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The Sublime in Art

The Sublime in Art Collage

"The Sublime is not strictly speaking something which is proven or demonstrated, but a marvel, which seizes one, strikes one, and makes one feel."

Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux

Summary of The Sublime in Art

Feelings of terror, awe, infinity, and minuteness swirl and course through an experience of the sublime in nature, and for centuries, artists from Donatello to Bill Viola have attempted to recreate that experience in their paintings, sculptures, and video projections. Theorized as early as the 1st century, the sublime has captivated writers, philosophers, and artists alike. Through its various definitions and interpretations, at its base, the sublime is a feeling rooted in humans' relationships to the world, to nature, and what lies beyond that help us to formulate an understanding of ourselves.

Because the experience of the sublime is relational - we feel ourselves in relation to something larger than ourselves - artists interested in the sublime use myriad methods and mediums - from color and perspective to immersive installations and sound - to create an experience that engages the viewer's senses and brings him or her into the work. Artists employ the sublime to comment not only on our relationship with nature, but the fast-changing pace of technology as well as troubling contemporary events of war and violence.

Key Ideas

Modern evocations of the sublime took root in the philosophical writings of the 17th and 18th centuries. In order to understand human feeling and passions, writers attempted to systematically interrogate the sources of said feelings. Most influentially, Emmanuel Kant located the sublime in humans' incapacity to understand terrifying vastness and because of this we recognize our own smallness and limitations.
So often the sublime evokes a sense of what is beyond us that we cannot comprehend, and for this reason it has long been associated with religion, spirituality, and transcendence. Even in secular contexts, the sublime conjures something awe-inspiring and reminds us that humans are not necessarily at the center of the world.
In the 20th century, artists interested in the sublime often turned to machines, technology, and factories to find the extraordinary and overwhelming. Human technology now captures the imagination and controls much of our life, and what began as an enthusiastic embrace of how technology can enrich our world has in many cases turned into a fear of the technological sublime.
The politicization and commodification of sublime spectacle has led recent scholarship to look more closely at the sublime and its relation to capitalism and how experiences of nature and technology are sold to consumers. Whether with eco-tourism or an exhibition spectacle at a museum, people increasingly pay for a sublime experience, and some would argue that the contamination of the experience by capital subverts the original ideas of the sublime.
The Sublime in Art Image

When Théodore Géricault began his preparatory studies for his masterwork The Raft of The Medusa he went to some extreme and shocking lengths. To fully present the horrendous realities of the stricken survivors on his shipwrecked raft, he brought decomposing body parts into his atelier - reportedly storing them under his bed. He visited morgues so he could see up close the effect of death on the human body. This was his version of the sublime; an aesthetic designed to shock, upset and terrify.

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