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Debates in Art History (part 1): THE SUBLIME

Definitions of the term ‘sublime’ has undergone a multitude of fluctuations and scholarly influences since the Greek work Perì hýpsous, attributed to Cassius Longinus sometime in the 1st-3rd century AD.

Through the study of the origins, meanings and various uses of the term sublime since Longinus, it is thought that its contemporary interpretation, in relation to the arts, has been the result of an interdisciplinary and cross-border treatment of the ancient treatise by several scholars throughout its dissemination in Europe (Martin, 78). At Leiden University for example, the sublime is researched in terms of Longinus’ treatise, its dissemination and consequent reformulation and application across various contexts. Originally a rhetorical concept applied to literature and theatre, the essence of this relationship between the reader or viewer and the work has taken on a modernist definition. As elucidated by art historian Bram van Oostveldt, the sublime encompasses the overwhelming and transporting effect an object, work of art or shocking acts might incur upon its beholder.

The notion of the sublime has been utilized across sociopolitical spheres, particularly in the legitimization of political and monarchical power, epitomized in Louis XIV’s construction of Versailles in the 1600s. Following a long line of scholarly interpretation, from Longinus to Boileau, to Immanuel Kant (1) and Edmund Burke (2), the dynamic concept is entering another phase, in its application to developing technologies. Expressed through the new media artworks of artists such as Ryoji Ikeda and Anna Dimitru, an increasing number of scholars and artists are tackling the transformative essence of technology in relation to the sublime (Fedorova, 2012).

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Olafur Eliasson, The Weather Project (2003), Tate Turbine Hall. An example of the contemporary sublime.

The endeavor to understand multifarious influences hold a great deal of value in terms of uncovering the various interdisciplinary and cross-cultural mechanisms that attributed to the concept as we think of it today, and what it means in relation to the perception of artworks. As valuable as this in-depth focus on the hermeneutics of the word is, the many permutations of the term seems to be the result of an intangibility that renders the term susceptible to continuously diverse interpretation. Sublimity appears to me to encompass the unrepresentable, and so the study of its origins and trajectory function as a roadmap of cultural and scholarly inferences rather than as a search for what the sublime definition was, is, should or will be. What I take from this is that the notion of the extraordinary affect that certain objects, artworks or events have upon those that experience it can be and has been utilized effectively in the expression of and influence on societal power, politics and perception.

(1). Kant relayed the term to the noble, splendid and terrifying in ‘Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime’, which was published in 1960.

(2.) Burke argued that the sublime and the beautiful were mutually exclusive in ‘A philosophical enquiry into the sublime and beautiful’, which was published in 1998.

This is the first part of a series entitled ‘Debates in Art History’ – researched as part of my Master degree.
Fedorova, K. (2012). New Media Art and the Technological Sublime. Acta Academiae Artium Vilnensis, (67).
Kant, I., & Goldthwait, J. T. (1960). Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime. Univ of California Press.
Martin, É. M. (2012). The “Prehistory” of the Sublime in Early Modern France: An Interdisciplinary Perspective. The Sublime: From Antiquity to the Present, 77-101.

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