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24 November 2013

XI. The Challenge of Emulation

Between Imitation and Invention

When settling on a title for my book on emulation in art and architecture, I wanted the publisher (Ashgate UK,) to include the word “Challenge.” Emulation is a challenge: it is challenging to understand, since most people don’t understand how it differs from imitation; it is challenging to adopt as a method, since those who discern in themselves (or are taught) a love of the past tend to revere it to the point of pessimism, not able to imagine how one might actually rival Bernini or Bramante; and it is challenging to practice, because the standard of achievement is not the pale approximation that most “traditional” artists and architects are satisfied with, but at least parity with a model, if not exceeding it. The point, as Quintilian suggested for orators, was that if one didn’t try to surpass a model, he or she would always be behind. And, for pre-Modern cultures, that was never enough. This aspiration to exceed explains everything from Roman sculpture to Gothic architecture to Renaissance painting to Baroque opera.

I hope this new book, now available, will recover for our culture that optimistic relationship with the past we once had, which has been lost since the late eighteenth century. It is the way out of a cultural morass that pins us between pessimistic imitation and naïve invention (there is certainly a form of invention that is not naïve, but that is for another book…).

I welcome comments on the book from engaged readers.

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