The Laokoön Dispute Between the Schlegels and Alois Hirt [*]
Alois Hirt, the Berlin archaeologist who was attacked in Goethe’s periodical Propyläen  because of the interpretation of Laocoön he published in his own article,  was similarly taken to task by Wilhelm Schlegel in the “fragments” in Athenaeum  and in Wilhelm’s article “Über Zeichnungen zu Gedichten und John Flaxman’s Umrisse,”  and finally also by Friedrich Schlegel in various letters. This material is worth citing at length an example of the disposition and tenor of the Schlegels’ literary feuds. See Emil Sulger-Gebing: 
[Hirt] had proposed that the element of “characterization” represented the essence and fundamental law of the art of antiquity in contrast to Lessing, who had declared beauty, and Winckelmann, who had declared noble simplicity and quiet grandeur as their primary goals. From this perspective he maintained that the Laocoön group had chosen the “moment of the highest degree of expression”; the reason the mortally entwined priest does not cry out is that he no longer can cry out, because “just at the final and highest exertion of his convulsively struggling powers he suddenly has a stroke.” [Wilhelm] Schlegel now turns against this thesis with all his powers, exaggerating and coarsening Hirt’s ideas.
Wilhelm writes in Athenaeum: 
Recently the unexpected discovery was made that the hero in the Laocoön group is represented as dying: and specifically of apoplexy. It is now impossible to develop connoisseurship any further in this direction unless somebody were to tell us that Laocoön is really already dead, something that would indeed be quite true in respect to the expert.
When any occasion offers, Lessing and Winckelmann are taken to task: not beauty, as the former maintains (actually both do and Mengs along with them), nor the latter’s calm grandeur and noble simplicity, are supposed to constitute the fundamental law of Greek art, but rather truth of characterization.
Surely all human sculpture, down to the wooden idols of the Kamchadales, tries to characterize. But if one wants to capture the spirit of an object in one stroke, then one does not point to what is self-evident and what the object has in common with other objects, but rather to what constitutes its essential individuality. It is impossible to imagine characterless beauty; it always possesses, if not a moral, then certainly a physical character — the beauty of a certain age and sex — or reveals definite physical habits, like the bodies of wrestlers.
Ancient art created its forms under the guidance of mythology and conceived them not only in their highest and noblest sense, but joined to every characteristic of form and expression that degree of beauty which it could tolerate without being destroyed. That they also knew how to make this possible where a barbarous taste wouldn not even have been capable of conceiving the idea is almost palpable in, for example, ancient busts of the Medusa. If comic or tragic representations were really an objection to this universal aspiration for beauty, then it would have been too obvious to escape the eyes of such connoisseurs of antiquity as Mengs and Winckelmann.
Compare the grossest debauchery of ancient Satyrs and Bacchantes with similar performances from the Flemish school, and you would have to be totally unhellenic yourself not to feel what is still Hellenic in them. It is something completely different to wallow in the filth of vulgar sensuality or, like a god in the shape of an animal, to debase oneself out of wanton lust to that level. In the selection of horrible subjects too, everything still depends on the treatment that can diffuse over such subjects the moderating breath of beauty, and has actually done so in Greek art and poetry.
Precisely in the warring elements, in the seemingly insoluble contradiction between the nature of what is represented and the law of representation, the inner harmony of the spirit appears most divine. Or is one going to deny the calm grandeur and noble simplicity of the tragedies of Sophocles, simply because they are so very tragic?
Winckelmann very definitely recognized that in the body of Laocoön is expressed the most violent state of suffering and struggle; yet the face, he maintains, reveals the indomitable soul of the hero. Now we are given to understand that Laocoön does not scream because he can no longer scream. Of course he cannot scream; otherwise he would raise his voice against such a distorted portrayal and misconception of his heroic grandeur.
Sulger-Gebing continues (37–38):
Hirt maintained his position and responded in the Berlinisches Archiv der Zeit (1798) 2 (October) 437–51, with an essay . . . that said nothing really new. By contrast, August Wilhelm in his own turn was not yet satisfied, preferring instead to have the last word with a witty dismissal published in the “Litterarischer Reichsanzeiger,” which came across brilliantly through his extraordinarily deft use of Hirt’s own terminology. Then, as if unable get his fill of rescuing Lessing and Winckelmann’s as well as his own views, he returns to Hirt in the same issue of Athenaeum in the essay on Flaxman, attacking him this time with heavy artillery. . . . In the meantime, Goethe had also entered the fray and presented his own opinion on Laocoön in the first issue of the Propyläen, maintaining a fair, mediatory center path.
See Wilhelm Schlegel to Goethe from Jena on 19 November 1798: 
Today I must pester you with tidings of a more unpleasant sort. The rage of the Shepherd [Germ. Hirt], or rather, it seems of a blind Herd [Germ. Herde, in Wilhelm’s orthography: Heerde] has leveled an assault on I know not which more vehemently: Athenaeum or the art of antiquity. You, too, are variously mentioned there. Because of a personal allusion to my brother, I found it necessary to respond and would like to send such off to Berlin this evening which I am also sending here to you. I would be much obliged to you if you could let me know whether I might be able to speak with you for a moment this afternoon after 3:00 or later.
