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Sublime Sublimity
di Marcella Tarozzi

"Beauty is no more," so wrote Paul Valéry, who can be considered the founder of modern aesthetics.  This statement signals the beginning of a new era in art.  Valéry was aware that the concept and the experience of beauty had lost their significance for the artist, so that now one must consider whether the idea of beauty has been replaced by some other aesthetic ideal.  What Valéry meant by "beauty" and what is commonly understood by it can be clarified by taking into account the views of two philosophers of the nineteenth century, a period that saw the apogee of the concept of beauty.  Most significant in this regard are the views of Schelling and Hegel, the major representatives of aesthetic theories that sanctified the ideal of beauty.  

Schelling defines beauty as "the absolute intuited in reality,"[i][i] by which he meant that beauty is limit and is particular as contrasted to the absolute totality.  Implicit in this definition is the understanding that beauty, by setting a limit to the absolute, has the consolatory task of lessening the frightening feelings raised by the idea of the absolute.  This is beauty's function, moreover beauty is the result of the prevailing of the finite as contrasted to the infinite, a concept so central to the romantic sensibility that all idealistic philosophy can be understood in those terms.  The infinite is given, not empirically, but in thought; what we can experience in reality are its images.  More specifically, beauty mediates between infinite and finite and it is above all unity and proportion.  It is not surprising, then, that Schelling assigned to beauty the task of bringing to the empirical world a semblance of what the Idea is.  This implies that in beauty there is something immaterial.  Although it remains a concept tied to the finite, it is an in-between concept that confirms that art is intrinsically connected to philosophy.  

Schelling thought that the philosopher is better prepared to understand art than are the artists themselves, and this is because philosophy examines ideas, and ideas are indispensable to make anything intelligible.  Such an antiempirical position makes art at the service of intuition.  Beauty, in fact, is intuited, it is eternal, real, and objective, as distinguished from the ideality of philosophy.  Yet, philosophy and art are not enemies; on the contrary, a close alliance unites them, and what unites them is the "reality" of the absolute whose archetypes, truth and beauty, are only two different ways of relating to the whole.[ii][ii]

We are not confronted here with a phenomenological or empiricist view of beauty.  Schelling gives us a conceptual definition of beauty, and this is why he called his ideas on art a philosophy of art and not an aesthetics.  In fact, terminological precision requires that the word "aesthetics" be limited to a way of looking at art that emphasizes sensations and sensibility, although Hegel's lectures were given the title "Aesthetics" even though they do not present a phenomenological approach to art.  In addition, theories of art can be divided into two categories: the first retains the idea of beauty, the other does not.  A further consideration distinguishes between a theory of art receptive to the idea of the sublime and one that is not.  A complete aesthetic theory, of course, should examine the relevance of both beauty and the sublime, although I maintain that the idea of beauty has been replaced by the idea of the sublime as the utmost concept that assures art's continuous existence.

Before entering into this discussion, I will consider Hegel's views on beauty since they clarify the question of whether the difference between beauty and the sublime is to be conceived categorically, that is, dualistically.  

Hegel's monumental aesthetics teaches us that, while developing a systematic science of art, it is necessary to identify the concept of beauty, which is defined as "a specific way of expressing and representing the true."[iii][iii]  Hegel thought of the connection of beauty and truth as a way to arrive at a philosophical understanding of art, whereby art expresses the true in a sensuous manner, with sensuous means.  However, art's significance is spiritual, and so is beauty, to the extent to which it is meaningful.  This inner dimension is then connected to the external dimension, to appearance, an element art cannot forgo.  

It is not necessary now to discuss Hegel's detailed philosophical views in relation to art.  It is sufficient to point out that for him beauty is united to the concept intrinsically, that is, it displays the freedom and the infinite dimension of the philosophical concept[iv][iv] in a manner that makes the connection of beauty and externality possible.  From the subjective point of view, the beautiful object is admired in a disinterested fashion, but beauty's meaning and essence consist in its relating to the freedom of the concept, which means that beauty has both a universal and a specific dimension.  Beauty is a human phenomenon, or, as Hegel preferred to say, a spiritual phenomenon.  As such it produces in us a sense of serenity, exemplified, for instance, in the paintings by Raphael.  

