BMCR 2001.08.34

My Laocoön: Alternative Claims in the Interpretation of Artworks

, My Laocoön : alternative claims in the interpretation of artworks. Discovery series ; 8. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. xvi, 146 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 27 cm.. ISBN 0520216822. $45.00.

I met Richard Brilliant when he lectured at Bryn Mawr in 2001, just as I was beginning to read the book here in review. I was eager to do so as I had used his book Portraiture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991) with profit in recent graduate seminars, and in a long-ago graduate seminar at Harvard with I. Q. van Regteren Altena I had studied the history of the discovery of the Laocoön in Rome in 1506 and its subsequent transformation at the hands of generations of artists and art historians. In My Laocoön Brilliant retells the story of the successive interpretations of the ancient sculpture of the Trojan priest and his two sons entangled by snakes from the moment of its discovery in the sixteenth century, when it was immediately identified by Giuliano da Sangallo as “the Laocoön mentioned by Pliny”; to its appropriation in eighteenth and nineteenth-century aesthetics as a contested exemplum of ancient art; down to its recent association with the newly discovered Homeric sculptures from the Grotto of Tiberius at Sperlonga and the much disputed arguments as to their date, function, and status as Greek originals or Roman copies. Brilliant retells this story of interpretation and reinterpretation, with much of the scholarly literature referred to only in the copious but concise bibliographic citations, not in order to adjudicate these adversarial accounts but rather to utilize them as an occasion to consider more generally what his subtitle proclaims, namely, alternative claims in the interpretation of artworks and how to evaluate them for their validity, if indeed validity in interpretation there be. As comparanda Brilliant also briefly examines alternative claims in the interpretation of Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love of 1514, Velázquez’s Las Meninas of 1656, and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon of 1907.

Validity in Interpretation, on which Brilliant draws, is the title of E. D. Hirsch’s controversial 1967 defense of the hermeneutic recuperation of original authorial meaning, in contradistinction to which he opposes the variable cultural significance discerned in a given work by different critics writing at different times and places. Brilliant similarly distinguishes the hermeneutic response to the allegedly essential and enduring meaning of the Laocoön from the multiple readings of the sculpture’s signifying potential that he associates (mostly negatively) with deconstruction and postmodernism. Seeking to present “my own interpretation” in the form of a “dialectical” tableau of the snake-strangled Laocoön and the snake-strangling infant Herakles (xiii, 102), Brilliant finds the Laocoön group veiled, obscured, virtually obliterated behind a screen of prior acts of competing interpretations, interpretations that are disparate in themselves but reducible to the institutional norms, ideological agendas, and interpretive protocols of various communities of artists, writers, scholars, curators, restorers, even graphic designers, in the past as well as now.

In spite of Nietzche’s quoted insistence that “There are no facts; only interpretations” (xvi), in spite of Derrida’s quoted citation of Montaigne’s insistence that “We need to interpret interpretations more than to interpret things” (20), My Laocoön is obdurately motivated by “my sense of the persistence of a singular, material entity, the sculpture, in the face of diverging conceptual entities” (30). Brilliant provides a series of alphanumeric designations for these diverse mental entities of interpretation: 1. Laocoön A mentioned by Pliny as “a work superior to any painting and any bronze” (5) in its original Greco-Roman context of production in the workshops of the Rhodian sculptors Hagesandros, Polydoros, and Athanodorus and its subsequent display in the palace of the Emperor Titus in Rome; 2. Laocoön B of an inferred Greek context of origin of which the excavated sculpture would have been a later Roman copy; 3. Laocoön I of the papal architect Giuliano da Sangallo and his astounded Roman compatriots, among them most notably Michelangelo, after the group’s discovery in 1506; 4. Laocoön II of German aesthetic theory according to which it became for Winckelmann in 1764 a paradigm of bodily pain and its visible, unvoiced restraint of expression due to the moral nobility of the Greek soul; for Lessing in 1766 the formal imperative of plastic beauty; for Goethe in 1798 the physiological response of paralysis to the serpent’s venom; for Schopenhauer in 1819 the technical limitations of the sculptural medium; 5. Laocoön III of current art-historical and archaeological debate conducted since the archaeological discoveries and curatorial restorations of the 1950s by prominent scholars such as Bernard Andreae, Baldassare Conticello, Brunilde Ridgway, and others; 6. Laocoön IV of a future revision that may be still to come. “Subject to interpretation” (xiii), in the words of the first half of the title of the Bryn Mawr College lecture of 1985 that eventually led to this book, the Laocoön has become subordinated, for Brilliant, to the series of evanescent mental states of its successive interpreters to which, in the end, he respectfully but vigorously gives but short shrift. “Object of response,” in the words of the second half of the title of his lecture, these multiply transmuted interpretations are returned by the author to “the work itself” (58) in the viewer’s corporeal and emotional response to the grimaces and contortions of a masculine body much like his own that is undeniably displayed under great stress and in great pain. (But will the richly differentiated gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and race of other viewers of the sculpture necessarily count here for nought?)

