The Beautiful and the Sublime

“The Sublime” radio 4 podcast In our time

Concepts of beauty

“Beauty and art were once thought of as belonging together, with beauty as among art’s principle aims and art as beauty’s highest calling” Beech 2009 p12

“Why is form beautiful? Because, I think, it helps us meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life mat be chaos and that therefore our suffering is without meaning” Adams 1996 p25

“The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, 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, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it.” Edmund Burke 1757.

Beauty is very much an aspect of aesthetics or more simply our ‘senses’; sensuous music and sounds, textiles and textures, pleasant flavours and smells. There are essentially two perspectives:

1) beauty as  ‘objective’ universal within human nature. Mathematical and geometric evaluations of pieces of music, human features and pictorial composition have been used to support this view.

2) beauty as subjective ‘taste’  ‘beauty lies in the eye of the beholder’. As personal and/or a matter of cultural identity, what is beautiful to one group of people may be vulgar and repulsive to another.

Claude Lorrain (1600–1682), was regarded as the antithesis of sublime since it exemplified classical beauty through its formal harmony, elegance and subtle luminosity.

Modernist debates and Marxist critiques of beauty have made it a political matter – a bourgeois preoccupation and tool of repression.

Dadaists Otto Dix (1891-1969) satirised images of conventional, romantic notions of beauty and fascist ideals of perfection in his politically challenging paintings made around the dawn of the Second World War.

Conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp‘s urinal placed in gallery context.

 Concepts of the sublime

 “the sublime is associated with awe, danger and pain, with places where accidents happen, where things run beyond human control, where nature is untameable.”
Liz Wells

 Longinus (c300AD) passage about poetry and rhetoric in ‘The True Sublime’ in Book 7 of the Peri HypsousFor by some innate power the true sublime uplifts our souls; we are filled with a proud exaltation and a sense of vaunting joy; just as though we had ourselves produced what we had heard.

Kant, Hegel, johann sciller.

Etymology: 1580s, “expressing lofty ideas in an elevated manner,” from Middle French sublime (15c.), or directly from Latin sublimis “uplifted, high, borne aloft, lofty, exalted, eminent, distinguished,” possibly originally “sloping up to the lintel,” from sub “up to” + limen “lintel, threshold, sill” (see limit (n.)). The sublime (n.) “the sublime part of anything, that which is stately or imposing” is from 1670s.

British Art and the Sublime Christine Riding and Nigel Llewellyn

The English word derives from a conjunction of two Latin terms, the preposition sub, meaning below or up to and the noun limen, meaning limit, boundary or threshold. Limen is also the word for ‘lintel’, the heavy wooden or stone beam that holds the weight of a wall up above a doorway or a window. This sense of not only striving or pushing upwards but also against an overbearing force is an important connotation for the word sublime. By the seventeenth century, the word in English was in use both as an adjective and as a noun (the sublime) with many shades of meaning but invariably referring to things that are raised aloft, set high up and exalted, whether they be buildings, ideas, people, language, style or other aspects of or responses to art and nature.
By about 1700 an additional theme started to develop, which was that the sublime in writing, nature, art or human conduct was regarded as of such exalted status that it was beyond normal experience, perhaps even beyond the reach of human understanding. In its greatness or intensity and whether physical, metaphysical, moral, aesthetic or spiritual, by the time of the Enlightenment, the sublime was generally regarded as beyond comprehension and beyond measurement.

Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, published in 1757 broke the idea of the sublime down into seven aspects, all of which Burke argued were discernible in the natural world and in natural phenomena:

  • Darkness – which constrains the sense of sight (primary among the five senses)
  • Obscurity – which confuses judgement
  • Privation (or deprivation) – since pain is more powerful than pleasure
  • Vastness – which is beyond comprehension
  • Magnificence – in the face of which we are in awe
  • Loudness – which overwhelms us
  • Suddenness – which shocks our sensibilities to the point of disablement
The ‘romantic sublime’ was a particularly common theme throughout 18th and 19th century painting with religious and spiritual overtones. Sublime was a term that was used in art writing alongside adjectives such as ‘awful’, ‘dreadful’ and ‘terrible’, which today tend simply to denote ‘less than ideal’ but which in the 1700s were understood explicitly as expressions of awe, dread and terror, and were associated with the sublime as standard elements in aesthetic discourse. Sublime landscape painters, especially in the Romantic period, around 1800, tended to take subjects such as towering mountain ranges, deep chasms, violent storms, rough seas, volcanic eruptions or avalanches that, if actually experienced, would be dangerous and even life-threatening.


John Martin

JMW Turner

Caspar David Friedrich Wanderer above the sea of the fog / above the mist 1818 

James Ward:  Gordale Scar 1812-1814

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) defines the sublime as not just an aspect of aesthetics, but of psychoanalysis. He related it to his idea of ‘the uncanny’ which refers to a feeling of discomfort when seeing something that is simultaneously familiar and alien. ‘Das Unheimliche’ not just in terms of location, but in terms of identity. The un-settlement, or cognitive dissonance that can result from an encounter with the uncanny is what can stir the sense of the sublime.

So becomes something that occupies the imagination. Something that triggers a psychoactive response in an individual.

Philip Shaw ‘Modernism and the Sublime’

Lucio Fontana (1950s) punched holes (or buchi) through his canvases, the aim being literally to break through the surface of the work so that the viewer can perceive the space that lies beyond. Fontana regarded this gesture as a means of disclosing the unlimited space of the sublime, announcing ‘I have created an infinite dimension’. In some works slashes executed with a razor seem to erupt outwards, conveying the force of the original assault towards the viewer in a way that is both energetic and terrifying.

Mark Rothko   Robert Rosenblum in‘The Abstract Sublime’ (1961) writes: ‘the floating, horizontal tiers of veiled light in the Rothko seem to conceal a total, remote presence that we can only intuit and never fully grasp. These infinite, glowing voids carry us beyond reason to the Sublime; we can only submit to them in an act of faith and let ourselves be absorbed into their radiant depths’. Rothko’s biographer James Breslin writes: ‘Rothko … constantly felt the imminent danger of being ‘smothered’ by encroaching physical, social, or domestic circumstances. His new paintings created a breathing space. Yet these paintings do not seek simply to ‘transcend’ the walls of an unalterable external reality by soaring upward into either an untrammelled freedom or a vaporous mysticism. Rather, by (in Rothko’s words) pulverising the verge of dissolution – his works free us from the weight, solidity, and definition of a material existence, whose constricting pressures we still feel. Rothko combines freedom and constraint and if these paintings create ‘dramas’ with the shapes as the ‘performers’ they stage a struggle to be free.’

“in many cultures, a confrontation of the sublime is a requisite rite of passage. Within my project, Threshold Zone (2008) I explored and attempted to rationalise my own response to both man-made and naturally formed underground spaces. I felt curious, and was determined to make some work in these spaces, but I was also acutely phobic of being underground, particularly when working alone. These spaces were generally physically unfamiliar to me, yet my mind was filled with familiar fairytales and contemporary narratives relating to the dangers that lurk below ground in the darkness. I channelled these feelings into a creative strategy, in which I placed my camera in a space referred to as ‘twilight’ or ‘threshold zone’ of a cave that receives some daylight, and the ‘dark zone’ that receives none. The resulting, highly contrasting images which are presented as back-lit light-boxes, I hope illustrate my encounter with the sublime’ Jesse Alexander 2013 p 40.

The sublime radio 4 Podcast In our time

 Exercise 1.6 The contemporary abyss

Since the very beginning of photography, the city has provided opportunities for the photographer: landscape and other subject matter.