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Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry (Johns Hopkins Paperbacks) Paperback – February 1, 1984
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This is a beautifully structured essay (the first half is inductive reasoning, the second half deductive reasoning), and it parses the differences among the arts with subtlety. Although the essay ends up centered on the differences between painting and poetry, it's really about how we grasp meaning differently depending on whether an art is in a narrative form (such as poetry) or is a still art (such as painting). Lessing's ideas are sometimes referred to as presaging Marshall McLuhan's famous dictum, "The medium is the message," which is not far off--as far as it goes. But Lessing possesses such powerful insights into human emotions, and the nature of experience, that the book really turns out to be about the human condition as much as it is about the arts. One of his most extraordinary discussions centers on the ways in which emotions always come mixed, and the consequences of this for artists who want to move their audiences. He has whole chapters on beauty and ugliness, not to mention terror and disgust. Lessing got a few things wrong (he did not accurately figure the date of the statue of the Laocoon compared to the date of Virgil's Aeneid), and the discussion of Winckelmann, Spence and Count Caylus is tedious to readers today. But the book as a whole? Brilliant!