Artistic sublimity, or rather the arousal of the sublime feeling through art is, to my mind, one of art’s higher goals. The profound discomfort (traditionally it is “pain” but that has always seemed a bit strong to me), accompanied by an equally intense pleasure constitutes a moment of transcendence. After a sublime experience we often feel as if we’ve reached a higher understanding – either we’ve grasped something new or we’ve grasped just how little we actually know. The concept of this lofty, important feeling, however, seems to be in a moment of crisis. In this essay we are less concerned with the nature of sublimity than with the more practical, more pressing question – is artistic sublimity still possible?
Before proceeding, let’s lay out the two definitions of the sublime that we will be using, Kant’s, and Lyotard’s modified take on Kant’s definition. In Kant’s version of the sublime, the sublime feeling is aroused when an object’s properties are known to the intellect, but those properties cannot be properly comprehended by the imagination. For example, one knows that the Atlantic Ocean covers a finite area, but when adrift in the middle of its waters, the ocean seems to carry on to infinity, and the imagination cannot conceive of anything larger. The sublime, according to Kant, reveals the power of the intellect over the imagination – the intellect knows the finitude of the ocean but it is aestheticall appreciated by the imagination as infinite, that is, it cannot possibly be imagined as a whole. Lyotard’s take on the Kantian sublime is more relevant to artistic practice. According to Lyotard, the sublime feeling is aroused when one tries to give an unpresentable idea a presentable form. The intellect can conceive of the idea, but imagination and physical form prove to be inadequate at representing it.
Now that our definition has been outlined we can proceed to the question: is sublime art still possible? Let’s consider both realism and abstraction. Nature, being the traditional mode of access to the sublime feeling, is the traditional subject of sublime art. Climbing to the peak of a mountain, sitting in the middle of an ocean – the vastness, grandeur, and sheer power of nature in these scenarios proves overwhelming. Artists, seeking to capture this feeling on canvas, naturally tried to offer as faithful a portrayal of the scene as they could in order to arouse a similar feeling (Caspar Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog is a popular example). In the pre-digital and pre-mechanical ages, this would have worked. Now, however, nature is degraded to such a point that a realistic portrayal can no longer arouse the sublime feeling. Nature is degraded either through industrialization or urbanization, which render the referent (nature) mundane or destroyed, or it is degraded by its ubiquity, by the fact that someone living in the flat Illinois landscape can access images of Mt. Everest via the Internet. It was not only the power and grandeur of nature that granted it’s sublimity in the first place, it was also its novelty and inaccessibility – two things that art can no longer capture.
In regards to abstraction, we return Lyotard’s definition of sublime art as the failure to portray an inherently unportrayable idea – as the unpresentable inadequately presented. Consider Rothko and the attempts to portray the imperceptible ways in which light blends with itself, or the impossible idea of pure color (an idea that can be conceived of, but one that cannot be portrayed – any attempt will also necessarily include shape). Rothko’s work was sublime precisely because of this inadequacy to the Idea. His work presented the inadequacy of presentation. Stripped of any recognizable referent (because no referent of this nature is possible) we were set adrift in the work, made uncomfortable by its newness and lack of relation. However, at the same time, we experienced pleasure at the admiration of the intellect for the ability to conceive and understand such ideas as well as the pleasure of establishing new forms.
This moment of abstract sublimity seems to have passed. From the readymades to abstract expressionism, to “invisible” sculptures and paintings, artists have stretched the understanding of art to the breaking point. There are hardly any “un-presentables” left to present. Furthermore, capitalism and mass-production have played an important role in the destruction of the abstract sublime (just as it helped degrade the realist/natural sublime). Just like its ability to derealize objects, to fragment reality, capitalism has the converse ability of reification. It makes the abstract recognizable and vice versa. Let’s continue with Rothko as an example. His paintings presented the unpresentable, caused us to feel both pleasure and discomfort, and even challenged the established notions of form. At one time, Rothko’s paintings were sublime.
However, the fact that one can now purchase a poster of a Rothko painting, or a rug made in its image, changes its aesthetic status. Its reproducibility and commodification render it a historical-commodity object as well as an art object. A copy of a Rothko, be it in the form of an art print or a coffee mug, does not present the unpresentable idea of the original (and, therefore, loses its sublimity). Instead, it presents the idea of the original itself, the original as an object. It cannot even be said to be abstract. It accurately presents a referent, the original Rothko painting – an idea which has a perfectly recognizable and presentable form. Thus, commodified versions of a Rothko painting properly belong to realism. Through this process of reproduction, even the original work, the formerly sublime work, becomes an established form and referent. The ubiquity of the image of a Rothko, a byproduct of its reproduction, has removed its sublimity– so it is with all commodified art. The original no longer presents the unpresentable, but also itself as an object and, most importantly, all its copies in their various forms. There is, however, still an avenue towards artistic sublimity. And, ironically, that avenue is the process of massproduction itself. Morandi provides an antecedent. His works, taken individually, are unsettling – “oddly quiet” as Jay Bernstein said. Unsettling, but not sublime. It is the repetition, the obsessiveness, the multiplication of those blunt, muted, almost indiscernible jars and vessels that could cause one to view Morandi’s work as sublime. Closer to a Kantian understanding than a Lyotardian understanding, Morandi’s work, presented as a whole, becomes an exercise in infinity, that is, an exercise in the potentially infinite multiplication of identical objects. This is the uncomfortable, mundanely sublime side effect of capitalism. The proper realm of sublime experience has been transported from the singular power of nature, to the diffuse homogeneous boredom of the suburbs with their identical buildings and streets. However, Morandi is only the antecedent. The process of mass-production itself is what must be aestheticized. For example, consider a single image, a single “un-presentable” or nature scene no longer qualifies as sublime. But now imagine a wall covered with copies of the same image. Envision the sheer number, the sheer size, the sheer uselessness, and inanity of the exercise. The production of a single work is the beginning, but a wall covered with that same work, nagging the imagination, begging the eye to spot a difference where there is none – that, I think, is the sublime of our time.