In Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s (1729-1781) Laocoon, or On the Limits of Painting and Poetry (1766), there is a key insight: with regard to time and space, poetry and art function differently. A poem must necessarily be read in time and sequentially, left to right. This is why poetry is so well suited to action. A painting or sculpture, by contrast, conveys a holistic impression of the relations of certain objects in space. Time and action are thus the proper domains of poetry; space and bodies, of painting and sculpture:
[I]f these signs must indisputably bear a suitable relation to the thing signified, then signs existing in space can express only objects whose wholes or parts coexist, while signs that follow one another can express only objects whose wholes or parts are consecutive. (475)
This is why, Lessing claims, poetry so often resorts to synecdoche (letting parts stand in for wholes, as in “She likes redheads”). To keep its action from being constantly slowed down by over-description, “poetry in its progressive imitations can use only one single property of a body. It must therefore choose that one which awakens the most vivid image of the body, looked at from the point of view under which poetry can best use it [in action].”
For Lessing then, since poetry cannot show all at once, it is especially well-suited to understatement and implication. Homer is representative: “Homer treats of two kinds of beings and actions, visible and invisible. This distinction cannot be made in painting, where everything is visible . . .”
Lessing’s example is the gods. When the gods “come to blows” in Homer, “invisibility gives the imagination free rein to enlarge the scene and envisage the persons and actions of the gods . . .” But to depict the invisible gods in painting is to show them invariably as oversized men and women, and therefore as “monstrous” (472). Explicitly depicting monstrosity, in Lessing’s view, is not in keeping with painting and sculpture’s highest end of beauty.
Beauty is key here, for it is through beauty that Lessing distinguishes the domains of poetry and painting. Beauty, for Lessing, is manifest in three ways:
- In actions.
- In thoughts.
- In forms.
For Lessing then, actions and thoughts belong to the domain of poetry; forms, to painting and sculpture (464).
The expression on the face of Laocoon, a priest of Neptune who struggles against sea serpents with his two boys in the famous Roman sculpture, Laocoon, illustrates Lessing’s evaluation of art and its distinction from poetry. Lessing argues that Laocoon, by displaying a sigh and not a scream or howl, is in keeping with the end of sculpture (the depiction of beautiful forms in space), not that of poetry (the depiction of beautiful, sublime, and ethical actions and elevating thoughts over time).
Lessing argues that it would be quite wrong to read Laocoon’s expression as the sculptor’s effort to depict him in thought upon the Roman stoic virtues, such as on quiet resignation, for that would be something best attempted in poetry. Instead, the sculptor, following the highest dictate of his medium, depicts Laocoon in a way that does not elicit contemplation on either time, ideas, or disgust, but on holistic space and beauty: “The master [sculptor] strove to attain the highest beauty possible under the conditions of physical pain. . . . The scream [thus] had to be softened to a sigh” because screaming “distorts the features in a disgusting manner.” The great sculptor, understanding his medium and end, recognized that “the distress should be transformed, through beauty, into the tender feeling of pity” (468).
In other words, for Lessing, something like Stoic philosophy, consisting of words, is too linear–and disgust is too graphic–for spacial depiction of beauty. And to show Laocoon contemplating Stoicism or screaming in a disturbing or disgusting manner would have given the viewer too much information, deactivating the imagination. For this reason, Lessing thinks that climaxes are not the best subjects for art: “Only that which gives free rein to the imagination is effective. . . . [Therefore] to present the utmost to the eye is to bind the wings of fancy and compel it, since it cannot soar above the impression made on the senses, . . .” (468).
A contemporary example is high-definition television, which presumably Lessing would not have approved of (at least as art) because it leaves little to the imagination. In this sense, Lessing’s analysis prefigures that of the theorist Marshall McLuhan, who made a similar distinction between overheated “hot” media that leave little to the imagination and low-information “cool” media–such as the art of Buddhist China in the 19th century–that leave a great deal to the imagination.
As to the shared characteristics of painting and poetry, Lessing offers three:
- They are for their own sake, not the handmaids for such things as religious or political propaganda. Lessing is perhaps the first to explicitly promote “art for art’s sake” (470).
- Both painting and poetry “represent absent things as being present and appearance as reality.”
- The goal or end of their pleasurable illusions is beauty.
