Reflections on the Scream: Francis Bacon, Lessing, and the Aesthetics of the Beautiful and the Sublime

By White, Richard | Philosophy Today, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Reflections on the Scream: Francis Bacon, Lessing, and the Aesthetics of the Beautiful and the Sublime


White, Richard, Philosophy Today


"I've always hoped in a sense to be able to paint the mouth like Monet painted the sunset."

-Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon is held to be one of the greatest painters of the twentieth century, and yet his paintings can hardly be considered "beautiful" in any ordinary respect. Indeed, more often that not viewing one of Bacon's works evokes unease, discomfort or even psychological pain. As Ernst van Alphen comments: "The first time I saw a painting by Bacon, I was literally left speechless. I was touched so profoundly because the experience was one of total engagement, of being dragged along by the work. I was perplexed about the level on which these paintings touched me: I could not even formulate what the paintings were about, still less what aspect of them hurt me so deeply."2 We might say that Bacon's work is a provocation that undermines many traditional certainties including the certainty of self and the redemptive power of art. In this essay I shall consider the significance of Bacon's work for contemporary aesthetics, and in particular the way in which it forces us to challenge traditional notions of the beautiful and the sublime.

The public's response to Bacon has not always been kind; and even today, a traditionalist might argue that in abandoning "ordinary" notions of beauty, Bacon is a typically modern artist who has fallen away from the aesthetic achievements of the past. In his classic work, Laocoon, first published in 1766, Gotthold Lessing provides a reasonable basis for such a criticism.3 Lessing is a staunch defender of the traditional aesthetics of the beautiful and he is clearly uncomfortable with the development of modern art, even in the middle of the eighteenth century. Lessing argues, in particular, that a scream can never be beautiful, and so, he believes, the great visual artist, like the sculptor of the Laocoon, would not try to depict one. It is interesting to reflect on this claim, especially in light of Bacon's own repeated attempts to paint the screaming mouth. The conjunction of Lessing and Bacon is a provocative one and it can tell us a lot about the fortunes of contemporary aesthetics. After looking at Lessing's discussion of beauty, the latter part of this essay investigates the sublime as the second fork of traditional aesthetics that is elaborated in the work of Kant and Burke and then revived in Lyotard's discussions of postmodern art. I argue that the aesthetics of the beautiful and the sublime has become less helpful in explaining the functioning of the contemporary art work, and by using Bacon as a test case, I suggest that the reduction of art to the beautiful and the sublime should now be abandoned. Bacon himself was quite articulate about painting and his own technique, and his observations as well as his paintings may now inspire a renewed philosophical enquiry into the nature of art.4

Gotthold Lessing's Laocoon is one of the earliest significant works of modern aesthetics, and as such it has helped to shape our own thinking about the nature of art.5 Lessing's essay is wide-ranging and often polemical as he criticizes other writers for idealizing the Greeks and misrepresenting their inner nature to be one of serenity and calm. Lessing begins this work with the famous Greek statue of Laocoon and his sons as they are seized and crushed to death by a monstrous serpent. He notes that in spite of the obvious physical anguish of such a situation, Laocoon himself does not cry out. His bodily agony is obvious in his whole posture, in the contraction of his stomach and the tension of his muscles, but even so, "this agony ... is yet expressed with no violence in the face and attitude" (L 1). The classicist Winckelman had tried to explain this feature of the statue in terms of the artist's desire to express the moral greatness of Laocoon and the Greeks in general-that in spite of such physical anguish his spirit is not overwhelmed and so he remains "a great and steadfast soul. …

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