Category: Blake’s philosophy of art (8/28)

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.

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, 8/28, by 10:00am. Please place it under the category “Blake’s Philosophy of Art” and don’t forget to create tags (as many as you want).


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”:

I felt like this might help our understanding of the poem “And did those feet in ancient time…”. The references made in the poem to particular instruments of war (the bow, arrows, spear, and chariot) were reminiscent of Ephesians 6:10-18, and I can’t help but believe this was the allusion Blake was trying to make in the poem. It’s interesting that the tenets of Christianity are laid out in such a militant fashion when there’s so much talk of the violent aspects of other religions (read: Islam) by politically-minded Christians these days. I wonder how Blake would feel about the religious and political rhetoric in America concerning religions other than Christianity, especially after having read “All Religions are One”. In his own time, Blake was a radical. With the current political discourse in mind, I’d say he’d still be considered one, even centuries later. Blake seems to occupy an ostensibly incomprehensible middle-ground between religious zealot, broad-minded philosopher, and prophetic artist. Can we ever allow such contradictory attributes exist simultaneously in a single individual? Our own prejudices tend to subconsciously categorize both subjects and objects to help ourselves understand the world around us. Blake offers one of those glorious exceptions that, in his defiance of categorization, teaches us a lesson about our own propensity towards judgment.

Blake takes great offense from Sir Joshua Reynolds, Discourses on Art, as both men have radically different theories on art, however, some of their arguments, with their contradictions, overlap. Because Blake was not truly trained as a painter, but rather an engraver, he was never considered a fellow of the Royal Academy and thusly faced a bias from intellectual society towards his engravings. As Reynolds argues that the “Ideal Beauty” that artists portray is learned from experience–Blake, being an outsider of the Royal Academy asserts that “Reynolds Thinks that Man Learns all that he Knows I say on the Contrary That Man Brings All that he has or Can have Into the World with him.”

Blake’s Philosophy of Art emphasizes a certain–dare I say, mechanical–precision. He centers his ideal on the fact that “To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit.” Reynolds would argue that this method of creating art is the work of a “mechanik…[a] capricious changeling.” In essence, he is right regarding the mechanical part–however Blake does not paint with “Minute Neatness” to merely imitate, but to capture the image of the sublime. He goes to great depths to render his work as a product of vision: “Determinate & Perfect”–a snapshot of the artistic imagination. He demonstrates the “mechanical dexterity” of the artist that Reynolds praises of the “the Young Painter.”

So then it becomes a question of authority–Reynolds sees Blake as a mechanistic copier, deceiver while Blake looks at Reynolds with contempt as a man of contradiction–one who writes “Simulations of the Hypocrite who Smiles articulately where he means to Betray.” So who is right? Well, both of them, kind of: Blake sums it up nicely by stating that “Every Eye Sees differently As the Eye–Such the Object.” It is actually an answer of perception: what does the artist see? That is what the artist portrays, as according to Blake “All Forms are Perfect in the Poets Mind.”

Blake’s Philosophy of Art is impossible to seperate from his philosophy on religion. We know from our reading thus far that the poetic genius is a key part of the artistic process for Blake. But it is difficult for us to understand exactly what this genius entails. I don’t propose to be able to answer that question, but I do think that any full answer is going to contain some element of the divine. Blake has said how visions are of infinite importance to the artist. Because the visions are so critical, their source must be equally critical to our lives. I believe that the only possible source that would hold that level of importance to Blake is the divine. There must be some overlap between poetic genius and God.

I was struck by one of the questions recently posed in class discussion: “If ‘all religions are one,’ then why was Blake a Christian?” Blake’s short piece argues that all religions, because they each stem from the same “universal” Poetic Genius, “have one source.” If our religion depends only on our “Nation’s different reception of the Poetic Genius,” what is the point of abiding by a particular religion at all, or what advises against being a member of several religions?

