On the Sublime

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The Sublime has long held fascination for me, as it applies to both landscapes and The Holocaust / Genocide. Adorno suggested that after Auschwitz, the Sublime is associated with images of genocide and atrocity. He also suggested that after Auschwitz, art is not possible. But that is another story.

An excellent reader is Simon Morley’s volume The Sublime (2010) with a host of useful contemporary readings. His introduction to the topic is perhaps the best I have yet come across, with key passages reproduced here.

‘In A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) the Irish political theorist and philosopher Edmund Burke noted that there were certain experiences which supply a kind of thrill or shudder of perverse pleasure, mixing fear and delight. He shifted the emphasis in discussions of the sublime towards experiences provoked by aspects of nature which due to their vastness or obscurity could not be considered beautiful, and indeed were likely to fill us with a degree of horror:

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. No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. For fear, being an apprehension of pain or death, operates in a manner that resembles actual pain. Whatever therefore is terrible, with regard to sight, is sublime too Indeed terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently, the ruling principle of the sublime?

Burke was interested in what happens to the self when assailed by that which seems to endanger its survival. He also moved the analysis away from the sublime object and towards the experience of the beholder, thus making his enquiry a psychological one. The sublime declared Burke, was ‘the strongest passion’, and he belittled the importance of the beautiful, claiming that it was merely an instance of prettiness. The sublime experience, on the other hand, had the power to transform the self, and Burke, like Longinus, saw something ennobling in this terror-tinged thrill, as if the challenge posed by some threat served to strengthen the self.

Immanuel Kant, in his Critique of Judgement (1790), also set out to explore what happens at the borderline where reason finds its limits. He characterised three types of sublimity: the awful, the lofty and the splendid, and continued and deepened the shift of focus initiated by Burke, by asserting that the sublime was not so much a formal quality of some natural phenomenon as a subjective conception – something that happens in the mind. He thereby shifted the analysis towards the impact and consequence of the sublime experience upon consciousness, and argued that the sublime was essentially a negative experience of limits. It was a way of talking about what happens when we are faced with something we do not have the capacity to understand or control – something excessive. Behind Kant’s discussion lay a keen sense of the independence of nature, whose sheer complexity and grandeur continuously exceeds any human ability to control or understand it. This sense of the sublime may be initiated by the terrifying aspects of nature such as Burke describes, or be provoked by an experience so complex that our inability to form a clear mental conception of it leads to a sense of the inadequacy of our imagination and of the vast gulf between that experience and the thoughts we have about it.We are made aware, Kant observed, that sometimes we cannot present to ourselves an account of an experience that is in any way coherent. We cannot encompass it by thinking, and so it remains indiscernible or unnameable, undecidable, indeterminate and unpresentable.

‘The feeling of the sublime’, wrote Kant, ‘is at once a feeling of displeasure, arising from the inadequacy of imagination in the aesthetic estimation of magnitude to attain to its estimation of reason, and a simultaneous awakened pleasure, arising from this very judgment of the inadequacy of sense of being in accord with ideas of reason, so far as the effort to attain to these is for us a law.”

Thus because the sublime addresses what cannot be commanded or controlled, it is grounded in an awareness of lack, And as a consequence of this awareness of an inaccessible form of excess, argued Kant, we come to a recognition of our limitations, and so transform a sense of negative insufficiency into a positive gain: such experiences serve to establish our reasoning powers more firmly within their rightful, although diminished, domain’.

Morley, pg. 15-16

The Sublime and Contemporary Culture

The dominant assumption behind contemporary thought, grounded in the Marxist, psychoanalytic and feminist theory that came to control discussions of contemporary art during the 1970s and 19805, is that culture and cultural values are socially constructed rather than deriving from some timeless essence. In other words, cultural signs, codes and representations are understood as producing our life-world and making it meaningful. In this context the importance of the concept of the sublime for contemporary discussions on art is that it addresses an unresolved problem within this social constructionist argument. For while we may no longer believe in eternal essences or values, we still often sense that our lives are fashioned by forces beyond our control, which underpin and drive acts of thinking or representation’.

Morley, pg. 17-18

Mapping the Contemporary Sublime

Broadly speaking, four approaches to the sublime can be identified within contemporary art and theory. These derive from Longinus, Burke, Kant and Schiller. From Longinus comes an emphasis on the transcendence of reality through the heroic act, from Burke, the idea of the sublime as an experience of shock and awe and as a destabilizing force, from Kant, the notion of the sublime as revealing a reality that is fundamentally indeterminate, undecidable and unpresentable, and from Schiller, a reading of the sublime as ecstatic experience’.

Morley, pg. 19

‘The sublime’, writes Boileau, ‘is not strictly speaking something which is proven or demonstrated, but a marvel, which seizes one, strikes one, and makes one feel’.

