The Changing Definitions of ‘The Sublime’ in Artistic Practice
This critical review aims to investigate the changing definitions of The Sublime and how these have influenced artistic practice. This review barely scratches the surface of the sublime and mentions only a handful of people involved in a truly massive and ongoing debate about the sublime, what it is and what it means.
The Original Definition of The Sublime
What is ‘the sublime’? This is an age-old question that philosophers have been debating for eons. One of the earliest references discussing the sublime, written sometime in the first century, is accredited to Longinus. Longinus believes that works, such as the epics of Homer; the lyrics of Sappho and Pindar; and the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophoclea (when read or orated by a suitable orator) are sublime because of their ability to transport the reader/listener out of himself and ‘confound our judgment and eclipse that which is merely reasonable or agreeable’ (Longinus, 2006: section I) – sublime texts have the ability to sway every reader whether they wish to be swayed or not.
It is natural to us to feel our souls lifted up by the true Sublime […]. If then any work, on being repeatedly submitted to the judgment of an acute and cultivated critic, fails to dispose his mind to lofty ideas; if the thoughts which it suggests do not extend beyond what is actually expressed; and if, the longer you read it, the less you think of it,—there can be here no true sublimity […] (Longinus, 2006: section VII).
Longinus stated that there were five sources of sublimity, namely, grandeur of thought; vigorous and spirited treatment of the passions; a certain artifice in the employment of figures [of speech]; dignified expression and finally, majesty and elevation of structure. Longinus references numerous pieces of work, stressing the emotional language used and the contrasting and conflicting situations narrated by the authors, for example:
The Iliad by Homer – ‘Consider how Homer gives dignity to his divine persons – he measures their speed by the extent of the whole world – a grand comparison, which might reasonably lead us to remark that if the divine steeds were to take two such leaps in succession, they would find no room in the world for another. (Longinus, 2006: section IX)
“A trumpet sound
Rang through the air, and shook the Olympian height;
Then terror seized the monarch of the dead,
And springing from his throne he cried aloud
With fearful voice, lest the earth, rent asunder
By Neptune’s mighty arm, forthwith reveal
To mortal and immortal eyes those halls
So drear and dank, which e’en the gods abhor.”
The songs of Sappho – ‘But her peculiar excellence lies in the felicity with which she chooses and unites together the most striking and powerful features. Is it not wonderful how at the same moment soul, body, ears, tongue, eyes, colour, all fail her, and are lost to her as completely as if they were not her own?’ (Longinus, 2006: section X)
“This, this it is that made my heart
So wildly flutter in my breast;
Whene’er I look on thee, my voice
Falters, and faints, and fails;
My tongue’s benumbed; a subtle fire
Through all my body inly steals;
Mine eyes in darkness reel and swim;
Strange murmurs drown my ears;
With dewy damps my limbs are chilled;
An icy shiver shakes my frame;
Paler than ashes grows my cheek;
And Death seems nigh at hand.”
Essentially these works demonstrate the authors’ ability to completely immerse themselves and therefore their audience in the thick of the story, thus transporting them – therein ‘lies the force of the oratorical image, […] it does not merely convince the hearer, but enthrals him’ (Longinus, 2006: section XV).
Stretching the Definition of The Sublime in the 18th Century
It is unsurprising that the definition of the sublime has been stretched over the intervening years; bearing in mind Longinus only applied sublime qualities to the written word rather than other visual arts. What is surprising is there appears to have been little discussion about the sublime until some seventeen hundred years later when writers and philosophers such as Dennis, Addison, Burke and Kant et al began expanding the definition.
The initial extension was provided by John Dennis and is possibly as much ‘extension’ as it is a discrete list of ‘things – elements and objects’ that could be considered sublime; here we ‘see novel supernatural forces and events placed alongside natural phenomena such as animals and natural disasters’ (Dennis 1704, cited in Brady, 2013:14). Dennis also used sublime to describe his mixed emotions – ‘a delightful horror, a terrible joy, and at the same time, that I was infinitely pleased, I trembled’ (Brady, 2013:14) – in relation to the landscape whilst travelling though the Alps. This clashing of emotions became a common theme in the definition of the sublime:
- Joseph Addison described the notion of the sublime as something that ‘fills the mind with an agreeable kind of horror’ (Morley 2010).
- Edmund Burke commented that ‘terror’, which is the heart of the sublime, is passion which ‘always produces delight when it does not press to close’ (Burke, 1998:21).
- Immanuel Kant when discussing pleasure and pain, approached the subject from a slightly different angle, but on the whole agreed with the argument stating that ‘realities […] can certainly be in opposition with each other, and united in the same subject […] like two moving forces in the same straight line that push or pull a point in opposed directions’ (Kant, 1998:382).
Joseph Addison was clear in has distinction between the great, the novel and the beautiful; delight in each bringing different pleasures to the individual. The great pertaining to God and the natural world; the novel referring to creation – the good, the distasteful and the unfathomable; and finally the beautiful, that that makes the first two manageable – ‘gay and agreeable’ (Hipple, 1957:20) – by adding an acceptable veneer.
Addison whilst comfortable when applying the word sublime to others – Milton’s sublime genius, imagination and manner of thinking – he did not actually use the word sublime when discussing ‘his’ sublime experience; rather he opted for alternative terms like ‘great, noble, majestic, magnificent and marvellous’ (Hipple, 1957:16) to convey his theory. First to develop a theory on the aesthetics of taste, referring to an appreciation of external objects and pleasures of the imagination; Addison defined the primary pleasures as entirely visual and the secondary pleasures as those that come from our imagination of those visual objects (in-other-words our memories of those objects). Addison stated
‘by greatness, I do not only mean the bulk of any single object, but the largeness of a whole view, considered as one entire piece. Such are the prospects of an open campaign country, a vast uncultivated desert, of huge heaps of mountains, high rocks and precipices, or a wide expanse of waters, where we are not struck with the novelty or beauty of the sight, but with that rude kind of magnificence which appears in many of these stupendous works of nature’ (Hipple, 1957:17).
Vast size was an integral requirement of this theory, with Addison believing that the imagination railed against any perceived boundaries or limitations, thus preventing the realisation of these sensations. Addison never specifically discussed art or works of art, but in seems reasonable to assign these external objects to primary pleasures.
John Baillie, used the term sublime and concurred entirely with Addison regarding size, believing that only large objects were capable of ‘filing the mind [so] that the soul itself becomes […] one simple grand sensation’ (Baillie, 1747: section IV), effectively the senses are overwhelmed to the exclusion of all else. However, Baillie also believed that uncommonness played a significant part in enabling the sublime experience; simply put, if an object becomes commonplace the sublime experience is lost because of developing knowledge and understanding. ‘Admiration, a passion always attending the sublime, arises from uncommonness, and constantly decays as the object becomes more and more familiar’ (Baillie, 1747: section II).
Baillie specifically questioned the limited application of sublime qualities, as per Longinus, and asked why they should not be applied across all of the arts.
‘Is there not a sublime in painting, in music, in architecture, but above all, in virtue?’ (Baillie, 1747: section III). […] ‘The sublime of painting consists mostly in finely representing the sublime of the passions […]. Landscape painting may likewise partake of the sublime; such as representing mountains, which shows how little objects by an apt connection may affect us with this passion: for the space of a yard of canvas, by only representing the figure and colour of a mountain, shall fill the mind with nearly as great an idea as the mountain itself’ (Baillie, 1747: section V).
Alexander Gerard pushed further against the traditional view of the sublime
‘[…] the fine arts provide the most numerous examples of grandeur produced by association. In all of them, the sublime is attained, chiefly by the artist’s exciting ideas of sublime objects; […] owing to our being led by the exactness of the imitation to form ideas and conceive images of sublime originals’ (Gerard, 1672:22).
Imparting sublimity or conferring grandeur, to objects lacking in such, is key to Gerard’s view; but is only possible by ‘individuals of a superior species’ (Gerard, 1672:29). In this regard, Gerard does agree with Longinus that the elevated mind of the ‘observer’ must be capable of and receptive to these ideas. At the same time he is at pains to clarify that it is equally as easy to confer ‘meanness’ (the opposite of sublimity) ‘when low or grovelling ideas are suggested, when images and similes, taken from mean objects, are applied to an important subject. […] used only by those of an inferior rank’ (Gerard, 1672:30).
Gerard believed that painting – using the correct techniques – could create a sublime reaction, albeit less intense, because it triggered the same (remembered) emotions as the real object. Following the same argument, Gerard also challenged the concept of size, ‘the canvas which captures sublime objects, and so gives rise to sublime experiences through association, need not be itself large’ (Brady, 2013:21).
With Gerard we see the first attempt at detailing how music achieves sublimity which is ‘derived in part from the length and the gravity of the notes; the former constituting a kind of amplitude to the ear; the latter contributing to that composure and sedate expansion of the mind’ (Brady, 2013:21).
Edmund Burke, probably one of the best know authors on the sublime with his ‘philosophical enquiry in 1757’, is included for completeness rather than because of any real addition his writings make to the definition of the sublime on artistic practice.
Burke’s theory follows on from the authors we have reviewed; however, he is very precise in his distinction between the beautiful and the sublime.
‘[…] sublime objects are vast in their dimensions; beautiful ones comparatively small; beauty should be smooth and polished; the great, rugged and negligent; […] beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and gloomy; beauty should be light and delicate; the great ought to be solid and even massive’ (Burke, 1998:113).
By way of introduction to his theory he discusses ‘taste’ and then without specifically defining good-taste versus bad-taste, he settles upon a pragmatic stance stating that
‘as taste belongs to the imagination, its principle is the same in all men; […]. The cause of a wrong taste is a defect of judgment and this may arise from a natural weakness of understanding […]. A rectitude of judgment in the arts, which may be called a good taste, does in a great measure depend upon sensibility; because if the mind has no bent to the pleasures of the imagination, it will never apply itself sufficiently to works of that species to acquire a competent knowledge in them’ (Burke, 1998:20).
To summarise, you have good taste if you generally agree with what is considered to be socially acceptable at the time. This commonality of taste is fundamental to Burke’s view of the sublime in that ‘terror’ and ‘terrible objects’ instil in the observer the basic concept of self-preservation. Supporting Baillie’s view on the role of passion, Burke further aligns specific passions with the sublime which ‘[…] turn mostly on pain or danger – the ideas of pain, sickness and death – fill the mind with strong emotions of horror; […] and they are the most powerful of all the passions’ (Burke, 1998:36).
Burke glances over the arts generally, stating
‘[…] that poetry, painting, and other affecting arts, transfuse their passions from one breast to another, and are often capable of grafting a delight on wretchedness, misery, and death itself. It is a common observation, that objects which in the reality would shock, are in tragical, and such like representations, the source of a very high species of pleasure. […] I am afraid it is a practice much too common in inquiries of this nature, to attribute the cause of feelings which merely arise from the mechanical structure of our bodies, or from the natural frame and constitution of our minds, to certain conclusions of the reasoning faculty on the objects presented to us; for I should imagine, that the influence of reason in producing our passions is nothing near so extensive as it is commonly believed’ (Burke, 1998:41).
The final reference in this section is Immanuel Kant, Kant also contrasted the beautiful and the sublime, but with some principle differences, ‘as true beauty is found, properly speaking, only in beauty of form, the idea of sublimity is excited rather by those objects which are formless and exhibit a violation of purpose’ (Kant, 1941:16). In addition, Kant’s theory radically shifted the concept of the sublime from the external to the internal
‘if the pleasure taken in beauty arises from a feeling of the purposiveness of the object in its relation to the subject, that in sublimity rather expresses a purposiveness of the subject in respect of the object. Nothing in nature is sublime; and the sublimity really resides in the mind and there alone’ (Kant, 1941:16).
Thus everything has the capability to deliver the sublime experience, dependent upon the individuals’ knowledge (or lack thereof) or by association.
The 18th Century into the 21st Century
To summarise, the theorists generally agree that a sublime experience exists and that it is most commonly related to vastness and the perceived limitlessness of the natural world – or God. The efficacy of this sublime experience requires an appreciation or minimum basic knowledge relating to the situation, but at the same time a lack of familiarity. Addisons’ sublime, that ‘agreeable kind of horror’, is readily available in the 21st century because vicarious horror is at our finger tips; be that in the form of horror movies; individual or interactive game play and unfortunately the 24/7 streaming of the latest global news on terrorism.
Regardless of significant debate, a concrete and specific definition of the sublime remains elusive, so naturally theories are divided as to whether the arts can generate the necessary passions to deliver the experience. Baillie and Gerard included music as a sublime art; Longinus described the deepest and most profound sublime experience as a ‘soul lifting’ sublime that transports the individual, enabling them to briefly grasp something that ‘eclipses’ understanding. Paraphrasing James Judd (Music Director of the Israel Symphony), I believe that the ‘soul lifting’ experience, whilst rare, can most easily be accessed through music (Helix Centre, 2015). Since taste in music tends to be much more eclectic and listening choice is driven by mood, a number of different scenarios could facilitate the sublime experience.
