Monday, May 21, 2007

Lessing on Laocoön and the limits of painting and poetry

I just finished this short book by the 18th century German philosophy Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. The book is the first in a project that promises to span about two years of my academic study, which will be focused on tracing the merging of rhetorical categories and the science of hermeneutics.

The book is touted as the first systematized treatment of aesthetics during the Enlightenment and it is considered remarkable because it is one of the first (and the most coherent of the first, perhaps) works to articulate the difference between poetic production (art with words) and painting production (art with physical bodies, including sculpture, painting, and architecture, etc.). Prior to Lessing and several of his contemporaries, painting and poetry were considered to be relatively synonymous in how they were produced, not functionally, that is, not with the physical techniques, but aesthetically, with the intellectual consideration and aims.

Lessing argues against this conflation by appealing to a particular ancient example that had been the subject of debate for quite some time: the Greek/Roman sculpture of Laocoön. Laocoön was a Trojan priest of Apollo who was destroyed (along with his two sons) by two giant serpents sent by the god Apollo. Variants on the details of the story exist, but the debate centers upon the account of Virgil in the Aeneid and the sculpture of Laocoön, whose date is also debated. The central debate is whether the sculptor relied upon the written record (Virgil's) for inspiration or whether Virgil relied upon the sculpture for his inspiration.

Behind this seemingly insignificant question is whether poetry and painting are independent arts, dependent arts, or interdependent arts of aesthetic production and whether they should be judged by the same standards or separate standards. Lessing's work labors to prove that poetry and painting are not dependent upon each other (though they do have similarities). Painting can depict certain qualities that poetry cannot (examples are below) and poetry too can depict certain qualities that painting cannot. Overall, Lessing seems to elevate poetic production above painting because the scope of its production is greater as well as its imaginative appeal to the senses.

One of the more interesting arguments and distinctions that Lessing makes, is that painting can only depict the singular moment, whereas poetry always depicts the object in succession. Thus, a girl laughing can only be depicted in one moment of its duration in painting (for example, this could be the initial smile, the height of the moment with an open mouth and closed eyes, or the closing of the laugh where the cheeks are flush and the smile is subsiding). Alternatively, the same moment could be depicted in its complete duration in poetry, emphasizing the physical, emotional, and intellectual content from beginning to end in whatever fashion seems most appealing.

Another example that shows the particular difference of painting to poetry is the depiction of Ajax's shield. Some commentators have said that the description of the shield given by Homer is an impossible object to have created in reality. Lessing rejects this conclusion, but he does argue that while painting could depict the full beauty of the shield all at once, poetry must describe the shield in successive depictions of its constituent parts, thereby removing some of the effect of the whole.

But Lessing goes on to argue that this does not diminish the value of poetry, but shows that the standards of judging painting are incompatible with the art of poetry and, to some degree, the converse is also true. One of the ways in which Lessing endeavors to show the superiority, or at least the broader scope of poetry is in its depiction of ugliness. His premise is that the highest goal of art for the Greek was Beauty. The only thing worthy of expression in poetry or painting was what is beautiful. Ugliness cannot be portrayed in painting because it is so obviously despicable that refined taste would be offended. However, the sequential and successive nature of poetry allows for the ugliness to be diminished by its description in parts, which delays the full experience of the whole before one's senses. Of course, poetry could express the truly despicable in ways that offend taste, but it is also capable of expressing something ugly in a beautiful way without offending the sense of the observer in the expression itself.

Lessing's arguments seem to be generally sound insofar as his premises are true, but it is doubtful whether this is the case. Not only does he omit any definition of Beauty, he does not sufficiently prove that this was what the Greeks considered the highest aim of artistic expression, or whether or not Beauty ought to hold this position. Subsequent to these most basic considerations are the assumptions of taste that support Lessing's conclusions about the quality of any given artistic production. Imitation is no doubt foremost in his judgment, which is to be expected and for the most part supported. Mimesis or imitation in art seems to me to be an inescapable factor when imitation is defined broadly as the expression of the idea one has in the mind. Of course, imitation has been defined in different ways, including the imitation of nature, of the Forms, or in Christianity, of Christ himself. But what standard of imitation is it that Lessing assumes? I assume it is Beauty, but here again we find that this work does not define what Beauty is.

