Lessing, Gotthold

Assigned: Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim. From Laocoön (476-92). Also read the editors’ introduction (473-76).

From Laocoön (1766)

From Preface

1. On 476 (“The first person to compare painting…”), what, according to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, is the difference between the amateur, the philosopher, and the critic in their attempts to compare poetry with painting? Why is the critic’s perspective most likely to turn out to be pernicious in its effect on those who want to understand both poetry and painting better?

From Chapter One

2. On 477-78 (“The general and distinguishing…”), to what extent does Lessing apparently disagree with Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s view of Greek art as consisting in “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” (477)? Describe Winckelmann’s perspective on the accomplishment of the late-classical sculptor’s portrayal of the emotional state of the Laocoön figure under examination. What initial disagreement with this view does Lessing express?

From Chapter Two

3. On 478-80 (“Whether it be fact or fiction…”), in what way, according to Lessing, were the Greek painters wiser than modern painters with respect to their choice of subjects to represent? (478) Why did they insist on painting only beautiful subjects? What is Lessing’s point in suggesting that “the plastic arts in particular […] have an effect that demands close supervision by the law” (479)? What criticism of eighteenth-century painting is Lessing perhaps implying here? What further comments on “expression” (479) in ancient painting leads Lessing to crystallize his criticism of Winckelmann’s account of the Laocoön statue?

From Chapter Three

4. On 480-81 (“As I have already said, art…”), compare Lessing’s comments on “expression” and “passion” with Aristotle’s remarks in Poetics (Leitch 95-127; see 101) about our capacity to take pleasure in representations that would be distressing to witness in real life. To what degree does Lessing agree with Aristotle’s reasoning here? What is Lessing setting forth as a painter’s responsibility regarding the emotional expressions he or she conveys on canvas? Why, in his view, would it be a mistake to depict Laocoön at the high point of a scream, or Medea in her most violent rage? How would doing so distort the true value of those expressions, and sin against the dictum that “the more we see, the more we must be able to imagine” (480)? Why, in sum, must Lessing’s painter be careful in choosing the best “single moment” for a representation? What does that moment owe to futurity, and what opportunity will be lost if the painter fails to be as careful as Lessing requires?

From Chapter Nine

5. On 481-82 (“If we wish to compare the painter…”), what must we know, according to Lessing, before we engage in comparisons between poets and painters in any particular case? (481) Lessing writes of the need to “create for art’s sake” (482), and he mentions classical-era religion as an “external constraint” (482) that often interfered with the free production of excellent art. What example from the classical period does he offer in support of this observation? As for the phrase “create for art’s sake,” read the editors’ footnote 1 on 482: how does this standard, so briefly hinted at here, develop in subsequent times into a full doctrine of “art for art’s sake”? What considerations must artists bracket out in creating art that is true to this demand?

From Chapter Ten

6. On 482-83 (“I comment on an expression…”), what criticism does Lessing make of Oxford Professor Joseph Spence for being surprised that poets, unlike painters, do not often use extraneously associated “symbols” to indicate key aspects of divine figures, thereby treating those figures in allegorical fashion? Why, according to Lessing, do poets find using such symbols unnecessary and counter to their goals as literary artists?

From Chapter Twelve

7. On 483-86 (“Homer treats of two kinds of…”), what problem, according to Lessing, do artists who try to represent beings as vast as the Greek gods immediately face? (484) On what basis does he go on to criticize painters who try to represent invisible entities—Homer’s gods, for instance—by means of extraneous symbols, such as clouds placed next to an invisible god being depicted? Lessing calls such a symbol “nothing more than a poetic expression” (485) and an “arbitrary sign” (486). By implication, what offense against art does a painter thereby commit in trying to equal what a literary description in Homer can do? Why does the fact that this sign is used both to “render the visible invisible and the invisible visible” (486) only make the problem worse?

From Chapter Fifteen

8. On 486-87 (“As experience shows, the poet…”), how does Lessing differentiate poetry and painting with regard to representing scenes that involve the progression of time? Why would a painter need to avoid representing scenes like the one Lessing describes; namely, “the picture of Pandarus in the fourth book of the Iliad” (486), wherein Pandarus is described as preparing an arrow and shooting it, while the poet has no trouble representing such a scene? What, then, according to Lessing, must painters “renounce entirely” (487), and what is the painter’s real province with respect to the subjects that can be depicted well? (487)

From Chapter Sixteen

9. On 487-88 (“But I shall attempt now to…”), what does Lessing identify as the “true subjects of painting” and “the true subjects of poetry” (487), respectively? How is the one primarily spatial, and the other primarily temporal? To what extent, according to Lessing, can poets and painters cleverly manage their representational choices and techniques to gain additional impact for their works?

From Chapter Seventeen

10. On 488-89 (“But the objection will be raised…”), how does Lessing set up Homer’s ekphrastic (“word-painting”) description (in Iliad 18) of Achilles’ shield as an example of how a great poet deals with complex images such as the divinely made shield that Achilles’ mother Thetis gave him? In what sense, according to Lessing, is it fair to say that “the poet is always supposed to paint” (489), and not simply describe things the way a prose author would describe them?

From Chapter Eighteen

11. On 489-91 (“And yet should Homer himself…”), in accordance with his “good neighbor” analogy, how does Lessing lay out the ways in which painters and poets may, without deserving any blame, somewhat encroach on one another’s territory (space and time, respectively)? In particular, consider Lessing’s mention (again) of Homer’s depiction of the shield of Achilles in the Iliad, Book 18. Since, as the author says, a shield is a single object to be taken in at one view, how does Homer, a wielder of words, manage to provide us with such a striking and dynamic description of an image, a “body,” to use Lessing’s term?

From Chapter Twenty-One

12. On 492 (“We might ask whether poetry…”), Lessing gently dissuades poets from trying to come too close to the art of the painter. Depictions of “beauty,” he suggests, are perhaps best left to the visual artists themselves. Nonetheless, what counsel does he offer for achieving by suggestion what can’t be achieved directly within a more fitting medium? In what sense is Lessing praising “suggestiveness” as a key concept in his theory of poetry and painting?

13. General question: In our selection from Laocoön,Gotthold Ephraim Lessing compares the crafts of poetry and painting in terms of the respective techniques and subject most appropriate to them. Choose two types of art from among film, fiction, and drama and compare them in terms of what subjects work best for them, what techniques are the most promising, and what limitations confront them. Which of the two do you prefer (if you have a preference), and why? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake