The Sublime Today
7.1 The language as a medium that manifests the Sublime
The classical concept of the sublime, originally conceived as an elevated literary form, evolves throughout the ages and gradually acquires new meanings. New definitions of the term are applied: the sublime does no longer identify itself exclusively as a noble style; synonymous with a grandiose spirit, with the representation of ecstasy, with a profound idea or with the power of elevated words. As discussed earlier, the idea of sublime as a sentiment that causes pain, awe, lack of determination and sorrow develops most notably in Great Britain as a reaction to the neo-classical idealism. The concept of sublime changes repeatedly throughout successive periods and acquires meanings that are radically diverse. This occurs especially in the twentieth century, a century marked by events that lead to diverse outcomes from the humanistic, scientific and technological fields. The world of art also goes through many changes throughout this century: the advent of abstraction or non-figurative art, the formation of the avant-garde movements and the creation of new forms of art dictated by new languages. We arrive at a point in the second half of the century, precisely in the post-modern era, where artists feel more than ever the urge to represent the non-presentable through the individuation of new visual languages. It is an urge that reflects the needs of a society that is becoming increasingly complex.
The period that succeeds modernism renders the world of art different, if not incomprehensible to the criteria that characterise modernism. The result, according to some authors like Craig Owen (1984: 2003-205), is a theory that accuses post-modern art of being incapable of asserting its autonomy, its self-sufficiency and its transcendence. The consequence of this contingent, insufficient and non-transcendent art is the divulgation of diverse visual and verbal forms of expression. Synthetic processes which combine different and distinct techniques with artistic mediums have become common as well. The appropriation, the impermanence, the accumulation and the hybridisation of matter and forms are amongst the strategies that denote to a large extent post-modern and contemporary art. The remote aspirations and the artistic ideals of the pre-romantic, the romantic and the modern periods appear to have become inadequate and inapplicable.
And what about the idea of the sublime? Is it still relevant to talk about the sublime in the post-modern and contemporary era? In the 1980s and 1990s, we find the theories of Kant and Burke applied again in a context that is more immediate and appropriate to the general discussions about post-modern society. The theory of Kant, for instance, is interpreted by J. F. Lyotard and other authors as a direct sensibility caused by the complexity, the rapid changes and the abolition of categories which distinguish this particular society. Lyotard (1983) questions whether it is pertinent to talk any longer about ‘reality’ in the post-modern era, that is, of “unity, simplicity and communicability”. Lyotard declares that in a society sustained by scientific knowledge and the capitalist economy there is not enough space for metaphysical, religious and political realities. The disregard towards these ‘realities’ is indispensable for the sake of progress of science and capitalism; in any historical context, modernity cannot exist without the abolition of the faith in ‘realities’ created by mankind.
Moreover, Lyotard links the lack of realities with the aesthetics of the sublime in which modern art finds its own impetus, and in which the logic of the avant-garde arts finds its axioms. Modernity regenerates itself not only through the abolition of realities, but also through the ideal relationship between what can be conceived and what can be presented. The modern aesthetics is an aesthetics of the sublime, even though it is a nostalgic one. The primary role of this aesthetics is not the manifestation of ‘realities’, but rather the creation of allusions about what could be conceived but not presented.
Moving in this direction, it is possible to arrive at the limits of imagination and representation itself. As discussed earlier, it is possible to exhibit ideas in their pure form – a sublime manifestation of a conceptual nature. These points make us reflect upon another argument as well, much discussed throughout the last decades – the recognition of a work of art. And since the legitimisation of an object as a work of art requires some morphological and pre-established characteristics, some presentational modalities need to add new morphological characteristics to the ones already recognised. There are instances where artists present ‘objects’ in a context that conditions spectators to recognise them as artistic objects – this is the case of Yves Klein when he presents the ‘void’ at the Iris Clert Gallery in Paris. Moreover, some artistic creations acquire their status through the ‘declaration’ made by the artists who conceive them. As a matter of fact, the practice of art conforms to the vagaries of its own practicability. From the conventional forms of painting and sculpture we move on to the readymade; from the readymade we move on to conceptual art and the progression to synthetic and virtual images. Therefore, the interest shifts from a figurative representation of the sublime to a conceptual and ultimately to a technological representation.