But Lessing’s analysis of poetry and art has its flaws. It does not, for example, take into adequate account the following:
- The sublime in art. Contra Lessing, art is not always beautiful, but often unsettles by depictions of the sublime (something that both terrifies and attracts; that both binds and looses us; that elicits alternations of comprehension and incomprehension; that vibrates the temporal with the colossal, the ancient, or the infinite–as when a man gazes at the pyramids of Giza, or witnesses a storm at sea from a ragged cliff, or looks into the night sky on a moonless night). When Lessing writes against the monstrous and disgusting in art, he is rejecting the sublime and painful for what is intelligible and pleasurable. Lessing thinks that the sublime and climax are best left to descriptive poetry; that the sublime tends to overwrought literalism (such as oversized gods, absurd and ugly) when attempted in painting or sculpture. But if working artists actually took Lessing’s advice here, we certainly would not have today the products of the genius of such artists as J. M. W. Turner and Caspar David Friedrich–nor the “degenerate” art of Egon Schiele.
- The porous border between poetry and art. While it is true that one’s first impression of art is an instantaneous apprehension of spacial relations, it is also true that art is then broken into parts by the eye, with things noticed in turn and analyzed sequentially (exactly as when one reads a poem, though not necessarily left to right). And while it is true that a poem cannot but be approached in time, it is also true that one exits a poem with what Poe called a “dominant impression” akin to an immediate apprehension of it, as with an object in space.
W. J. T. Mitchell (b. 1942), Professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago, in his book Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (1986), is helpful on this second point. Of the verbal image, Mitchell quotes the British essayist Joseph Addison (1672-1719) as writing the following:
Words, when well chosen, have so great force in them that a description often gives us more lively ideas than the sight of things themselves. The reader finds a scene drawn in stronger colors . . . in his imagination by the help of words than by an actual survey of the scene which they describe. (23)
Mitchell also quotes the poet Ezra Pound (1885-1972) as saying that a good poem “presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” He sees Pound’s twentieth century view as the “residue” of Addison’s eighteenth century notion of the verbal image, but also characteristic of twentieth century modernism generally:
[T]he distinctive modernist emphasis is on the image as a sort of crystalline structure, a dynamic pattern of the intellectual and emotional energy bodied forth by a poem.
Formalist criticism also bears the idea of the verbal image, “showing us how poems contain their energies and matrices of architectonic tension, and demonstrating the congruence of these matrices with the propositional content of the poem” (25).
Language, in other words, pollutes images and images pollute language. “The dialectic of word and image,” observes Mitchell, “seems to be a constant fabric of signs that a culture weaves around itself” (43). The very origin of the word idea, for example, “comes from the Greek verb ‘to see,’ and is frequently linked with the notion of the ‘eidolon,’ the ‘visible image’ that is fundamental to ancient optics and theories of perception” (5).
But if we grant Lessing his premises–that art’s end is pleasure and beauty; that poetry is concerned with time and art with holistic space–then the Laocoon is exemplary of Lessing’s ideal (even as it actually portrays a sublime struggle). It necessarily depicts Neptune’s priest quite differently from the way a poem might. And a tragic fate is rendered gorgeous. It is a snake bite we resist, yet secretly long to submit to.
Below are lines from Virgil (Aeneid: Book 2, 267-303), as translated by Dryden, describing Laocoon’s destruction. See if you agree with Lessing that action in time and synecdoche (parts standing in for wholes) do indeed seem to distinguish poetry from painting and sculpture:
Laocoon, Neptune’s priest by lot that year,
With solemn pomp then sacrific’d a steer;
When, dreadful to behold, from sea we spied
Two serpents, rank’d abreast, the seas divide,
And smoothly sweep along the swelling tide.
Their flaming crests above the waves they show;
Their bellies seem to burn the seas below;
Their speckled tails advance to steer their course,
And on the sounding shore the flying billows force.
And now the strand, and now the plain they held;
Their ardent eyes with bloody streaks were fill’d;
Their nimble tongues they brandish’d as they came,
And lick’d their hissing jaws, that sputter’d flame.
We fled amaz’d; their destin’d way they take,
And to Laocoon and his children make;
And first around the tender boys they wind,
Then with their sharpen’d fangs their limbs and bodies grind.
The wretched father, running to their aid
With pious haste, but vain, they next invade;
Twice round his waist their winding volumes roll’d;
And twice about his gasping throat they fold.
The priest thus doubly chok’d, their crests divide,
And tow’ring o’er his head in triumph ride.
With both his hands he labors at the knots;
His holy fillets the blue venom blots;
His roaring fills the flitting air around.
Thus, when an ox receives a glancing wound,
He breaks his bands, the fatal altar flies,
And with loud bellowings breaks the yielding skies.
Their tasks perform’d, the serpents quit their prey,
And to the tow’r of Pallas make their way:
Couch’d at her feet, they lie protected there
By her large buckler and protended spear.
Amazement seizes all; the gen’ral cry
Proclaims Laocoon justly doom’d to die,
Whose hand the will of Pallas had withstood,
And dared to violate the sacred wood.
Image source: Wikipedia Commons.
Resource: key selections from Lessing’s Laocoon can be located in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (Second Edition: 2010, 461-480).