Category: Blake’s philosophy of art (1/24)

by Bradley Dexter Christian

The graffiti alluding to artistic expression in biblical passages can be described as an aesthetic challenge to authentical representation of Blake’s views, particularly when affronted by Sir Joshua Reynolds’ virtue ethics.

Graffiti itself is an art under fire, living on the fringes of mass appeal and commercial replicability.  “A mere copier of nature can never produce any thing great; can never raise and enlarge the conceptions or warm the heart of the spectator,” (Reynolds 41). Juvenile youth impacting rates of recidivism are presented this very challenge of overcoming the mimetic circumstances of participating in gang culture and street violence. Reynolds’ idealistic language in Discourses III indicates the performative ‘spectator’ and places her in the coliseum of ‘great’ artistic represent. Blake responds to such institutionalized facets of moral life. Given the background of Royal Society in the eighteenth century, Reynolds’ intention is to reaffirm dignity in the arts while aligning political themes of dominance in the historical Napoleonic wars, “The principle now laid down, that the perfection of this art does not consist in mere imitation, is far from being new or singular,” (Reynolds 42). Blake replaces Reynolds’ valuations with a responsive, monastic knowledge in imitation of the plight of the Israelites for developing a theological response in “The Lacoon.”

“Experience is all in all; but it is not every one who profits by experience; and most people err […] from not knowing what object to pursue. This great ideal perfection and beauty are not to be sought in the heavens but upon earth,” (Reynolds 44). Blake reconsiders Reynolds’ absolutism of experience as philosophical sleight.

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“As none by travelling over known lands can find out the unknown, So

from already acquired knowledge Man could not acquire more. Therefore an universal Poetic Genius already exists.” -Blake

Blake’s perspective on Genius and of art seems to be a very natural one -one that does not require higher forms of schooling.  Perhaps is own personal experience in having a acquired a natural craft for art, as well as having been sent to a local art school has a lot to do with his perspective.  I believe that his upbringing with parents whom supported Blake’s endeavors with a humble hand, also had much to do with Blake’s modest ways.  His thoughts, noted in the passage above, are that no individual need to seek much more than what is already innately within them to be considered a genius.  Conversely, Reynolds speaks of different levels of artistic steps one must take to attain a true genius eye: “I recommend the diligent study of the works of our great predecessors: but I at the same time endeavored to guard them against an implicit submission to the authority of any one master however excellent.”  While, Reynolds does want art students to be careful of over-studying the predecessors, his point still remains that they must go through a rite of passage, so to speak, in order to reach true genius.

In Blake’s encryption, “Israel deliverd from Egypt is Art deliverd from Nature & Imitation” is reminiscent of his perspective on what it means to be a true artist, a genius.  In other words,  Egypt, assuming it was a beautifully constructed land, was ironically constructed by the hands of slaves, the Israelites.  Henceforth, they were the artists, and Blake uses that deplorable historical experience to point out that while the construction was a beautiful sight, it was done so through imitation -imitation, being what the slaves were forced to come up with by means of their aggressor.  This encryption does two things: it goes against Reynold’s Utopian perception of the genius, and it brings up a political and religious injustice. I feel as though he is also exposing the hypocrisy in that of art.  When a piece of art gets in the hands of the elite, they consume it and greed begins to take over.  The art becomes something it was not intended to be in the first place.

-Maricela Martinez (Marcy)

Sir Joshua Reynolds argues in Discourse III, “could we teach taste or genius by rules, they would be no longer taste and genius” (44). Which is to say that there is an unnatural, innate power of “taste” and “genius” that cannot be taught–or shouldn’t. That seems to debunk the whole idea of mentor and mentee relationships, or quite simply the basic premise which education stands on: teaching.

William Blake, however, has a similar thought on higher, outward thinking, but instead of stating that it cannot be learned, he argues that we all have the possibility to perceive more than we already know. In his poem There Is No Natural Religion, Blake writes “man’s perceptions are not bounded by organ of perceptions; he perceives more than sense (tho’ ever so acute) can discover.” Which includes those students that Reynolds would consider not genius.

In relation to the scripture found on the image, “Israel deliverd from Egypt is Art deliverd from Nature & Imitation,” Blake would argue that art is both a natural phenomenon as it is a practiced, sculpted one.