The 18th century philosophers agree that, on balance of probability, a skilled individual – writer, orator, painter, musician or architect – could produce ‘art’ that creates a type of sublime experience. At the same time, Burke et al, were clear about the distinction between beauty and the sublime, in my opinion that destination no longer exists today. The sublime can be beautiful, often making the situation even more sublime; Edward Burtynskys’ graphic portfolio on the destructive impact of the oil industry across the globe is testament to this (Burtynsky, 2014).
The Sublime in the 21st Century
From Longinus to Dennis et al there was a 1,700 year gap where little was heard of the sublime. From Dennis et al until now, it has only taken circa 250 years for the sublime to get back on the agenda and it did so with style. In 2008, The Tate began the creation of an installation entitled ‘The Sublime Object: Nature, Art and Language; this pulled together some 40 works of art and presented them, united in a single gallery as ‘one decorative scheme’ (Riding, 2012). The sublime has its own rhetoric, the most commonly repeated words being ‘infinity and enormity’ (Riding, 2012), so naturally there were some enormous paintings included, for example, Gordale Scar by James Ward.
Figure 1: Gordale Scar (1812 – 14) by James Ward
Riding states ‘On the other hand we have William Blakes’ Ghost of a Flea, which is a tiny painting, it’s like a miniature. When you go from standing back and looking at something enormous and then you focus in on something really tiny; I think that too has a kind of sublimity about it because you having to really narrow down and think about what you’re looking at. […] The object itself may be small but the vision behind it is enormous.’ (Riding, 2012).
Figure 2: Ghost of a Flea (1819 – 20) by William Blake
Whilst not conventionally sublime, the exhibition included a commissioned text installation entitled ‘Pretty much every word written spoken or heard…’ (2010) by Douglas Gordon. The text was fragmented into phrases and printed – forward and backwards – directly onto the gallery walls, ceiling and floor. Whilst the same font was utilised throughout, various sizes were employed and this required the viewer to physically move around the gallery space to engage directly with the art.
Figure 3. Screen shots from ‘Art and the Sublime’ film (2012) by Christine Riding showing sections of
Pretty much every word written spoken or heard… (2010) by Douglas Gordon
A gallery visitor was asked her opinion of the exhibition. Her overall response was awe; she was intimidated by the avalanche (An Avalanche in the Alps (1803) by Philip James De Loutherbourg) and the water (The Deluge (c. 1840) by Francis Danby) believing the force of nature was going to overwhelm her. Re Gordons’ work, she was aware of the background music and linked the size of the text to its volume. She also felt the artist was attempting to control the pace of the viewing by reversing some of the text. She like and engaged with the work, but did not use sublime words to describe it. However, when she then returned to look at the paintings she became much more aware of the potential sound – noise of the water and the eruption of the volcano. Interestingly Gordons’ work worked on/in the visitors’ imagination and added a further dimension to the already sublime works of art. Perhaps the future sublime will require mixed media.
Julian Bell stated that a significant contributory factor in artists delivering the sublime experience was ‘showmanship’ (Bell, 2013). By example, let us reflect on installations by Eliasson, Kapoor and Turrell, it is obvious that these contemporary artists (sublime artists) consider big is best. Most interestingly, when these authors reflect on their works, they require their installations to have real presence and to engage with the audience:
Eliasson commented: ‘connectivity plays an important part in the work, so it’s very powerful when you can successfully combine a singularity (the installation) with collectivity (the audience), it’s about sharpening your expectations.’ (Eliasson, 2011)
Kapoor commented: ‘sometimes one makes works that take you to places you don’t expect to go, and I think that one has to have the courage to go there fully and truly’.’ (Kapoor, 2009)
Turrell commented: ‘I create work that luxuriates in space, spaces that apprehend light for our perception; the world is not one we receive but one we create, we are co-creators of our environment.’ (Turrell, 2013)
Figure 4. Screen shot from slide show of The Weather Project (2003) by Olafur Eliasson.
Figure 5. Screen shot from slide show of Svayambh (2007) by Anish Kapoor.
Figure 6. Screen shot of Amrta (2011) by James Turrell.
These artists are creating awe inspiring work, but their desired effect is no longer fear – it is not awful in the original sense of the word – their intension is to challenge what we know and how we behave by immersion in an uncommon environment, with strangers who are also negotiating this same new experience. The Oxford dictionary gives a definition for chemical sublimation as a ‘change directly into vapour when heated, typically forming a solid deposit again on cooling’ (Oxford, 2016), I wonder whether this does not effectively describe what these artists are attempting, taking the individual to a new state (of mind)?
