Thursday, January 23, 2014

"Die ganze Kunst als ein Lebendiges"

The above quote is from Goethe's essay on Winckelmann. Every morning I try to read something of Goethe's that doesn't necessarily have to do with the subject I am currently at work on, right now world literature. Yet I always seem to see connections. The section of the essay in which the above quote appears is headed "Mengs," in which the German artist makes the newly arrived Winckelman conversant with the things that deserved his attention in Rome. This leads Goethe to discourse on the history of art.

The Roman historian Vellejus Paterculus (b. ca. 19 B.C.), he writes, had observed the "rise and decline" of the arts and noticed that they could maintain their highest excellence only for a short while before declining. Goethe goes on to say that it was not possible for Vellejus to recognize the arts as living ("als ein Lebendiges") and, like every other organic being, having an indeterminate origin, a slow period of growth, a radiant moment of perfection (Vollendung), and a stepwise descent from this height. From Vellejus Goethe moves on to a long quotation from Quintilian describing the arc of Greek genius, from Polygnotos, Zeuxis, and Parrhasius to Polykletos, Lysippus, and Praxiteles.

For Goethe Greece represented the epitome to which there was no return. This preoccupation with the classical past seemed to be a way of coming to terms with the present: how to talk about art in an era in which "vollkommene Werke" were no longer possible. Thus it was that he began to think of world literature.

Picture credits: Wyngman; Arte Spain

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