Hegel's views on art are typical of an era during which it was still possible to equate beauty and art unproblematically.  Since then, human sensibility has changed to the point that the minimum requirement for art now seems to be the idea of the sublime.  And this idea requires a leap.  But before considering the notion of the sublime, and before giving an explanation of why the idea of the sublime has replaced beauty, it is important to explore further the notion of beauty itself in order to understand its full significance for art.  This will help to clarify why this concept has been the object of a persistent critique by the avant-garde movements of the twentieth century.

To start with, the concept of beauty is for Hegel the guarantee that we are in the presence of art; but even classical beauty, in due time, will be sublated by pure thinking, that is, by philosophy.  The superiority of thinking over sensuous expression, even if beautiful, is the consequence of a theory that considers the inner dimension of spirit superior to the outer dimension of being.  In other words, beauty becomes something superfluous, something frivolous, as Derrida would say.  Such a conclusion is the result of Hegel's systematic approach to art, which differentiates three art forms: the symbolic, the classical, and the romantic.  We see the result of this approach when Hegel speaks of the famous (or infamous) end of art theme which is connected to the disappearance of beauty in the context of romantic art.  Gone are the serenity, the tranquility, and the contemplation that made art beautiful; what remains are contingency and irony, an externality that has forgotten the Ideal.[v][v]

The only possible conclusion we can draw from Hegel's theory is that art gives us a truth that can be considered superfluous, a truth that easily falls prey to contingency and externality.  Hegel's aesthetics inaugurates, and is, an aesthetics of negativity, whereby the beautiful "stands alone in dangerous proximity to nothingness."[vi][vi]

A completely different conclusion concerning art's destiny is the one put forth by Schelling.  Schelling also saw in beauty something finite but, contrary to Hegel, he was hoping for a new mythology that would provide art with new content and thus save it from oblivion.  And since there is a salvific element in art and beauty, one cannot deny their permanent philosophical significance.

Yet, beauty has been supplanted by irony and by the awareness that history has moved forward, thanks to modernism and postmodernism.  Neither of these artistic movements has privileged beauty.  Valéry declared: "Novelty, intensity, strangeness, in a word all the shock values have supplanted [the idea of beauty]."[vii][vii]  An example of what Valéry meant is Guernica by Picasso.  This painting can serve to indicate a transition of great consequence, the transition to the sublime.

The sublime is, in a way, the rival of the beautiful since it challenges the beautiful and still retains the theoretical advantage of relating to art.  Before going into details about the nature, or better, the artificiality, of the sublime, I will briefly explore both Schelling's and Hegel's theories of the sublime in order to accentuate their difference.  I will then mention some contemporary interpretations of the sublime, and, finally, give my own interpretation.

Schelling defines sublimity as "the informing of the infinite into the finite," that is, the sublime is characterized by the fact that in it "we distinguish the infinite within the finite."[viii][viii]  We make this distinction as a result of an aesthetic intuition when the infinite, so to say, appears physically, sensuously, in a finite manner.  Absolute formlessness is one of the dimensions of the sublime, whereby in sublime art we intuit the infinite as chaos.  Close to the indifference of finite and infinite, or real and ideal, there is something tragic in the sublime, or, conversely, tragedy is sublime.  Here the finite becomes relatively infinite, so that the harmonious character of the beautiful is negated although the two concepts can form a chiastic inversion whereby there is a sublime beauty and a beautiful sublimity.[ix][ix]  And also a sublime sublimity.   

Schelling's romantic theory of the absolute is the ultimate guarantor of the possibility of the sublime.  But it would be wrong to dismiss this specific view as outdated and obsolete.  The sublime is indeed intrinsically ineffable; it is a phenomenon that cannot be fully explained, and yet it captivates us because it is immediately recognizable as such.  This last point indicates that the sublime is indeed intuited.  