From this evolution in the aesthetic and artistic domains follows what is often referred to as the ‘dehumanisation of art’ – an art that focuses less on subjective attributes like gestures, actions, signs, personal or manual elements. From a historical perspective, contemplative and transcendent art practices are followed respectively by pure sensory experiences and an aesthetics of pure thinking. The sublime acquires a new and almost exclusive meaning in contemporary aesthetics: the manifestation of the power of reason upon our sensations; the importance of the concept that prevails on the exaltation of the senses. Some theorists and artists argue that painting and sculpture are characterised by physical limitations that dictate whatever can be said in their respect. Though painting and sculpture have always stimulated the mind, such theories arguably hold that these cannot serve their purpose beyond their physical constitution. The British conceptual artists, on the other hand, claim that their practices defy any linguistic limitation.
There is no doubt that both forms of art hold our thinking captive to their own physical constraints. The conception of the infinite in our imagination is only an intuitive one. Our reason still proves itself inadequate to express ideas about the infinite and the absolute; it can only aspire to infinity, and the violence it inflicts on our imagination impedes the origin of the sentiment of the sublime. The inadequacy of the imagination together with the insufficiency of our reason provoke an ambivalent sentiment that triggers simultaneously sensations of attraction and repulsion. The contemporary artist who aspires to manifest the true sublime must try to achieve the ideal synthesis between a profound thought and a fervent imagination – the eternal dialectic between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Moreover, an impeccable mastery of the technique that guarantees rigour and dignity to the work is required. And finally, the authentic sublime has to astonish and at the same time daunt the observer.
I wonder, however, if it is still possible today to recuperate the original sublime conceived by Burke and Kant during the period preceding the Romanticism. The fundamental role that art used to play in reconciling mankind with nature - with its true essence - seems to have become passé. Nowadays, the capital has replaced the myth; the safeguard of interests, the personal well-being and personal comfort prevail considerably on spiritual needs. It is difficult, therefore, to think of a possible comeback of the original sublime considering that people today tend to repress the emotions that arouse such a sentiment.
Moreover, the scientific and technological advances, particularly those following the Second World War, tend to repress even more the feelings of anguish, terror, fear, anxiety and reverence that still oppress the existential condition of the modern individual. The post-war art is dominated by ideas that derive from various philosophical branches, namely Existentialism, Phenomenology and Jungian Transcendentalism. This period confers a heroic role to the modernist avant-garde artists – not in a political sense, but in a way that art could re-establish the bond between mankind and the ‘lost essence’, and liberate the hidden human qualities and unrealised potentials. The role of art becomes that of re-establishing the “empire of signs” that the war had destroyed. However, at the end of the 70s, the art practices influenced by Transcendentalism and Phenomenology take a different orientation with a new generation of artists that does not recognise anymore the existential values of the post-war years. Since this new wave of artists did not experience directly those difficult times, they suddenly find themselves in a situation in which all rules are inapplicable. Inevitably, they start concentrating on the language as a medium that brings order and meaning to a world that necessitates more than ever new and valid codes. Undoubtedly, such interest continues to persist till these very days, enabling the network of languages to extend even more, and consequently, becoming more complex and intricate.
7.2 The Diversity of the Languages
It comes not as a surprise, therefore, that this diversity of languages, adopted in the field of aesthetics, characterises contemporary art. As declared by A. Bonito Oliva, experimental art practised in Europe and the United States, manifests itself with the following presupposition:
"the object of art is the language and research does not only refer to experimentation of new techniques, but also to the analysis of the linguistic instruments being used"
(A. Bonito Oliva, 1991: 13).
The interrogations and preoccupations posed by American and European artists are different. The former share a pragmatic reliance on the instruments used, and the nature of their difficulties tends to be operative. American artists show interest in the accumulation and concrete occupation of space. Their painting is often characterised by compact and ‘minimal’ brushwork; their research often focuses on geometry, a basic arithmetic unity and repetition. As regards conceptual art, American artists tend to focus more on the correspondence between the work and the concept behind it. Moreover, they have a concept of space influenced by the vast and horizontal prairies and deserts, and they often look upon nature as a source for artistic intervention. Their experimental art may be defined as a pragmatic reality and as a space that needs to be occupied and experienced.
In Europe, on the other hand, prevails the interest in the rational organisation of space; projects based on reason take over the pure phenomenological manifestation of events. Conceptual art is often presented as a form of self-analysis that ultimately leads to a definition of the system of art. The American notion of art as a tautology is counteracted by the European notion of art as an interrogation. European artists relate their idea of nature to the history of culture; contrary to the American artists they do not recognise nature only as a phenomenological event. Having a more tragic conception of nature, they tend to transform and re-propose it as a more complex and extended model. European artists confront nature in a different way by citing and interpreting the myth in a critical way.