Walzel, 383:fn2 points out that the Athenaeum fragment was directing itself against Hirt’s article in Die Horen; Hirt reponded to that fragment in the Berlinisches Archiv der Zeit, and it was to that response that the “dismissal” in the “Litterarischer Reichsanzeiger” in Athenaeum responded: 
Now that Herr Hofrath Hirt, in his essay on artistic beauty (Die Horen  no. 7) has rescued the world from the confusion of previous theories by clearly demonstrating how the word schön [beautiful] derives from scheinen [seem, appear], and how “all our pleasant sensations are based either on the true, the good, or the beautiful” (which raises the question: if one falls asleep during one of Herr Hirt’s lectures, from which of these three sources does this particular pleasant sensation derive?), he will now provide a complete history of the formative arts in antiquity, in which he will further demonstrate that the element of characterization was the fundamental law of that art.
This peculiar principle, which he discovered during his stay of several years in Italy . . . consists in the fact that in the art of antiquity a horse is depicted completely as a horse, a centaur completely as a centaur, to which was added “the individuality of attitude”: . . . portrayals of Venus assumed “the usual disposition of virginal modesty” (Die Horen  12, no. 10, p. 19) etc.
On this view, and quite unexpectedly, in the remarks concerning Herr Hirt’s status as a connoisseur of art we would have created a work of art in the Greek style, something that pleases us greatly. We also followed the example of the artists of antiquity insofar as we were not guided in our choice of objects by that which is merely pleasing (ibid., p. 24), since what was really hovering before our mind’s eye were those ancient Medusa heads “with extended tongue and powerful distortions” (Archiv p. 449).
Herr Hirt (p. 437) “also wanted to position himself among the ranks of aestheticians and speak a word as from one man to another”; hence any contradiction was extremely disconcerting and disruptive. But he should by no means allow himself to be upset, and instead should continue ahead in the loquacious exposition of his tasteful opinions concerning the art of antiquity, and if he does, then virtue itself (which “makes beautiful” and, one might add as an aside, “consists in execution,” Die Horen, no. 7, p. 12) will ultimately “form a crown of light around the head of him who is steadfastly virtuous.
We certainly can grant him his entire assertion [concerning the element of “characterization” in ancient art rather than, e.g., beauty or quite grandeur and noble simplicity]: for a connoisseur whom nature seems to have destined for cruder business than tending [the Greek sculptor] Myron’s famous cow, such things indeed do not even exist. He felt his way . . . into the monuments of Greek art with such heavy-handed, awkward superficiality . . . that he most certainly would have suffocated their spirit himself had these spirits not already been immortal. . . .
Hence he recently maintained that Laocoön would surely die of a stroke if one did not open one of his veins to relieve the pressure. When I myself then made it known that I did not yet find Laocoön’s condition quite so desperate, he became so excessively upset that he almost exchanged roles with his hero.
Friedrich Schlegel found this whole affair extraordinarily entertaining; he writes in a letter to Wilhelm on 13 April 1798: 
The thing with the art fragments is a splendid idea for the symphony [collective authorship], similarly that you intend to smack Hirt one, since a lout like that should not be permitted to even want to join the discussion about art.
I still have not read anything of the art novel,  which does indeed concern me more than I expected. I had to laugh when I saw that what I myself long foresaw out of pure instinct really did come about, namely, by viewing the Schlegels as mere colporteurs.
At the same time, however, this essay could not have come at a more convenient time. I really have already written over thirty letters on this material, all addressed to Fernow. The occasion is one of his essays in the Merkur (November 1797) and his most recent in the April issue of the Deutsches Magazin. I am trying to treat the material once more from A to Z — in a civil tone, of course — to see whether I might come to an understanding with the “beauty advocates.”
I can now believe that you were not particularly welcome when you delivered my initial response. But experience helps. The loftier hand [viz., Goethe] has now rescued the Schlegels, and the future review of the Propyläen in the Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung will no doubt underscore that even more for me.
[*] The Laocoon marble group, a copy (ca. 50 BCE) of an otherwise lost original, probably once stood in the palace of the emperor Titus, then in an opulently decorated room near Nero’s golden house, where it was rediscovered in January 1506. It is currently housed in the Vatican, since 1960 in its original form (though here depicted without Laocoön’s right arm, as familiar during the eighteenth-century; image source: Wilhelm Lübke and Max Semrau, Grundriss der Kunstgeschichte, 14th ed. [Esslingen, 1908], 313).
Lessing wrote an influential essay on it, Laokoon: oder, Über die grenzen der Mahlerey und Poesie … Mit beyläufigen Erläuterungen verschiedener Punkte der alten Kunstgeschichte (Berlin 1766), which took as its point of departure the book by Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Gedancken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Wercke in der Mahlerey und Bildhauer-Kunst (Friedrichstadt 1755) (both will be mentioned in the discussion here). Back.
 “Laokoön,” Die Horen (1797) 12, no. 10, 1–25. Back.
Click on the following image to open a gallery of selections from Flaxman’s illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy:
 Die Brüder A. W. und F. Schlegel in ihrem Verhältnis zur bildenden Kunst, Forschungen zur neueren Litteraturgeschichte 3 (Munich 1897), 36. Back.
 Athenaeum (1799) 331–32. Back.
 Athenaeum (1799) 226–27. Back.
 Ludwig Geiger, “Acht Briefe F. A. Wolfs, sieben Briefe A. Hirts, vier Briefe Goethes an Hirt,” Goethe Jahrbuch 15 (1894) 54–110, here, e.g., 103. Back.
Translation © 2012 Doug Stott