I believe there are two primary reasons Blake gives for his adherence to Christianity. One, he believes man should abide by the particular faith of his countrymen. Blake’s prophecy and revolutionary ideas are largely, though not entirely, centered around England, and I believe he felt a special kinship to his home and its national faith, which was not only a religious but also a cultural and social experience. (Clearly England sensed Blake’s attachment to her, as seen by the inclusion of the incorrectly-interpreted “Jerusalem” in the royal wedding.) He ties faith to “nation” – indicating his belief that one should abide by, or at least that there is nothing wrong with following, the faith of one’s country. Two, he believes there is a unique feature of Christianity that makes it more attuned to the “Poetic Genius,” which he says is the source of any connection with God. At the end of “There is No Natural Religion,” Blake writes, “Therefore God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is.” I think this is a specific reference to Christianity and to its tenet that God became flesh in the figure of Jesus Christ, an idea that is specific to Christianity. Blake’s interpretation of Christ’s incarnation as man is that Christ is the ultimate poet or artist, for “the body or outward form of Man is derived from the Poetic Genius” (“All Religions Are One”). Christ’s Poetic Genius is God’s Poetic Genius, and thus his outward human image is not only derived from that internal spirit but also mirrors that of mortal man. Christ becomes the figure we can emulate and “become as he is,” for he has “become…as we are.” The products of His Poetic Genius are available to man. I believe it is this allure that kept Blake solidly moored in Christianity.

Reynolds vs Blake

After reading Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses on Art, I felt as though he contradicted himself.  At the beginning of Discourse III, he states that a “mere copier of nature can never produce any thing great,” and argues for the captivation of the imagination, through one overarching mode of painting.  He believes that one can achieve “Ideal Beauty” if he studies the ancient masters long enough.  The ancient Greeks and Romans, (as evidenced by the Belvedere Torso, one of the few unearthed statues in Rome around the time of Pope Julius II, or the beginning of the 16th century), ascribe to imitate nature down to the last muscle.

Sir Reynolds cannot say that “Ideal Beauty” can be learned, while also claiming that “Nature herself is not to be too closely copied.”  If we take a look at some of his own Portrait Paintings, it is clear that he had no qualms against copying nature, and personally I don’t see any elements that speak to the imagination.

In fact, his paintings are all very realistic, so I was cheering along when Blake calls Reynolds’ Discourses to the Royal Academy the “Simulations of the Hypocrite who Smiles particularly where he means to Betray,” full of “Self-Contradiction and Knavery.”  (463-464).

Where Blake differs from Reynolds is his belief that man is already born with “Ideal Beauty;” that genius is innate, and not acquired.  Blake’s main argument is that you cannot learn to be a genius, or as he puts it, “by Thieving from Others become a Michelangelo.”  (464).

Blake admires Michelangelo, for his clear delineation of figures, the musculature built up so as to be almost three-dimensional.  However, how can he argue that Reynolds is a hypocrite and copies directly from nature when he himself copies Michelangelo? Granted, the medium used is different, but the precise definition of Newton’s body seems to mimic the ideal male form Michelangelo was obsessed with, perfected in Adam in the Sistine Chapel Ceiling.

Let’s compare.

From Jonathan Roberts’ William Blake’s Poetry, Chapter 4, he notes that Blake prefers “sharp definition and edges,” and that the “Venetian and Flemish practice is broken lines, broken masses, and broken colors” (81).  With regard to this statement I think that Blake’s mode of thinking that the “best” form of art (that which constitutes figures that are heavily outlined), is a little narrow minded.  However, in the search for form, he also searches for truth–the figures cannot escape the lines, they embody their form.  The actual process of engraving creates rigid lines, and Blake made sure to color inside those lines.  Blake’s Philosophy of Art is not to become the next Michelangelo.  Despite his emulation of the Renaissance artist’s style, he speaks of innate genius that manifests itself independent of anything seen in the visible world, therefore striving to become William Blake, the artist, attempting to visibly manifest his poetic genius through his engravings.