Ideology and pragmatism are therefore the two poles that distinguish the modalities and languages exercised in both continents. We are induced to ask ourselves whether the concept of the sublime is implicated directly or indirectly in either of the two artistic scenarios. My personal opinion is that the manifestation of the sublime is more evident in the European art scene. Europe has a richer historical and cultural heritage. After all these centuries, philosophy, science and literature still accompany and support the world of art. The sacred, the metaphysical, the mythical and the alchemical help to configure an art characterised by a strong poetics that exalts the human existence and the power of nature. It is a poetics imbued with tragedy, contemplation and memory. On the other hand, American art is relatively younger in age and tradition and lives on its own modus viventi, that is, on the evidence of its own means and instruments. Whereas the European culture subjects itself to a continuous introspection, the American culture is more likely to face problems according to their specific and immediate urgency.
The American artists confront the world of art by experimenting with new and unconventional mediums; they tend to solve the conflicts and the incongruity of their own work by relying on the quality of presentation. Moreover, their confidence in their own linguistic instruments is a guarantee of a product that is well studied and devised. The sublime is consecrated by Andy Warhol (1928-1987), who catalogues systematically the data of the American reality with his own cold and detached presence. The key concept behind his work is the module – the infinitesimal representation of a geometric infinite. It is a conception of the infinite that derives from the urban extension of the megapolis. In the same way as the module transforms itself into a multiple, the individual transforms himself into a human-mass created by a productive system that proclaims a stereotyped existence. The sublime manifests itself, in American art, as a celebration of the inexpressive and the cancellation of psychological connotations and individual affirmations.
Moreover, one also needs to take into consideration the impact of the culture of consumption. American art, which is strongly characterised by the notions of consumption and consumerism, opposes itself to the ideas of uniqueness or unique products. It affirms systematic repetition and standardised mechanisms that annihilate all types of anxieties. In this stereotyped world, quality becomes synonymous with quantity, whereas the values of ‘aura’, uniqueness and non-reproducibility - that usually characterise a work of art - are contested. In Europe, where the art market is less aggressive and invasive, the situation is different. Whereas the American artist tends to specialise in his specific work to guarantee himself quality and recognition, the European artist is more likely to question the specialisation of his activity; the latter understands the importance of working with an experimental approach, but also tends to propose himself as the conscience of his own production and of the making of history.
The sublime that manifests itself in European art is laden with history and pathos; the metaphors of the absolute, the ineffable and the unspeakable reveal themselves through the powers of the myth, the metaphysical and the sacred. The American idea of sublime, on the other hand, is the actual one of the hic et nunc, of the here and now, as Barnett Newman declares it. It is a kind of sublime that configures in the urgencies of everyday life. It is about the accumulation of facts, news and circumstances that are collected as forms of art. The contemporary sublime, therefore, presents itself in two different ways. The threshold that separates the sublime expressions from the common formalisms and decorations is a subtle one. Talking about the sublime nowadays is not so simple, even though the term is often used in the field of aesthetics. Forms of art which deserve to be recognised as sublime require strong values and principles. The sublime is synonymous with a sound ethical disposition; it necessitates a dignified presentation devoid of any vulgar or indecent theatricality; it requires a noble and rigorous language; it requires pathos and sentiment, but not sentimentalism; it requires a degree of essentiality that excludes any rhetoric, artifices, inclusion of effects, ornaments or decorations.
The sublime is extra-linguistic. It reveals itself when the specific language being used ceases to function; in spite of this, the experience of the sublime cannot take place without the exercise of a specific language (M. Costa; 1998: 35). The sublime manifests itself when the importance shifts from the significant contents of the language to the pure happening of the linguistic form. Every representation reveals itself inadequate due to the incommensurability between object and word/image. One needs, however, to comprehend that the sentiment of the sublime is not related to the insufficiency or inadequacy posed by the specific language, but to the irreparable ethical perception of its limits. It is one of those forms by which the nothingness proclaimed by the language reveals itself as its indescribable foundation.
Accademia di Belle Arti,
A. Bonito Oliva, L’arte moderna: l’arte fino al 2000, Sansoni Editore, Firenze, 1991
E. Burke, Ricerca sull’origine delle idée del sublime e del bello (1756), a cura di A. Baratono, Alessandro Minuziano Editore, Milano, 1945.
M. Costa, Il Sublime Tecnologico, Castelvecchi, Roma, 1998
I. Kant, Critica del Giudizio, Laterza, Bari, 1970.