The sublime is used today as a superlative expression. What does it really mean?
When I think of ‘the sublime’ I think of that feeling I get when stood in front of a wide sea (Borth) or on top of a mountain (Haughmond Hill). That feeling of being small and insignificant. It is a feeling of fright, of sudden realisation that I am powerless and small and the sea or the landscape is powerful, great and all-knowable. It is the sense of vertiginous at the scale of the view before me.
We could say that it means transcendent, uplifting or ecstatic. It is also used to mean awe-inspiring or grandiose. The sublime is that which is frighteningly vast or powerful. Or perhaps it is that which is unexplainable, ungraspable or unimaginable. The sublime came to refer to a surge of aesthetic pleasure which paradoxically arises from the displeasure of fear, horror or pain. Does it have more than one meaning?
Where did the term come from?
In the Middle Ages, to ‘sublime’ a material in alchemical terminology, meant to transform it directly from its solid state to its gaseous state. Such a transformation had metaphysical overtones: a transformation from earthly to heavenly.
It was then mentioned again during Age of Enlightenment. English essayist John Hall translated the work of an obscure Roman thinker called Longinus into English he was introducing the notion of the sublime to late 17th-century Britain. Longinus wrote, ‘As if instinctively, our soul is lifted up by the true sublime; it takes a proud flight, and is filled with joy and vaunting, as though it had itself produced what it had heard’.
He was referring to the impact of language. He wanted to draw attention to anything that challenges our capacity to understand. However, in the 18th century the concept was taken up by British artists, poets, philosophers and scientists who adapted its meaning to encompass the intellectual and physical landscape. But why were they so taken with this notion? What was it about the sublime that sparked their imagination and creativity?
Salvator Rosa (1615-1673) is perhaps the painter most associated during the eighteenth century with the development of the taste for representing the sublime. His work in eighteenth-century Northern Europe was extremely popular, and his influence can be seen in artists such as Turner.
The concept of the sublime as an aesthetic quality in nature different from beauty was developed in the writings of Anthony Ahsley-Cooper (third Earl of Shaftesbury) and John Dennis. Both writers expressed an appreciation of the frightening and irregular forms of external nature. Edmund Burke‘s concept of the sublime was developed in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756). Burke was the first philosopher to posit that the sublime and the beautiful were not the same. Beauty may be accentuated by light, but either intense light or the absence of light is sublime to the degree that it can make opaque the sight of an object. Burke connected the sublime with experiences of awe, terror and danger. He saw nature as the utmost sublime object, capable of generating the strongest sensations. He was interested in what happens to the self when it is confronted with danger. This Romantic idea of the sublime was influential for several generations of artists.
It was a key term for which ideas on taste for art and for the aesthetic appreciation of nature were developing. It was used to elevate the taste for ruins, mountains, storms, deserts, seas, the supernatural and the shocking. This notion also encourage a taste for the rugged rather than the ordered, the forceful rather than the restrained, the chaotic rather than the arranged, the primitive rather than the sophisticated. It expressed a preference for the Romantic and Gothic rather than the Neoclassical.
At the end of the 18th century, Immanuel Kant also had a lot to say about the sublime. To Kant, the sublime is more infinite and can be found even in an object that has no form. He argued that beauty is a temporary response of understanding, but the sublime goes beyond the aesthetics into a realm of reason. To him there were three types of sublimity: the awful, the lofty, the splendid. The sublime was seen as a negative experience of limits. We need to turn, he believed, this into a positive gain.
The sublime went out of fashion somewhat during the Victorian era, perhaps because Victorians didn’t like being overwhelmed with emotion, or awed by greatness. They preferred the pretty (‘prozac’ art) to the magnificent.
Almost a century after Kant was musing on the sublime, Fredrich Nietzsche also concerned himself with the matter. He said that a truly sublime individual was someone who was willing to abandon the safeness of rationality, to embrace the frenzy of madness.
Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the sublime became one of the central ideas around which discourses on art and aesthetic experience were articulated.
Fascination with the sublime continued in landscape art, literature and philosophy. The terrifying is attractive, it is sublime.
How about now?
The sublime is something that exceeds the ordinary. It doesn’t simply need to apply to nature. Over the 19th and 20th centuries, the focus for the experience of the sublime gradually shifted from nature to technology. We are in an age of secularization. God is retreating from nature. Man made the world, not God. So is the sublime only in the realm of technology now, rather than nature? I don’t think the sublime of nature has gone. I think we have both.
Contemporary artists who exhibit the sublime in their work: Anish Kapoor, Mike Kelley, Doris Salcedo, Hiroshi Suimoto, Fred Tomaselli.
During the 1980s we see a new wave of postmodernist sublimity dissatisfied the two polar opposites of pop aesthetic on the one side, and the deep thinkers of conceptualism and minimalsim on the other. For example with the installations of James Turrell.
Also we have artists such as Bill Viola looking at evocations of extreme states of mind via the medium of video, and Mike Kelley looking at the darker side of the sublime.
Other artists such as Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer and Doris Salcedo have examined the connection between the sublime and historic events.
Other artists who aimed to evoke the sublime might include: Mark Rothko and Yves Klein. Rothko painted floaty woozy colours on immense canvases that give that vertiginous sensation of the sublime.
Klein painted blue, a colour to lose oneself in, feel amazed by, sense the sublime in.
So if blue, how about black? Malevich’s paintings of an absence of colour create a sublime feeling, the eyes constantly searching for something in the nothingness.
The sublime was also being discussed by various thinkers in recent years such as Jean-Francois Lyotard’s essays ‘The Sublime and the Advant-garde’ (1984) and ‘Presenting the Unpresentable: The Sublime’ (1982) in which he postulated that the mind cannot always organise the world rationally and this is a good thing. What happens in the sublime is a crisis where we see the inability of the imagination and reason to relate to one another. Also a connection was made between technology and the sublime by Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe in Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime (1999) in what he called ‘technological sublime’. In 2007 Tate Britain held a symposium on the subject of the sublime, inviting all sorts of interested parties to consider the sublime in contemporary art.
Artists, however, seem reluctant to openly associate their work with the sublime. The discourse of the sublime is affected by the subliminal in politics and popular culture. Sublime today defines that moment when our thought end and we are confronted with something else, something more significant than a slice of home-made apple pie perhaps?
Longinus On the Sublime Translated by W. Rhys Roberts, reproduced by the University of Adelaide, http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/longinus/on_the_sublime/ [last accessed 13 March 2013]
BBC Radio 4 ‘In Our Time’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p004y23j [last accessed 13 March 2013]
Wikipedia on the sublime in literature, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sublime_%28literary%29 [last accessed 14 March 2013]
‘What is the sublime?’, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, January 2013, http://www.tate
Morely, Simon, ‘Introduction / The Contemporary Sublime’ in Documents of Contemporary Art (co-published by Whitechapel Gallery and the MIT Press; 2010)