The Aesthetic Category of ‘Sublime’
Since my approach on art is heavily influenced by the aesthetic category of ‘sublime’, I’m posting a short article that will hopefully help others to become familiarised with this concept and expand their creativity.
Known since the 1st century AD, the term ‘sublime’ was rediscovered in the 16th century and became a familiar subject in British and German philosophy. It signifies an aesthetic emotion of awe when confronted with greatness beyond comprehension, and was first used to describe natural landscapes. However, the somewhat vague meaning of the word changed in time and became more inclusive. In this article, after a brief history, I will analyse the term in relation to our perception of vintage objects and the ways in which technology influences this perception.
In Edmund Burke’s view (18th century), sublime and beauty are mutually exclusive, although both can produce pleasure: “Beauty may be accentuated by light, but either intense light or darkness (the absence of light) is sublime to the degree that it can obliterate the sight of an object. The imagination is moved to awe and instilled with a degree of horror by what is “dark, uncertain, and confused.” (Burke). It is worth noticing that the term ‘sublime’ was quite often used to describe terrifying experiences. In Kant’s view, there are three kinds of sublime: the noble, the splendid and the terrifying (SubPhil). Schopenhauer goes even further by dividing sublime in five categories:
“Weakest Feeling of Sublime: Light reflected off stones. (Pleasure from beholding objects that pose no threat, yet themselves are devoid of life).
Weaker Feeling of Sublime – Endless desert with no movement. (Pleasure from seeing objects that could not sustain the life of the observer).
Sublime – Turbulent Nature. (Pleasure from perceiving objects that threaten to hurt or destroy observer).
Full Feeling of Sublime – Overpowering turbulent Nature. (Pleasure from beholding very violent, destructive objects).
Fullest Feeling of Sublime – Immensity of Universe’s extent or duration. (Pleasure from knowledge of observer’s nothingness and oneness with Nature).”(Schopenhauer).
Since the 18th century, the term ‘sublime’ was used not only to describe nature, but also artificial structures and landscape. In Hegel’s view, the excessive detail in Chinese art or the overwhelming decorations in Islamic mosques should be considered ‘sublime’. “The disembodiment and formlesness of these art forms inspired the viewer with an overwhelming sense of awe” (SubPhil). Walter Benjamin experienced feelings of sublime while contemplating historical cities (Boyer), while others like Ruskin, Piranesi or Speer experienced the sublime when contemplating ancient ruins.
Historical Sublime. In relation to the ‘vintage object’, nostalgic persons might experience this sense of awe; the vintage object is perceived as a ‘time capsule’, a relic which used to be part of the common environment in the past, but now is completely alien, belonging to a different space-time (Augustin). The nostalgia of a past era, the ‘otherness’ of the vintage object or the mere acknowledgement of its great age might overwhelm the beholder and evoke his own insignificance compared to the greatness of the past. The relic’s scale might vary from an old deserted house to a cathedral or an entire historical city. You sense a strong feeling of sublime while visiting Bruges. Due to the city’s decline after 1500, it remained almost unchanged until today – making it a ‘time capsule’ of the Medieval Age.
Technological Historical Sublime. In Mario Costa’s view, in the 21st century the concept of ‘sublime’ has become linked to digital technologies and the new technological productions: “new media art, computer-based generative art, networking, telecommunication art” (Subphil). These might be seen, of course, as tools of progress, contributing to a glorious future or, on the contrary, as useful tools for investigating the past in creative ways and bringing it to life. You get a much stronger feeling of sublime when contemplating an ancient environment digitally restored to its former glory then when seeing a relic in a museum. While playing “Rome Total War” you can literally feel the mix of fear and patriotism of the Roman soldiers fighting a horde of barbarians. The more immersive the production, the fuller the sublime (on Scopenhauer’s scale).
In the context of new media, virtual simulation of the past transcended its mere imitation; it also created a new approach on history – ‘reflective nostalgia’ (Boym).
In this approach, the goal of the designer is not necessarily historical accuracy, but the production of an immersive world that would evoke a different ‘space-time’, a deja vu from history. The ‘alternate history’ approach produced genres such as Steampunk, Cyberpunk, Arcanepunk, Gothicpunk, Post-apocalyptic dystopia. Most of these genres deliberately mix the culture of a past age with the present culture; some speculate on futuristic developments of our world, some are based on ancient myths, while others imagine completely parallel worlds. The goal is to create an environment characterized by ‘sublime’ and ‘oherness’ – an alternative to the boring world of the present. These environments are so vast and immersive, their architecture and characters are designed to such a degree of detail, that the beholder is confronted with greatness beyond comprehension. It feels like nothing he has ever seen. Vastness, complexity and lack of familiarity become the main ingredients in the products of ‘historical sublime’.
Augustin, “Spatiul sacru”
Boyer, “The City of Collective Memory”
Boym, “Nostalgia and its Discontents” – http://www.iasc-culture.org/eNews/2007_10/9.2CBoym.pdf
Burke, “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful”, Part I, Section VII
Schopenhauer, “The World as Will and Representation”, p39