Lyotard, pg. 33


Barnett Newman’s short essay The Sublime is Now (1948) is seen as a text of fundamental importance to modern-day notions of the sublime. Reproduced in full here.

Michelangelo knew that the meaning of the Greek humanities for his time involved making Christ-the man, into Christ-who is God; that his plastic problem was neither the mediaeval one, to make a cathedral, nor the Greek one, to make a man like a god, but to make a cathedral out of man. In doing so he set a standard for sublimity that the painting of his time could not reach. Instead, painting continued on its merry quest for a voluptuous art until in modern times, the Impressionists, disgusted with its inadequacy, began the movement to destroy the established rhetoric of beauty by the Impressionist insistence on a surface of ugly strokes.

The impulse of modern art was this desire to destroy beauty. However, in discarding Renaissance notions of beauty, and without an adequate substitute for a sublime message, the Impressionists were compelled to preoccupy themselves, in their struggle, with the cultural values of their plastic history so that instead of evoking a new way of experiencing life they were able only to make a transfer of values. By glorifying their own way of living, they were caught in the problem of what is really beautiful and could only make a restatement of their position on the general question of beauty; just as later the Cubists, by their Dada gestures of substituting a sheet of newspaper and sandpaper for both the velvet surfaces of the Renaissance and the Impressionists, made a similar transfer of values instead of creating a new vision, and succeeded only in elevating the sheet of paper. So strong is the grip of the rhetoric of exaltation as an attitude in the large context of the European culture pattern that the elements of sublimity in the revolution we know as modern art, exist in its effort and energy to escape the pattern rather than in the realization of a new experience. Picasso’s effort may be sublime but there is no doubt that his work is a preoccupation with the question of what is the nature of beauty. Even Mondrian, in his attempt to destroy the Renaissance picture by his insistence on pure subject matter, succeeded only in raising the white plane and the right angle into a realm of sublimity, where the sublime paradoxically becomes an absolute of perfect sensations. The geometry (perfection) swallowed up his metaphysics (his exaltation).

The failure of European art to achieve the sublime is due to this blind desire to exist inside the reality of sensation (the object world, whether distorted or pure) and to build an art within the framework of pure plasticity (the Greek ideal of beauty, whether that plasticity be a romantic active surface, or a classic stable one). In other words, modern art, caught without a sublime content, was incapable of creating a new sublime image, and unable to move away from the Renaissance imagery of figures and objects except by distortion or by denying it completely for an empty world of geometric formalisms—a pure rhetoric of abstract mathematical relationships, became enmeshed in a struggle over the nature of beauty; whether beauty was in nature or could be found without nature.

I believe that here in America, some of us, free from the weight of European culture, are finding the answer, by completely denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty and where to find it. The question that now arises is how, if we are living in a time without a legend or mythos that can be called sublime, if we refuse to admit any exaltation in pure relations, if we refuse to live in the abstract, how can we be creating a sublime art?

We are reasserting man’s natural desire for the exalted, for a concern with our relationship to the absolute emotions. We do not need the obsolete props of an outmoded and antiquated legend. We are creating images whose reality is self-evident and which are devoid of the props and crutches that evoke associations with outmoded images, both sublime and beautiful. We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or “life,” we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings. The image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation, real and concrete, that can be understood by anyone who will look at it without the nostalgic glasses of history.


Caspar David Friedrich (1774 – 1840) was a German Romantic landscape painter, generally considered the most important of his generation. His ‘created’ landscapes are representative of certain aspects of the sublime.

Header: Caspar David Friedrich. 1818. Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer).


ADORNO, Theodor. 1970. Aesthetic Theory. 1997 Edition, Gretel Adorno & Rolf Tiedemann, Editors. London: Continuum Books. Available at: http://www.sfu.ca/~andrewf/aesthetictheory (accessed 08/06/2019).

BURKE, Edmund.1757. A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. 1990, 2015 edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

BURKE, Edmund.1757. A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks. Also available at: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/burke/edmund/sublime/index.html (accessed 24/05/2019).

KANT, Immanuel. 1790. The Critique of Judgment (Part I, Critique of Aesthetic Judgment). Oxford: Oxford University Press. Available at: https://monoskop.org/images/7/77/Kant_Immanuel_Critique_of_Judgment_1987.pdf (accessed 24/01/2018).

MORLEY, Simon. 2010. The Sublime. Documents of Contemporary Art. London: Whitechapel Gallery.

NEWMAN, Barnett. 1948. The Sublime Is Now. Available at: https://artkatvisualculture.files.wordpress.com/2019/09/newman-the-sublime-is-now.pdf and at: http://theoria.art-zoo.com/the-sublime-is-now-barnett-newman/ (accessed 20/09/2018).