Brilliant’s impassioned plea is to redeem the empathic response of the viewer of this body in pain from “the thicket of words,” “the fog of historical research,” “the cocoon of conflicting interpretations,” “the veils of existing commentary” in which it has become unhappily imprisoned (36, 48, 93-94). Seeking to restore the viewer’s “direct perception” and “direct experience” of the “presentness” and “immediacy” of the work (xiv, 94, 96), Brilliant thrice maintains in his final chapter, “My Laocoön,” that the Laocoön is “an obdurate, material thing,” “an obdurate object,” even an “obdurate persistent self” (93, 96, 106). “Dirt-covered pieces of carved marble” prior to their identification as an ancient artwork in 1506 and “a damaged survivor of antiquity” displayed in the Vatican Belvedere today (39, 106), these lost and found, broken and restored stones are to be adamantly distinguished in their “affective essence”—”at least for me”—from the “series of changing simulacra, mental images derived from or imposed on the art objects as insubstantial, but possessive surrogates” (93-96), as unwelcome ghosts, he might almost have said.

Throughout this short book Brilliant acknowledges again and again that the distinction he wishes to make between subjectivity and objectivity in interpretation, between enduring meaning and changing significance of a work of art is ultimately an impossible distinction to sustain in coherent intellectual argument and yet at the same time an impossible distinction to do without in immediate emotional experience. Aware of his own incarceration along with his not so laconic fellow Laocoönisti in the prison-house of interpretive language, Brilliant nonetheless struggles to gesticulate through the coils of his prose, not unlike the Trojan priest in the coils of the snake, toward a realm of the real that is beyond or beneath or before interpretation. “We may presume,” he writes, “that ‘something’ exists in an objective state, prior to being interpreted, even if that state should prove to be inaccessible without interpretation” (20). Debarred by the non-auditory condition of sculpture from actually hearing either the Stoic moan of Laocoön’s Winckelmannian self-restraint or the shriek that Schopenhauer maintains would be the unsculpturable natural index of the serpent’s poisoned bite, the past interpreters of Laocoön’s plight have missed the sculpture’s real essence either by framing it as a static icon of pain or animating it with a symbolic narrative or allegorical epithet of some kind, an exemplum doloris, exemplum virtutis, etc., etc.

Brilliant does not have recourse, as I have just done, to the useful semiotic triad of the physically generated index, the visually analogous icon, or the verbally attributed symbol (nor to my preferred psychoanalytic grid of the Lacanian triple register of real, imaginary, and symbolic experience), but some such trichotomy would help to free him, I think, from the dichotomous coils of “irreconcilable alternatives” of image and word in which he situates his own deferred and frustrated intervention:

“The Vatican sculpture either is or is not Pliny’s Laocoön;…this Laocoön may or may not be a ‘Hellenistic Greek original,’ or a later modified transformation, or the sculpture may have been executed for a Roman patron;…Laocoön’s forceful expression of duress is either under or beyond control;…and so forth” (95-96).

Insisting on responding directly to the ” realia” of “natural signs” (34, 57) that the life-size sculpture (“my preferred medium”) displays, Brilliant feels the pain of Laocoön by “transference” (94), an eminently psychoanalytic and semiotic notion. At issue here is the external and unmasterable irruption of trauma, a word that Brilliant strangely forgoes for the overpowering experience of the body in pain that he points to as being precisely impossible to put adequately into words. In Rome, circa 1500, the sculptor Michelangelo may well have experienced trauma in the face of the astonishing excavation of an unsurpassable masterpiece of ancient statuary. In Rome, circa 2000, the scholar Brilliant has reexperienced this trauma of the irruptive Real in the face of Laocoön’s pain. All roads still lead to Rome.

A Romanist who has taught for many decades at Columbia University in the City of New York, Brilliant repeatedly invokes the vibrant culture of his New World city in enlightening references to the far-ranging intellectual disputes carried on in the pages of The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker. The most prominent instance of such disputes in his book might superficially seem to pertain more to the New York Yankees baseball team than to the international team of Laocoön scholars. In a charming three-fold allegory of interpretation, Brilliant recalls the debate of three umpires on how to call balls and strikes. The first “calls the pitch as it is”; he is like the iconographer or “Rankean historian.” The second “calls the pitch as he sees it”; he is like the formalist or “Jaussian or Gibsonian receptionist.” The third “calls the pitch and it’s nothing until he does”; he is like the critical theorist or “dogmatic idealogue” ( sic) who whole-heartedly embraces the imaginative fiction of interpretation by spurning the vain epistemological impasse of the objectivist universality of truth versus the subjectivist relativity of culture (21-25). Objectivist, relativist, and postmodernist, “after writing this book I feel as if I partake of all three, in different measure, perhaps” (93). And I do too, but “Three strikes, and you’re out!”