For Hegel, sublimity is related to symbolic art, whereas beauty pertains to classical art.  Looking at the sublime as a historical phenomenon, we see that Hegel connected it to preclassical art and characterized it as expressing the absolute in an imperfect manner.  He wrote that the sublime is an "abstract universal which never coincides with itself in anything determinate."[x][x]  So there is something negative in the sublime, even something sinister if it were not for the fact that it is, first of all, enigmatic and mysterious.  This explains the intrinsic ambiguity one finds in all the conceptions of the sublime.  For Hegel this ambiguity is explained by connecting the sublime to a symbolic, and, therefore, inadequate, understanding of the totality.  In the sublime, the symbol presents itself independently of the requirements of form and of external, concrete existence.  

Hegel reproaches the sublime for not being an expression of rationality.  There is something unknowable in the sublime that prevents reaching philosophical, absolute knowledge, and as such it is not particularly valued by Hegel.  Yet the sublime is recognized as a legitimate aesthetic phenomenon in its attempt to be one with the infinite, and we know that, for Hegel, the infinite has a philosophical significance that goes beyond the mere reiteration of numerical quantities.  

Given the historical changes in sensibility that have taken place since Hegel's time, it is necessary to reverse his order of legibility: for him the sublime was prior and more primitive than the beautiful.  In my reading, the beautiful is less elaborate and challenging than the sublime because beyond the sublime we find nothing in the sphere of high art, and without the sublime the experience of art would be seriously limited, because the sublime is the most intense way of relating to art.  We are close here to the utopian realm, a paradoxical utopia that hints at a possible common point between the sublime and beauty.

The differences, however, are significant.  First of all, the sublime experience puts everything into question.  Contrary to what Kant believed, that it must be experienced from a safe place,[xi][xi] the person who experiences the sublime is oblivious of this fact, of everything else to such an extent that her/his reaction will be completely unexpected and overwhelming.  This person, being unprepared for what is to come, will experience an effect of shock.  Valéry, then, was thinking of the sublime when he denied the aesthetic significance of the beautiful for the present time.

Secondly, in contrast to beauty, the sublime challenges the notion that harmony is an essential component of art; the sense of proportion found in beauty, and its preference for symmetry, are negated by the sublime, whose appearance reminds us of the nothingness of the human condition while at the same time it affirms our hubristic propensities.  Sublimity has been called sublime uselessness,[xii][xii] since it has no specific function except to elicit in us unforgettable impressions.  Whereas beauty produces a sense of serenity, the sublime does not, even though it does not coincide with the tragic.    The tragic is human and noble, but the sublime comes near to the divine itself because it coincides with our quest for the infinite.  It is not surprising, then, to see that many examples of sublime art have to do with religious themes.

Moreover, in the midst of such an intense experience, one does not react verbally, cannot "name the sublime."  There is no possibility of verbalization.  Verbalization comes after the experience, and only subsequently does it become an object of study on the part of the aesthetician.  Thus, the difference in the experiences of the beautiful and the sublime is a matter of degree, although to quantify this difference would be a vain undertaking.

I have started by saying that the idea of beauty has become unessential to the modernist (and postmodernist) sensibility.  Especially in the case of postmodernism this fact seems particularly true, since beauty has been replaced by irony and a certain vulgarity of expression, especially in the visual arts.  Given this situation, it is important to ask whether there is still room for the sublime.  Considering that the sublime forces us to go beyond pleasure and that it detaches us from the empirical world (a mark of high art), one can say that the sublime is no mere adornment; at the psychological level it even causes uneasiness and distressing feelings, an indication that indifference is excluded and that in the sublime we are in search of extreme sensations.

