On the sublime and the modern world

We hope you enjoyed our event on the 15th March 2022 – the second in the Art and Emotion series, hosted by The National Gallery London. Find the film from the event and review by Oscar Tapper below:

Review- by Oscar Tapper

Immanuel Kant once wrote, ‘whereas beauty is limited, the sublime is limitless’. Indeed, the sublime can be understood as a powerful force induced by the ungraspable, the terrifying; observable in depictions of the natural world. Notions of the Sublime have been among the most conflicting concepts in Western art since the idea was posited by Edmond Burke and Kant. In this second event, which sees a collaboration between the National Gallery and Centre for Philosophy and Art, notions of the Sublime from the Kantian Enlightenment tradition to the modern, ‘urban sublime’ were investigated by Chair Vanessa Brassey, Dr. Sacha Golob, Cellist Niles Luther and photographer Eugenie Shinkle.  

Oscillation between the human mind and nature, a desire to control and understand what is often beyond our cognitive capacity, has characterised this lineage. Copernicus’s Heliocentric model, Newtonian physics and Kant’s assertion of minds primacy had fundamentally altered the subject’s engagement to nature.  

The Sublime is often contrasted with an understanding of ‘beauty’ through harmony, consider Claude’s A Pastoral Landscape (1640). In the Sublime such harmonious control and understanding has dissipated. Sacha Golob presented this through Verney’s A Shipwreck on Stormy Seas (1773), a painting characteristic of the natural sublime. In such a scene we see nature dominating the human, the most advanced technology of the day dwarfed by the natural landscape, in Golob’s words the ‘natural world as supernatural’.  

These notions of awe and the almost incomprehensible engagement with the nature seem to contrast the rational emphasis of the subject’s mind in the Kantian enlightenment tradition. In Turners Ulysses (1829), the Sublime appears to emphasise such. For Theodore Adorno, this is emblematic of the use of reason to manipulate the natural, to hold it as a tool for rational control. Such rational control is indicative of Romantic aesthetics. In Niles Luther’s composition for Kehinde Wiley’s Prelude, currently at the National Galley, this dramatic serenity is emphasised. Inspired by the relation between German Romanticism ad American Transcendentalism, Luther seeks to capture an encounter between human emotion and the natural world within 12 notes. In this sense, nature is no longer a threat but elevating. When accompanied with Wiley’s work the cold barren landscape and gaze of the subject within the work to a world, seemingly beyond rational comprehension, reflects the Wagnerian influence, the light motif which grounds human essence.  

This distance between the observing mind and subject within the work questions boundaries of the self. In the post-war move away from Surrealism, works such as Rothko’s 1954 No.7, standing at almost eight foot, embody both the serene and ungraspable elements which interact with a desire for rational control to invoke the modern Sublime. Further, take Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991). The subject, whilst standing in the jaws of a such a beast, is faced with two effects. In the face of fear and dissolution the observer is faced with the reality of death which terrifies and almost appears beyond comprehension throng the medium of a banal object. That is, a dead shark in a tank of formaldehyde. Yet, what both Rothko and Hirst allude to is the link between rational control, nature and awe. In both cases we see multifaceted aspects of the subjects’ relation to sprawling and seemingly never-ending canvas and the greatest predator. Ideas of human progress almost vanish in awe of what could be construed as banal materiality. As Golob remarks when asked about Francis Bacon, observable is ‘degeneration through flesh’.  

Film Still: ‘The Sublime’ written and presented by Sacha Golob will be broadcast at the event.

Notions of the seemingly banal being evocative is characterised by Eugenie Shinkle’s conception of the modern sublime. In creations such as video games one loses ‘a consistent and uniform boundary between self and machine’. In this sense, Shinkle posits a uniquely modern sublime, whereby one sees nature not as a force to observe but to overcome. Shinkle asks us to consider when one becomes aware of the technology underpinning our actions, where this occurs the subject experiences technology ‘as an inhuman other’.  

This is emblematic of the modern Sublime and notions of sublimity more generally. When the phone dies in one’s palm, starring back at you through the camera’s lens, an object of seemingly banal material sits cold. Yet, in such a moment our reliance on this object is never clearer, we are seemingly lost where our dependence is evident. Technology as such is a product of our own creation yet often perversely distant from rational comprehension. Terry Eagleton remarked that pleasure in the 18th and 19th century Sublime was found in the distance the subject had from the uncomforting nature of the image. In the contemporary world, we as subjects are now in the scene. With our attempt to control nature leading to climate catastrophe, technological innovation escaping our cognitive capacities, it seems the sublime is a ubiquitous presence, one which we cannot escape.