Lessing's Laocoön : an early analysis of the aesthetic experience

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Martin, Lucinda, 1965-

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Lessing's classic Laocoön, in which he compares painting and poetry, has always been by critics and theorists either as a treatise setting out rules for the genres, or as a comparison of two semiotic systems. In this thesis, I argue that these two approaches represent only two-thirds of the picture. In the introduction to Laocoön, Lessing outlines three ways of dealing with art, all of which play a role in each aesthetic experience. I examine each of these three crucial elements of the art encounter, using Lessing's own examples to support my position that Lessing was not talking about the limits of the genres, but about the limits of human cognition. I correlate Lessing's vocabulary and ideas with the terminology and theories of modern, twentieth-century cognitive science, since it is my belief that Lessing was actually anticipating current ideas in these fields. Finally, I urge that Lessing's work be reevaluated: First, his importance on the development of Enlightenment thought has been underestimated because critics have not seen his emphasis on the cognition of art, and second, because the insights he had about the art experience are very relevant to current work in the fields of art, psychology, and cognitive science.


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