The artistic sublime has taken an incredible journey over the last two thousand years, from epic literature and gigantic paintings that detail the exploits of the supernatural – gods and demons, good and bad – that were designed to awe and terrify us; to modern art installations that engage, amaze and occasionally revolt us whilst challenging our pre-conceived ideas of our environment.
I believe we are no longer creating art in an attempt to capture the somewhat elusive sublime experience; rather we are pushing at established boundaries and utilising available technologies to communicate our vision and fulfil our ambitions. Instead of art chasing the sublime, the sublime is adapting to remain current with art.
The sublime is a feeling, we are trying to describe a feeling and feelings need to be experienced first-hand. This is further complicated by the rather grand history and somewhat elitist nature of the concept. Add to this the natural evolution of terminology and word usage against a sketchy base definition and it’s hardly surprising understanding the sublime experience is a challenge.
I expect the future sublime to be realised by engaging multiple senses, audio and visual stimulation will not be enough; a greater degree of emersion will be required, involving taste, smell and touch. I think we have just scratched the surface of understanding about our planet and the universe and it seems a fitting next step to actually be there at its birth.
Total word count: 4,221 (text – 2,267; references – 1,490; bibliography and image list – 464)
Baillie, J. (1747) An Essay on the Sublime. Publisher unknown.
Bell, J. (2013) ‘Contemporary Art and the Sublime’, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, A Tate Research Publication in Tate.org.uk.
Brady E (2013) The Sublime in Modern Philosophy Aesthetics, Ethics and Nature. New York, Cambridge University Press
Burke, E. (1998) A Philosophical Enquiry. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Burtynsky, E. (2014) Oil. Third Edition. Gottingen, Steidl.
Eliasson, O. (2011) Interview about the Weather Project installation in the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern in Tate.org.uk
Gerard, A. (1672) An Essay on Taste. London: Printed for A. Millar, A. Kincaid and J. Bell
Helix Center. (2015) The Sublime Experience in YouTube.com
Hipple Jr, W. J. (1957) The Beautiful, The Sublime and The Picturesque in 18th Century British Aesthetic Theory. Carbondale: The Southern Illinois University Press Library.
Kant, I. (1914) The Critique of Judgement. Translated by Bernard, J. H. London: Macmillan and Co Ltd.
Kant, I. (1998) Critique of Pure Reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Kapoor, A. (2009) Interview about the Svayambh installation at the Royal Academy of Arts.
Longinus (2006) On the sublime. Translated by Havell, H. L. The Project Gutenberg E-book
Morley, S. (2010) Staring into the Contemporary Abys in Tate.org.uk
Oxford dictionary, (2016) Sublime definition. Oxford University Press at Ocxforddictinaries.com
Riding, C. (2012) Art and the Sublime (film) in Tate.org.uk
Riding, C. and Llewellyn, N. (2013) British Art and the Sublime. A Tate Research Publication in Tate.org.uk
Figure 1. Ward, J. Gordale Scar (1812 – 14) (A View of Gordale, in the Manor of East Malham in Craven, Yorkshire, the Property of Lord Ribblesdale) [Painting: Oil paint on canvas.] Exhibited at Tate, The Sublime Object: Nature, Art and Language Exhibition, 2010. Support: 3327 x 4216 mm
Figure 2. Blake, W. Ghost of a Flea (1819 – 20) [Painting: Tempera and gold on mahogany.] Exhibited at Tate, The Sublime Object: Nature, Art and Language Exhibition, 2010. Support: 214 x 162 mm; frame: 382 x 324 x 50 mm
Figure 3. Riding, C.(2012) ‘Art and the Sublime’ film screen shots showing Gordon, D. (2010) Pretty much every word written spoken or heard… Text art installation, exhibited at Tate, The Sublime Object: Nature, Art and Language Exhibition, 2010.
Figure 4. Eliasson, O. (2003) The Weather Project (2003) [Photograph by Andrew Dunkley and Marcus Lieth (2003)] Exhibited at Tate Modern, The Weather Project Exhibition, 2003.
Figure 5. Kapoor, A. (2007) Svayambh. [Photograph by unknown.] Exhibited at Royal Academy of Arts 2007. 40 tonnes of red wax. Dimensions variable.
Figure 6. Terrell, J. Amrta (2011) Screen shot from Terrells’ website, part of the Grazfelds collection.