–For Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, 18th century German Enlightener, the point is not for the sculptor or painter to portray a crisis at its climax, when visualizing a single moment. Better to choose a moment before or after the apex of destruction, so as to allow the viewers’ imaginations freer rein over what is to come. That way, Lessing argues, the narrative continues in an arc of reflection that is not cut short by any climax’s overpowering intensity:
[S]ince the works of both the painter and the sculptor are created not merely to be given a glance but to be contemplated. . .it is evident that the single moment and the point of view from which the whole scene is presented cannot be chosen with too great a regard for its effect. But only that which allows the imagination free play is effective. The more we see, the more we must be able to imagine. And the more we add in our imagination, the more must think we see. In the full trajectory of an effect, no point is less suitable for this than its climax. There is nothing beyond this, and to present to the eye what is most extreme is to bind the wings of fancy and constrain it, since it cannot. . .shun[ ] the visible fullness already presented as a limit beyond which it cannot go.
Instead of picturing Ajax at the height of his rage and slaughter, better he be depicted afterwards in the full realization of what he has done and in the despair leading him to what must come next.
–One problem with today’s crisis scenarios is the preoccupation with or fixation on a visualized climax. Obviously post-apocalypse can be pictured as even deadlier, but the point holds: In today’s catastrophe scenarios, the worst is imagined and imagination stalls there–like shining deer at night–in the glare of it all.
–What to do?
Any disappointment that one or more revolts–Occupy, Yellow Vests, Hong Kong protests, Arab Spring, the Extinction Rebellion–have not (yet) culminated into “far-reaching substantive change” is but one scenario only. More, the climax scenario may not be the most fruitful, suggestive moment to focus on anyway, let alone be overawed by.
Time is on our side, if you will, outside the glare.
Gaiger, J. (2017). Transparency and imaginative engagement: Material as medium in Lessing’s Laocoon. In: A. Lifschitz and M. Squire (eds) (2017). Rethinking Lessing’s Laocoon: Antiquity, Enlightenment, and the ‘Limits’ of Painting and Poetry, Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK: 279 – 305.