But imitation requires not only the absence of any unconquerable originality but also a relative fineness of ear which enables one first of all to discern what one is afterwards to imitate.
(Proust, Guermantes Way, In Search of Lost Time; trans. Moncrieff, Kilmartin, and Enright)
Famously, since Plato and Aristotle, art has been defined as the imitation of life or nature. Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, fascinatingly, reversed the direction of imitation, saying in his portrayal of Actaeon's transformation by Diana into a stag that is torn apart by his own dogs that nature imitates art--he is speaking of the rock formations around Diana's pool that are in the form of arches--the famous Roman architectural feature. Dante, on the Ledge of Pride in his Purgatorio, similarly, depicts an ecphrasis that is so real that nature could not compete with it. Art imitates life; life imitates art; it is an endless circle of mimesis. This is a fairly creative view of mimesis; Proust, however, takes a more ambivalent point. Imitation lacks originality. In high modernism, however, there is a cult of originality that ultimately is not original, as people clamor to imitate the artists who are "original." This is not a part of the loop of mimesis between life, art, and nature, but an exaggerated offshoot in which art imitates art. Or, in what he speaks of, is the circulation of particular mannerisms and trends among the upper classes. The other side of this ambivalence, however, is discernment. One' ability to discriminate what to imitate versus what not to imitate: this, it seems, is a useful social skill. It can be directed toward toadyism, for shameless self-promotion, or just surviving the shifting waves of society. The real issue, however, is whether or not "originality" is an illusion. What seems original is probably just the reorganization of partially imitated elements combined into new configurations. If originality is an illusion, creative mimesis is all there is.