“Art imitates nature.” Many take this concept, which goes at least as far back as Aristotle’s Poetics, to mean that artists represent what they find in the natural world like a landscape painter might replicate a scenic view or a musician might copy the sound of birds. Yet Aristotle actually meant something far more basic (and to contemporary sensibilities, disruptive): he meant that the artist taps into the universal truths governing the world, elucidating the inward significance of things. For example, tragedy does not simply depict realistic portrayal of events but universal truths about human experience. Similarly, visual artists tap into the beauty and order of the natural world that we find in the cycles and patterns of seasons and stars, the symmetry and proportion of living organisms, and the teleology and purposefulness of all life forms.
In this older tradition, an artist submitted to nature because nature was understood to reflect permanent things and to participate in the transcendent ordering that remains the final object of contemplation and the source of true creativity. Thus, the function of imagination, and thus of art, was not to merely make stuff up, but to discover and elucidate a priori truths of reality, most especially the transcendental attributes of being such as unity, truth, goodness, and beauty. We do not merely project these transcendentals onto the raw material of the neutral world; rather, we discover them and work to conform ourselves and our art to them.