily violated” (TMS, 107).
This moral distance also has a physical coordinate.  The second paragraph of The Theory of Moral Sentiments begins with Smith observing that “we have no immediate experience of what other men feel.”  Each person is uniquely embodied and thus has a manifold of experiences which others cannot share (TMS, 21), but only surmise.  We surmise through imitation:
“By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations” (TMS, 9). 
We literally perform this imitation, for we are natural mimics:  
“When we see a stroke aimed and just ready to fall upon the leg or arm of another person, we naturally shrink and draw back our own leg or our own arm; and when it does fall, we feel it in some measure, and are hurt by it as well as the sufferer.  The mob, when they are gazing at a dancer on the slack rope, naturally writhe and twist and balance their own bodies, as they see him do” (TMS, 10).         
Smith contends that the arts expand the mimicry running through communities. The universal art is dance, accompanied by music (LRBL, 136-37).
“It is more natural to mimic, by gestures and motions, the adventures of common life, than to express them in Verse or Poetry… Pantomime Dancing in this manner serve to give a distinct sense and meaning to Music many ages before the invention, or at least before the common use of Poetry” (EPS, 188-89). 
Mimicry also explains carving and topiary (EPS, 183).  About carving, Smith writes:    
“Even the masks which are sometimes carried upon the different keystones of the same arcade, or of the correspondent doors and windows of the same front, though they may all resemble one another in the general outline, yet each of them has its own peculiar features, and a grimace of its own” (EPS, 177). 
Art aims at symmetry between diverse bodies and does so through mimicry.  Likewise, a positive moral judgement, argues Smith, follows when peoples’ sentiments coincide.  To arrive at this concord, or sympathy, persons must “picture out” the emotions of those around them (TMS, 18).  
Art is an education in symmetry.  Thus, the world of adornment, from jewelry, fashion, iPhones, cars, and houses to ballet and opera – the economy! – helps us to “picture out” the sentiments of those about us and thus does important moral work.     
Some possible questions for discussion:
1.    Do you think Smith is right that we value art for the signs of the artist’s cunning?  His suggestion is that when we look at great art, we wonder at how the artist pulled it off: Do you agree that art has this puzzle-like quality?
2.    Smith argues that art bridges differences.  Do you think all art works this way?  Does art unite more than it separates?
3.    Is Smith right about the importance and extent of mimickry?
4.    Smith argues that art aids our moral understanding of one another.  Can you think of other aspects of civilization that also build moral bridges or is art unique in this regard?    
Alexandra Hudson

Art is a language. So to some extent, in communicating an idea in a way that transcends traditional linguistic barriers, it does bridges divides. Art also communicates truths about emotion and the human experience in ways that the written or spoken word cannot. I love Elaine Scarry's "On Beauty and Being Just," which argues that contemplating and appreciating the beautiful makes us more ethical humans, more concerned about the pursuit of justice. It awakens our souls to an objective ideal to strive for. This is perhaps in part reminiscent of Smith's argument about the imitative arts, in which we want to become more life the beautiful image that we see. Would you agree, Prof. McAleer?

Graham McAleer

Thank you for the comment, Alexandra. Two points.

I don't know Scarry's work or the exact idea of her "objective ideal" but Smith does use the idea of an order of beauty at one point: it would be very useful to unpack that idea in his aesthetics and moral thinking. Hopefully, I'll do so in another post. It's worth unpacking because it points back to Plato and forward to Max Scheler and his early twentieth century value theory.

A second point you make is that we want to become like the beautiful thing we see. Not sure that is quite Smith's position. Art (and the artist) tutors us in balance and symmetry and that is the moral work it does, as sympathy is linked to symmetry. Now, as you say, there is some art we try become: for instance, when we are inspired to twirl like a ballerina, which is a case of mimickry. Some reaction to art is more distant and mental e.g. when Smith suggests we look at art as a puzzle and wonder about the craft involved.


Janet Bufton

I think Smith is definitely on to something when it comes to mimicry and cleverness. There is something undeniably and, I think, universally fascinating about an uncannily realistic pencil or ink drawing. This phenomenon also helps to explain fascination with novel ways of giving a realistic impression, such as pointillism or impressionism. But there are departures from these rules in art. There is art that is art that purposefully departs from mimicry and art that refuses to be universally fascinating.

In the first category, I'm thinking of things like surrealism/Dadaism. In the case of surrealism, we often see exceedingly clever tricks (see, for example, Dali's Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at Twenty Meters Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln [1]) that resemble more the contrivances Smith talks about in TMS than the imitative arts he talks about in the essay under discussion. It’s likely that art like this will appeal to some but not others, especially as it becomes more abstract (to stick with Dali, see The Hallucinogenic Toreador [2]). But we can probably, at least, share in our appreciation for its cleverness, even if we can’t share an aesthetic appreciation.

But there's also art that's not trying at any sort of mimicry, but instead pushes up against the limits of artistic appeal that shared sympathy can help us explain. This art speaks to individuals, making appreciation for it harder to share. In a way, love for these pieces is more like romantic love—it "appears ridiculous" to those who don't get it, but makes perfect sense to those who do. For example, see Kadinsky [3] or Malevich [4].
What I find interesting about this spectrum of mimicry and sympathy in art is that as art departs from mimicry of our shared reality and relies more on what’s only in our heads: what we imagine. As the overlap in what any two people take from a piece of art shrinks, our appreciation for it becomes less social and more personal. When our appreciation is more intensely personal, finding someone with whom we can share it makes us feel that we’ve formed a much faster and stronger bond than we would over something more broadly shared.

I can’t think of many examples of when Smith talks about this phenomenon in his system (though they might exist). He certainly says that we have trouble going along with the sympathy we feel for too-personal feelings, which we naturally keep closer to ourselves. But the normal corresponding disapprobation that follows from failing to bring along our fellows doesn't (or at least shouldn't) apply to art, love, and geekdom. It’s an interesting limit to the system.

(Just because it's easier to talk about paintings with pictures:
[4] )

Graham McAleer

Hi Janet, first apologies, only seeing this now. Great stuff!

The first example about Dali: I think you are right that Smith might think of such art as like the contrivances he speaks about TMS, 179-85 [Liberty Fund]. But I wonder if he might go on to argue that such contrivances, with their displays of complex systems, are something like mimickry. The symmetry, balance, and harmony of a contrivance are the same qualities in mimickry, even in rudimentary cases. If he were to make this argument, then there might be more continuity between TMS and the essay on the imitative arts.

There might also be more mimickry in Dali than first meets the eye. He was a close friend of the psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, whose mirror stage theory of personal identity relies on the idea of mimickry. E.g.

Your second example introduces the idea that some art appreciation breaks the bonds of commonly shared sympathy and forges bonds between persons that might be quite idiosyncratic. It's interesting that you introduce this idea citing loving a work of art. Smith has a fun portrait of lovebirds puzzling their friends with their choice of one another. It's actually quite brilliantly observed (TMS, 31-32). Smith accepts that certain eccentric partnerships can be indulged by the spectator and basically laughed off as charming curiosities. This attitude is possible, argues Smith, because the lovebirds behave just like we did in the silliness of love!

He might also argue that bondings over certain artistic movements e.g. goth, punk, steampunk, etc. invoke spectators and so are not really as singular as falling in love. Such appreciation isn't then breaking with collective sympathies.