Archive for August, 2013

Blake’s inscription, “Israel delivered from Egypt is Art delivered from Nature & Imitation,” is just one of many nonsensical phrases scrawled onto “The Laocoon.” When examined in the context of Reynolds’ Discourse of Art, it becomes clear that Blake is using “The Laocoon” to satirize Reynolds. In Discourse of Art, Reynolds claims “a mere copier of nature can never produce any thing great,” a sentiment clearly reflected in Blake’s graffiti upon “The Laocoon” (Reynolds, 41). This graffiti is accompanied by phrases such as “A Poet a Painter a Musician an Architect: the Man Or Woman who is not one of these is not a Christian” (Blake, 352). Since this statement cannot be considered true, it is safe to assume that none of the statements scribbled on “The Laocoon” should be taken seriously, once again hinting at a satirical message. Blake’s metaphorical comparison of art to religion hints that he is condemning more than just Reynolds’ message about art and artists, however. He is also hinting at art’s relationship to religion. In his reaction to Discourses on Art, Blake writes, “the Enquirey in England is not whether a Man has Talents & Genius? But whether is he Passive & Polite & a Virtuous Ass: & obedient to Noblemens Opinions in Art & Science” (463). From this statement, we can conclude that Blake believes that the link between religion/politics and art is not a natural one, but a forced one. His comparison of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt to art’s deliverance from nature and imitation makes sense—he is mocking Reynolds, but on a deeper level, he is mocking artists who are “obedient to Noblemens Opinions,” whether that is in regards to art, politics, or religion.


One of the things I have loved the most about Blake in my first few days of encountering his work is the constant not only opportunity, but obligation he offers his readers for interpretation. Moreover, it is not enough for Blake to simply force you to consider and offer possible interpretations of his works; he is constantly pushing readers to reevaluate all that they have taken as truth before. While the idea of truths may not seem initially evident in this quotation, I think Blake allows ample space to navigate toward what I have found to be one of his greatest themes thus far. In the comparison between the deliverance of Israel and the deliverance of Art, the two become similarly enslaved by Egypt and Nature and Imitation respectively. The original sculpture that Blake then adds graffiti like writing to is considered by many to be a masterpiece. This piece pulls from a variety of Greek sources and, thus, can be said to originate little and simple be imitating that which Sophocles or Virgil have already written. Blake pushes those who encounter his piece to consider how nature and imitation can act as enslaving forces. When characterized in this manner, it is clear that Blake finds them to be problematic for creation, a thought that stands apart from many of his contemporaries in a revolutionary way. In Blake’s mode of thought, nature and imitation, two sources of artistic creation that have long been revered, are not sources for artistic creation. These types of “art” are mere recitations of that which has already been created, no true innovation has really occurred. In this way, Blake reminds me of Ovid. The two are similarly wary of the tools with which they have to work and the ever-present possibility to become an Echo. Ovid provides a means of defying this possibility, interestingly, through Echo herself. While she is forced to repeat the words of others, she finds a way to repeat them to say something new and communicate her message. Blake’s answer to this pitfall of creation is relying on one’s own imagination and the tremendous capabilities it has for innovation and genius outside of what already exists.

The analogy “Israel deliverd from Egypt is Art deliverd from Nature & Imitation” is about slavery and deliverance in relation to art. Blake is saying that an artist who imitates other artists or nature is enslaved. I think this print is as much about the reception of art as its creation because Blake wants us to recognise how much the former influences the later. He is responding to “The Laocoon” by defacing it to change what it shows and means. Blake makes it into a copy of another piece of art by titling it “יה & his two Sons Satan & Adam as they were copied from the Cherubim of Solomon’s Temple by three Rhodians & applied to Natural Fact, or History of Ilium.” This challenges the primacy of Classical art and the wisdom of taking it as the model to be imitated. In His ‘Discourses on Art” Sir Joshua Reynolds distinguished between nobler and baser walks or styles of painting, arguing that students who are unaware of the nobler forms can never create them (50-51).

I don’t think Blake is trying to topple Classical art from its pedestal to replace it with Hebrew art, as he labels the sculpture. By redefining the image he is thinking outside the politics of art and the art world, for which this image is “The Laocoon” and a model of artistic genius. Blake acknowledges art’s political power when he writes underneath his title “Art Degraded Imagination Denied War Governed the Nations.” For him, imagination is not something to be acquired through imitating what is defined as Great Art. He sees that as the antithesis of imagination, which is spiritual rather than material. He gave the image a more figurative meaning and at the same time included his additions in the image. Reynolds might say he deformed it, but that might have been the point because Blake believes that imagination should not be enslaved and artists instructed to strip away deformities in pursuit of a predefined artistic greatness.

Works Cited

Reynolds, Sir Joshua. Discourse III.” Discourses on Art. Ed. Wark. Huntington Lib., 1959. 41-53. Print.

Reynolds' Genius in Captivity

With Sir Joshua Reynolds leading the dominant opinion on art and poetic genius, Blake faced an idea of genius in bondage. Reynolds’ idea of genius is one of definite limits, one whose purpose lies solely in the perfection of the natural world and the communication of physical experience. Art and genius are to be learned within the confines of a rigid system. While he appeals to the artist to “captivate the imagination” rather than “amuse mankind with the minute neatness of his imitations,” he also limits the artist’s imaginative space to that of the Ideal Beauty. All art should then be in pursuit of this singular ideal, not the invention of something new.

Yet with one standard of beauty, is the artist really captivating the imagination or merely entertaining? The true imagination is infinite and is not bound to recapitulate earthly experience. Reynolds’ kind of imagination instead leads only to an expanded dull round. While horizons seem to open for a moment at the initial sight of the Ideal Beauty, the constrained painter and his viewer soon settle into a new monotony of chasing the artistic status quo.

These accepted limitations thrust the artist and his audience into a willing bondage. At the time of Israel’s delivery, the nation’s captivity had grown into more than physical enslavement but a kind of mental bondage that made the people reluctant to resist their captors. Slavery had become so comfortable, that the frightening uncertainty of freedom made the Israelites long to return to captivity almost immediately after Moses led them away. In the same way, the viewer and Reynolds’ artist become complacent with a kind of art that only perfects known experience. Subjecting imagination to structure and reason suffocates what new ideas dare peak through.

It is, therefore, uncomfortable for the public to accept Blake’s assertion that art depends on the newly imagined, ideas that rise from the innate being of the artist rather than his physical surroundings. Blake spurs the individual on to a form of spiritual war against the Reynolds ideology to reclaim the eternal self of the imagination. Blake’s genius calls for action and calls for the viewer to likewise be a creator.

Like much of Blake’s work, his idea of genius began to flourish after his own lifetime, and years later he was affirmed by the unlikely figure of Albert Einstein. While Reynolds applied the principles of reason to art in order to constrain it, Einstein oppositely applied Blake’s unlimited genius to reason and to life. Genius lies in each individual’s capacity to create. Genius cannot then be contrived by following a set of rules or learned by experience but is part of the innate capacity of man. The challenge is to engage it.