Looking now at two recent philosophical views on the sublime, the first name that comes to mind for its importance is that of Jean-François Lyotard who has commented extensively on the sublime according to Kant.  Lyotard asks, first of all, the question whether sublime feelings can be communicated, and his answer is ambiguous.  After having remarked that "[t]he sublime feeling is an emotion, a violent emotion, close to unreason, which forces thought to the extremes of pleasure and displeasure,"[xiii][xiii] Lyotard adds that "[t]here is no sublime sensus communis, " a clear indication that a possible communication in this case is problematic.  Being a "manner of thinking," the sublime is an expression of the differend (between aesthetics and morality), and "this differend cannot demand, even subjectively, to be communicated to all thought."[xiv][xiv]

Given that the sublime, following Kant's thesis, has no object to which to make reference, it is necessarily contradictory and bound to raise contradictory feelings.  It fascinates and disturbs, it is demanding, it is difficult to communicate to others.  The sublime brings us close to feelings of despair because of its implicit "negative ontology,"[xv][xv] which puts us into the postmodern era, dominated by the ultimate "lack of reality."[xvi][xvi]  It can be said, then, that the "presence" of this rare experience, which is the sublime, is particularly relevant today when nihilism has penetrated the social fabric.

Modernism has given birth to postmodernism, and this change has brought about the end of classicism and realism in art, with the consequence that sublimity can be called the other of beauty.  Beauty is continuity; sublimity stands for, instead, the indeterminacy of the object, which means that it does not provide us with an objective truth.  Separate from other aesthetic categories, such as tragedy, irony, and comedy, the sublime aspires to get hold of the totality, but, in Jean-Luc Nancy's words, the sublime totality "is beyond everything," because this totality is formless and without object, yet we respond to its presence with a feeling that Nancy describes as "the emotion of the subject at the limit."[xvii][xvii]  

Looking at the literature on the sublime one finds a fundamental, but not complete agreement with Kant's description of this phenomenon.  What is beyond doubt is that the sublime is recognized as such when we encounter it and it is the most extreme artistic phenomenon, beyond which there is no art.  In Nancy 's words: "Since the epoch of Kant . art has been destined for the sublime . It is only in this sense that one must comprehend, in the end, the end of art."[xviii][xviii]  

Such an intense and rare experience is necessarily meaningful, so that in this case there is no disinterested perception.  This is true also when one perceives beauty, the difference being that beauty is only affirmative, whereas the sublime is more complete, since it combines affirmation and negation.  This is why, while facing the experience of the sublime we give everything and we receive everything.


[iii][i] F.W.J. Schelling, The Philosophy of Art, trans. Douglas W. Stott ( Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press), p. 40.

[iii][ii] Ibid., p. 13 and p. 17.

[iii][iii] Hegel's Aesthetics-Lectures on Fine Art, trans. T.M. Knox (Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1975), vol. 1, pp. 90-91.

[iii][iv] Ibid., p. 112.

[iii][v] Ibid., vol. 1, pp. 526-527.

[iii][vi] Marcella Tarozzi Goldsmith, The Future of Art-An Aesthetics of the New and the Sublime (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), p. 153.

[iii][vii] Paul Valéry, "Théorie poétique et esthétique." In Ouvres, ed. Jean Hytier, vol. I (Paris: Gallimard, 1957), pp. 1240-1241.

[iii][viii] Schelling, The Philosophy of Art, p. 85.

[iii][ix] Ibid., pp. 90-91.

[iii][x] Hegel's Aesthetics, vol. 1, p. 483.

[iii][xi] Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, trans. James Creed Meredith (Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1986), p. 112: "we must see ourselves safe in order to feel this soul-stirring delight-a fact from which it might be plausibly argued that, as there is no seriousness in the danger, so there is just as little seriousness in the sublimity of our faculty of soul."

[iii][xii] Manfredo Tafuri, Progetto e utopia-Architettura e sviluppo capitalistico (Bari: Laterza, 1977), p. 3.

[iii][xiii] Jean-François Lyotard, Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), p. 228.

[iii][xiv] Lyotard, Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, p. 237 and p. 239.

[iii][xv] Lyotard, Postmodern Fables, trans. George Van Den Abbeele (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 241.

[iii][xvi] Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumu (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 77.

[iii][xvii] Jean-Luc Nancy, "The Sublime offering," in Of the Sublime: Presence in Question, trans. and ed. Jeffrey S. Librett (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), p. 39 and p. 44.

[iii][xviii] Ibid., p. 50.


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