Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Sublime

The Sublime is an eighteenth-century idea that engendered a major shift in taste. Formerly the Beautiful had reigned supreme, the unique standard of aesthetic value. Henceforth, though, it was compelled share the stage with its nemesis, the Sublime. Jointly, and also competetively, the two constituted the poles of aesthetic response.

The spread of the concept of the Sublime prepared the way for the Romantic Movement. Through this channel the concept ultimately had an effect on the Symbolists.

While the idea was adumbrated by a number of English writers, it received its definitive formulation at the hands of the Irish polymath and politician Edmund Burke, whose book Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful was published in 1757. Burke held that "terror is in all cases whatsoever . . . the ruling principle of the sublime" and, in keeping with his conception of a violently emotional sublime, his idea of astonishment was more violent than that of his predecessors: "The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature . . . is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other."

Burke ascribed the opposition of beauty and sublimity to a physiological substratum. He made the opposition of pleasure and pain the source of the two aesthetic categories, deriving beauty from pleasure and sublimity from pain. According to Burke, the pleasure of beauty has a relaxing effect on the fibers of the body, whereas sublimity, in contrast, tightens these fibers. This ingenious theory underlay his opposition of the beautiful and sublime: "The ideas of the sublime and the beautiful stand on foundations so different, that it is hard, I had almost said impossible, to think of reconciling them in the same subject, without considerably lessening the effect of the one or the other upon the passions.”

Burke's recourse to this physiological theory of beauty and sublimity makes him the first English writer to offer a properly aesthetic explanation of these effects. Burke was the first to explain beauty and sublimity purely in terms of the process of perception and its effect upon the perceiver. Most crucially, Burke posited that our aesthetic standards are not unitary but binary: a different approach is needed depending upon whether one is attuned to the Beautiful mode or the Sublime mode. By positing a polarity between the beautiful and the sublime, aestheticians prepared the way for a more pluralistic understanding of art---including the art of the middle ages, much of which was rehabilitated under the rubric of the Sublime

With further elaboration, Immanuel Kant incorporated the idea into his system of aesthetics.

Neither Burke nor Kant possessed any extensive knowledge of the visual arts. For this reason they seem to have thought in the first instance of the sublime as a property of nature—or rather, one way in which we may perceive nature. In a landscape, for example, we surrender ourselves to wild, jagged forms in which the immensity of the natural features dwarfs the individual human being. In due course a number of artists made use of the ideas, J. M. W. Turner most grandly.

The contrast between the sublime and the beautiful has many affinities, including the polarity of the classical and the romantic. Some have perceived Nietzsche’s opposition of the Apollinian and Dionysian as another version of this theme. For abstract art the most important polarity is the one posited by the German art historian Wilhelm Worringer in his 1908 book Abstraction and Empathy.

The concept of the sublime resurfaced as a talisman for abstract art after World War II, as seen in the title of Barnett Newman's 1950 painting "Vir Heroicus Sublimis." In an The influential 1961 article, Robert Rosenblum compared nineteenth-century American landscapes, generally regarded as sublime, with major canvases of the Abstract Expressionist group, suggesting a continuous lineage.

At the end of the twentieth century some art critics sought to refashion the concept of the sublime as a way of understanding contemporary works; the success of this gambit remains uncertain.

REFERENCES. Andrew Ashfield and Peter de Bolla, The Sublime: A Reader in British Eighteenth-Century Aesthetic Theory, Cambridge: CUP, 1996; Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime, New York: Alworth Press, 1999; S. T. Monk, The Sublime: A Study of Critical Theories in Eighteenth-Century England, London, 1935; Robert Rosenblum, "The Abstract Sublime," Art News, 59:10 (Feb. 1961).


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