And what observations can be made regarding the focus of my project, the relationship between rhetoric and hermeneutics? Well, admittedly little at this point, since the formation and systematization of aesthetics is a precursor to the merger of rhetorical categories and scientific hermeneutics. Still, it can be said that Lessing's division of poetry and painting into two distinct aesthetic categories does make a difference for rhetoric. The classical sphere of rhetoric was prominent in (but not confined to) public address, which would have had involved both poetic art (the choice and arrangement of words in succession) and painting art (the nonverbal delivery skills), both of which played a vital role in teaching, persuading, and moving and audience. The great Christian philosopher Augustine was the first to systematically use the tools of rhetoric in interpretation, but he nonetheless retained the delivery aspects since his work on the subject (On Christian Doctrine) was written for pastors who would be preaching to their churches.

Lessing's contribution furthers the independence of the written or verbal aspect from the delivery or physical aspect. In public speaking we have the combination of both poetry and painting, which would seem to pose a unique problem for Lessing's theory. However, with the separation that Lessing provides, the categories of rhetoric that are more specifically (but not totally) focused upon verbal production can be appropriated without consideration for their physical counterparts. Hermeneutics as a science of interpretation is most particularly applied to written works with an aim to understand their meaning. Rhetoric, as a science and throughout its history, has most often been applied to producing meaning for a general purpose to inform, persuade, or delight (and while these general aims overlap, their distinctiveness should be preserved I think).

My thoughts on the matter are, understandably, underdeveloped and relatively disconnected from a firm observation or argument that could be advanced. I'm looking forward to seeing what Wellbery's book will provide for advancing my own understanding of these issues.


Anonymous said...

thanks for the summary. i'm being tested on this in two part of my ma exam. :)

pgstone38 said...

Some will say that the process of painting, or the process of the evolving painting from the perspective of the painter, a temporal activity, is the quintessence of painting, rather than the painting itself. And since there is this creative similarity with poetry (i.e., its evolutionary nature as well) perhaps the sharpness of Lessing's dichotomy, even while admitting its evident attraction, is thereby softened.

Kathlene said...

So, since this comment is arriving several years after the original posting, I'm sure it won't matter to the author. Perhaps it will matter to a future reader though. The reason Lessing doesn't define beauty is because he is writing a critique of Winklemann's "Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture," in which Winklemann meticulously describes beauty by the Greek standard. I imagine he thought it would be redundant to regurgitate Winklemann's definitions since his presumed audience at the time would be familiar with Wincklemann's work.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Kathlene

Joshua Butcher said...

Thanks for commenting Kathlene! It is good to know someone with a more particular interest in or familiarity with Lessing's thesis is willing to offer some additional perspective.

As for Lessing's criticisms of Winklemann, if Lessing doesn't define beauty, and if Winklemann does, is it the case that Lessing agrees with Winklemann's definition and assessment of Greek beauty?

It would seem that he must, since otherwise he would have interacting with that claim of Winklemann.

In any case, thanks again for posting.

Arnold Bennett said...

Arnold Bennett wrote on October 9th.,1907 as follows: "I have often thought, during the last year, upon the uselessness of trying to describe faces in literature. No vision is raised by particularization in words. I now find this minutely explained in Lessing's "Laocoon", which is certainly a most useful and illuminating treatise for a writer. Homer it seems never described Helen. He merely said she was beautiful, and kept insisting on the fact, and showing the influence of her beauty - as on the elders. This is the way to follow. Lessing's theory of the propriety of describing ugliness is ingenious, and perhaps good. The choice in subjects of a painter like Delacroix will not justify itself under Lessing's philosophy, and Lessing is undoubtedly right. Delacroix was great in spite of his choice of subjects. "Laocoon" has clarified and confirmed my ideas very much."

Anonymous said...

Loved finding this! It's a very lucid summary of a dificult work, and I also enjoyed reading your own "twist" on it re: rhetoric and hermeneutics.