English 430: Literature & the Visual Arts

September 17, 2009


Filed under: Ch. 4 (ut pictura poesis and Lessing),OUR JOURNAL — charleshatfield @ 1:21 pm

Written by Robert J. Aiss

Lessing, in “The Laocoon” distinguished between painting and poetry by the assertion that the one was an art of space, the other an art of time. It was, he said, the painter’s concern to capture the moment as if it fleeted, to seek a pattern and significance in what was offered to the senses within a period of time sufficiently short for temporal changes not to appear. But the poet’s concern was with the processes; the painter might display the subject’s beauty on his canvas, the poet should rather show men’s response to it, in the launching of a thousand ships, the the ancient Trojans recalling their youth.

If a poet lists the various features of a landscape or a human being, his reader will not be able to bear in mind all the items in the catalogue and construct out of there an effective whole. But, while we cannot ever expect ourselves to be able to memorize an entire catalogue, we can simultaneously hold in mind all the items in the catalogue and be able to successfully construct out of them an effective whole.

September 16, 2009

Lessing as Synecdochal Discourse Over “Art”

Filed under: Ch. 4 (ut pictura poesis and Lessing),OUR JOURNAL — elizjurgen @ 11:34 am

In reading W.J.T. Mitchell’s essay on Lessing’s Laocoon, I was particularly struck by his comments regarding Lessing’s space vs. time construction, which places poetry in narrative time, and visual art in physical space. Mitchell calls Lessing’s categorization “a concealed synecdoche a reduction of the whole to a part” (103). This strikes home for me when I consider our human five senses – touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound – as parts which make up the whole of our sensory input.   Each sense, experienced on its own, has a profound effect upon our experience, and therefore on our thinking and emotions, depending on the signified emotional or intellectual attachment we have constructed for that sense and the data we take in through it.

What this says to me, in sum, is that all of our senses, and therefore the experiences we gain through them, are separate but equal. Take away one sense, and the others often become heightened in order to compensate, but an individual is still necessarily compromised in being able to experience the entire range of sensory experience. A deaf person, unable to hear a poem, is deprived of the auditory beauty of the sounds of the words. A blind person, unable to view a sculpture or painting, will willingly admit feeling deprived of the thoughts and emotions such visual input can invoke.

Lessing does seem to admit that painting and poetry, while they should not try to imitate one another, each have a place within the realm of art, and that both contain elements of space and time, though he continually hammers home the spatial component is stronger within the visual art form, while the time component, through narrative, exists more obviously within the poetry. I see Lessing’s concession as a necessary defense against the argument that a poem exists in space as the written word on a page, and that visual art is experienced by the viewer during a span of time.  These realities necessarily dissolve somewhat the contention inherent in the spatial-temporal debate over art which persists even today.

What intrigues me most is Mitchell’s deft observation that Lessing, and by extension anyone who attempts to “interpret” art, is in effect attempting to assert “value judgements, canons of acceptable works, and formulations of the ideological significance of styles, movements, and genres” (Mitchell 103). It is quite obvious to me that Lessing is an apologist for poetry, despite his admissions of crossover in his space-time theory. Lessing reveals his bias when discussing Homer’s Iliad: “The poet here is as far beyond the painter, as life is better than a picture” (Laocoon 84).

To counter Lessing, I would begin by pointing out that we, as humans, “think” in images. As we hear words, or read them on a page, we create pictures in our minds. Study after study has shown this to be true. Even visual data brings to mind more images, as our brains attempt to link what we are seeing with prior knowledge to create a frame of reference.  I know as a writer myself, my head is full of images, not just words, as I type. And words are the only form of describing a visual work of art. These realities of human sensory and intellectual processing are a powerful argument against declaring one art form “better” or more effective than another.

I would also point out the definition of poetry which is published by the California Department of Education (and most likely every other state): “Verse and rythmic writing with imagery (italics added) that creates emotional responses.”  Not only does this definition reiterate indirectly what is already know about human thinking, but it reinforces this understanding in millions of modern children, some of who will undoubtedly grow up to be academics debating the dialogue between visual and written works of art!

To be fair, I applaud Lessing for admitting that poetry and painting can co-exist, as he does in Laocoon: “Painting and poetry should be like two just and friendly neighbors…who exercise mutual forbearance on the borders, and effect a peaceful settlement for all the petty encroachments which circumstance may compel either to make” (Lessing 110). Lessing’s description of poetry and painting as neighbors fits neatly into the synecdochal paradigm I mention in the beginning of this essay. What we deem “art,” at least in this time period, is a whole made up of many parts, be they written, visual, or auditory. All of the parts create the vast span of “art,” yet each form can also represent the entire concept.

Despite what I perceive as his bias toward poetry, I must also remember that Lessing is a product of the Enlightenment, when reason was at last liberated from superstition, and intellectuals like himself could publicly develop and debate their views.  Writing became the preferred and most admired form of exploring and expressing the rush of new ideas and realizations; in fact, I would argue that, ironically, intellectual discourse regarding art, both spoken and written, became a major Western art form in itself for the first time since the Classical period.  The celebration of non-religious art which arose from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment made room for well-argued opinion to swell into the discourse which continues to this day.   I admire Lessing’s arguments, and the principles he sets forth would not have held up for centuries had they not had a basis in truth.

And finally, just as we humans cannot escape the fact that we think in images, we also seem to have a basic need to categorize not just objects, but ideas, and to create hierarchies and assign values even to the constantly shifting esoterics of art and literature.  Lessing’s writing is a still topical example of the ongoing debate over what we call “art,” and this dialogue is what I find perpetually fascinating, stimulating, and ultimately, one of the most pleasurable forms (as well as a synecdoche for the realm of discourse!) of human interaction in response to human creativity. – Elizabeth Jurgensen

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