–Daniel Lizaola Lopez

My understanding from Blake’s critique is that every individual is born with two things: 1. innate abilities and 2. things that are learned throughout one’s life time. When it comes to art, however, it’s something one either knows how to do exceedingly well or is simply learned through experience.

In The Lacoon, the quote “Israel deliverd from Egypt is Art deliverd from Nature & Imitation” (352) means that there’s no advancement if people are constantly tweaking one another ideas. For instance, with art, rather than imitating what an individual sees in his/her surroundings, “he must endeavor to improve them by the grandeur of his ideas” (Reynolds, 42). Individuals must be willing to publish and demonstrate their own unique ideas in order to introduce something new to the community/society. Nothing improves if people are constantly borrowing and mimicking ideas from one another; there’s no progression or something in one’s work that another individual can point out to make distinctions and say “this artist is different from that one because…”. The individual must take risks and not worry about others opinions and where those opinions are going to position him or her in society.

“I will free from your oppression and will rescue you from your slavery in Egypt” Exodus 6:6

William Blake’s analogy relies on the biblical context that Israel was delivered to freedom from the oppressive enslaving grip of Egypt. The second half of the encryption in Blake’s “The Lagoon” compares then art being delivered from something similar: “is art deliverd from Nature and Imitation”. Putting into context that the Israelites were rejecting Egypt and escaping it, then the second part of the expression implies that Blake rejects the notion of art being confined solely to nature and verisimilitude features that only seek to imitate the real world instead of morphing it into something else.

In a way, art that relies solely on these two features is what Egypt was to the Israelites: a slavery of mind, soul, and body. Reynold’s expresses “the mechanic and ornamental arts must sacrifice to fashion, she must be entirely excluded from the Art of Painting; the painter must never mistake this capricious changeling for the genuine offspring of nature; he must disregard all local and temporary ornaments, and look only on those general habits which are every where and always the same” (48). Reynold’s statement that an artist must accept only the actual truth that never changes is Alexandrian and similar to Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas which advises poets to rise to “transcendental truths, which will always be the same” (as stated in the footnote). Therefore, Blake’s attitude towards Sir Joshua Reynold’s definition of artistic genius are completely dismissive, and the complete opposite. He even goes as far as saying that Reynold’s and artists like him are “hired by Satan” (463) to destroy art. Perhaps his passion is so emboldened in this topic because of Blake’s deep understanding that his art was not viewed as “real art”, but merely as “craftsmanship”. Blake even expressed that greats like Michelangelo and Rafael knew the Venetian and that they acknowledged that following the rules would lead to the destruction of art itself.

William Blake expresses eloquently through the engraving his sentiments: The Eternal Body of Man is the Imagination

-Beyanira Bautista

The phrase “Israel deliverd from Egypt is Art deliverd from Nature & Imitation” (352) is prefaced with the inscription “Spiritual War” (352). This preface, a preface of “Spiritual War,” seems to serve to remind the viewer that the very nature of art, to Blake, is spiritual and deeply religious, and the idea that art can be codified and simplified as Reynolds attempts to do is an attack and act of warlike aggression against the art that Blake finds so holy. In fact, Blake seems to hold the idea of art as so holy that further investigation of the inscriptions of The Laocoon, reveals “The Old & New Testaments are the Great Code of Art” (352). That is to say, the Bible, in Blake’s mind, is the ultimate in art, from which all other art is derived. Should one stand against Blake’s vision of ultimate art, this is an act of spiritual war.

Blake himself writes on the attack Reynolds perpetrates, saying “I always consider’d True Art & True Artists to be particularly Insulted & Degraded by the Reputation of these Discourse… Such Artists as Reynolds, are at all times Hired by the Satan’s for the Depression of Art  A Pretence of Art: To Destroy Art” (463). Blake’s full accusation is that Reynolds, and people who share similar artistic views to Reynolds, are all working for the devil, seeking to destroy the holiness of art. Whether this is intentional hyperbole or a heartfelt belief of Blake’s is unknown, but the gist that Blake views Reynolds discourses as ultimately reductive and constricting to art as a whole is clear.

If Reynolds discourses are a form of spiritual war or oppression against the artist, then the artist must be delivered from this oppression. The deliverance of Israel references the book of Exodus. In the New American Standard Bible, this passage reads, “I am the LORD and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage” (Exodus 6- 6). For Art to be delivered from nature and imitation, then, is to be removed from the slave-like conditions placed on artists.


