Ancient Art & 19th Century Aesthetics

Over the course of the past couple of months, I wrote a series of articles on three different but interrelated themes:

a. the myth of Laocoon, the Trojan priest whose myth appears in Virgil.

b. the statue complex of Laocoon and his sons, a Hellenistic work depicting the death of Laocoon by two snakes sent by the gods.

c. Laocoon, a philosophical study by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.

To write the last one, I did something that not many people like to do (and I don’t blame them); I sat and read an outdated 19th century study on aesthetics; Lessing’s Laocoon.

Lessing’s work has many flaws; it idealizes art, study’s Greek and Roman art without taking account of their unique context and is certainly not a coherent philosophical study. However, it is, in my opinion, a key text in the history of aesthetics. Why? Because, just like the work of Winckelmann, it is a great sample of its era. Lessing is a great example of an intellectual who finds ancient art, even if he does not have access to original artworks, worth exploring in order to extract universal aesthetic lessons.

Photo by cottonbro on

Isn’t it strange that a German of the 19th century felt the need to study (among others) a Hellenistic statue complex kept in the Vatican to ask his fellow poets and paywrights to seek ‘action’ instead of ‘description’? I think that the more we read works like Laocoon, the easier it gets to look under the veil that covers ancient art and see what might be hiding under there.

What would the statue of Laocoon be without Winckelmann and Lessing? Would we consider it as beautiful, as important, as aesthetic as we have done for the past two-three centuries? How would art look like if Greek art hadn’t been studied, idealized, and romanticized by the German idealists? We may never know, because in our timeline artworks like the Laocoon became firmly connected with the names of people like Lessing. That is why we cannot begin to understand where the misconceptions and the mistakes begin and end, if we don’t examine the contexts that constructed them?


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