Ross Koppel

Blake showed that he detests Reynolds view on art and believes that art is something that people are born with. If you are born without the talent then it is impossible to become better. Blake argues that other artists should break out of the confines of perfection. In Discourse III, Reynolds argues that younger painters should study “the works of our great predecessors… I will now add that Nature herself is not to be closely copied” (41). Which means that beginners should take ideas from predecessors, though they should not copy everything from them;including Nature itself. I believe that the saying is meant to be seen as imitations being almost heretic to Blake.

By Anderson Tang

Resisting Conventional Ideals of Art

Based on Blake’s critique of Reynolds’ Works, it appears that Blake’s opinion towards art is that art is inherently in every one of us, and artistic genius cannot be learned. In his seething critique, Blake defends the notion that artists should not strive for conventional ideals of “perfection”, because to do so is to “undermine the Execution of Art” (Blake 462), and therefore “Destroy Art” (Black 462). He attacks Reynolds and like-minded thinkers (George Michael Moser) for their ignorance and their attitude of superiority towards “unfinished” artworks. In Reynolds’ Discourse III on artistic beauty, he argues that real art is art that surpasses imitation of nature, instead “endeavor[ing] to improve them by the grandeur of his ideas” (Reynolds 42). What makes this so heretical in Blake’s eyes is the notion that nature must be improved upon, and that furthermore, the individual can discern and make those augmentations if trained in the art of perfection. To Blake, the level of perfection that the public exalts, is too influenced by what is conventionally recognized as beauty. Blake suggests that the art world is tainted by the aristocracy, as shown by the passage in p.463:

The Enquiry in England is not whether a Man has Talents & Genius? But whether he is Passive & Polite & a Virtuous Ass: & obedient to Noblemens Opinions in Art & Science. If he is, he is a Good Man: If Not he must be Starved.

What makes this interesting is that Blake is highlighting how a man’s success is largely determinant on his position in society and how he acts within that society, and it harkens back to Blake’s belief that art is not learned, but rather subject to the individual: “To Generalize is to be an Idiot To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit”. To Blake, generalization, which is akin to accepting conventional and accepted modes of art is idiotic, and we should instead laud art which is unique to the individual. When we follow what the aristocracy and the nation dictate as the ideal standard of Art, we destroy the very essence of art (to create something unique). This is made perhaps the most apparent in the beginning paragraphs of Blake’s critique in which he says that an Empire’s success is contingent on Art, not the other way around:

The Foundation of Empire is Art & Science Remove them or Degrade them & the Empire is No More—Empire follows Art & Not Vice Versa as Englishmen suppose (Blake 461)

In Blake’s image, “The Lacoon”, the lower left margin reads: “Israel deliverd from Egypt is Art deliverd from Nature & Imitation”. This coincides with the aforementioned argument because Art is not confined to the constricting modes of nature and imitation. In Egypt, Israelites were enslaved and forced to do work; likewise, nature and imitation calls for an artist to simply replicate what is already there before him, there is no creative process, and furthermore the execution of the art is limited. In a way, the artist is enslaved by nature and imitation. But to Blake, the execution of the art is what makes it art: “Whoever is set to Undermine the Execution of Art is set to Destroy Art” Blake 462). If we take this a step further, in terms of the religious analogy, when Israel left Egypt, they turned their back on God, and instead began to worship false gods. Perhaps to Blake, this is what is happening: the art community is turning its back on art instead of celebrating the uniqueness that makes it what it is.


By Sara Nuila-Chae

Defining the Poetic Genius

In Blake’s “The Lacoon,” the graffiti artist scrawls on the lower left margin of the image, “Israel deliverd from Egypt is Art deliverd from Nature & Imitation” (352). What does this cryptic analogy imply about Blake’s attitude toward art’s political and religious dimension, especially in the context of his scornful reaction to Sir Joshua Reynold’s definition of artistic genius?

The post is due this Wednesday, 1/24, by 8:30am.  Please place it under the category “Blake’s Philosophy of Art” and don’t forget to create specific and relevant tags (as many as you want).  Also, please write your full name so I know who posted what.  If you need technical help posting, please see the “How to Post” link on the right-side bar under “Children of Los.”


I’ve included below an interesting film clip on William and Catherine Blake’s life from the BBC documentary “Blake: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”:

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.