What’s the Deal with This Sublime the Art Eggheads Keep Talking About?

So this week’s post was going to be about Abstract Expressionism, also known as “Those spilled paint paintings.” As I was drafting it up I found I kept coming back to the idea of Kant’s sublime, which I mentioned briefly last week. And I realized it will come up again when I write about conceptual art, and likely a few other places as well. It left me with the uncomfortable conclusion that it probably needed its own article.

My goal with this series is to give a simple, layman’s terms account of recent western art history and theory, and to that end I’ve avoided getting too heavily into the philosophical end of art, because it isn’t an easy task to keep that one simple. Still, art is increasingly self referential, and a good portion of what it references is the theories about how to make good art.

First and foremost, the quality of art is not purely subjective. While tastes can, and do, differ from person to person the instant you say that art is simply subjective, you deny the possibility that art can even be judged as good or bad. Everyone has reasons why they like one piece of art over another. We can then look at those reasons, examine them critically, and try to see if they can be extended beyond just one person. That isn’t to say that once someone tries to set a rubric to judge art by, they are correct or unchallengeable, but rubrics are possible. Art being good or bad does not happen based on the unpredictable whims of an individual.

lots of both
The rules don’t have to be universal, but there can be rules

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s get into what Kant had to say on the sublime, or rather, let’s start with the background Kant was working with. A. N. Whitehead once said something clever about Western Philosophy being footnotes to Plato. I won’t claim to know enough about the broader ranges of philosophy to give this statement a pass there, but in the philosophy of art it certainly rings true.

Plato had some mixed opinions about art, but his most cited opinions on the topic come in the tenth chapter of The Republic. A chapter that can go die in a fire as far as I and most artists are concerned. The fundamental principle is that reason (all your brainy thinking stuff) is good and sensuality (that is all the physical sense related stuff) is bad. Art deals with sensual stuff, so art is bad. Enter centuries of philosophy trying to regulate art into non-sensual terms and thus get art onto the good side of the rational equation.

My Philosophy of Art class on Plato
My art school Philosophy of Art class on Plato

Thus in the latter half of the eighteenth century we come to Kant. Now before we begin, let me say Kant is not my favorite person to read. Not because he is a particular jerkface or anything, but because I’m pretty sure that he applied punctuation to his writing by standing back and throwing handfuls of it at the pages. So, be warned if you decide to look deeper into this stuff. (Also, if you value your sanity, do not read Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime. Sexisim and ultra fucked up concepts of race abound. Nothing that is wildly out of line with the generally held opinions of white men of his day, but still.)

So Kant wrote a few big ole books called Critique of the Power of Something. In this case we are working with Critique of the Power of Judgement (sometimes it’s just Critique of Judgement). This one deals with what Kant referred to as the four relative judgements, agreeable, good, beautiful, and sublime. Agreeable is a sensory thing, and is based on subjectivity alone. Pickles taste good, and suchlike. Good is an ethics call. This one falls on the other end of the spectrum. Good is objective. Something is either moral or not. So that leaves beautiful and sublime, which fall a bit in the middle. These ones are “subjective universal” judgements (I know. I know. Philosophy is fun!). Basically this boils down to the fact that on the individual level these judgements seem like agreeable judgements, that is to say subjective, but they have an implied expectation that others will agree with us. They fall in the middle of the subjective v. objective case in that they have elements of both present.

Now beautiful and sublime are the two we have to worry about with art for the most part. Beautiful gives pleasure in a small, decorative kind of way. It has a purposeful form, but it serves no function. Beauty is both sensual and intellectual. It gives rise to sensual pleasure, but also inspires self reflection. Sublime is more like the big overwhelming thing that is both bigger than we can comprehend and yet we know it is finite. Like the ocean. It causes fear, not in a, “Oh, God! I’mma die!” way, but in a, “Fear and awe of God,” way. Sublime is also not bound by form in the way that beauty is. Comprehending the sublime requires that we surpass sensuality and now is a thing of reason (and so we come back to Plato. Reason > Sensuality).

Head canon
This is kinda how I picture Kant in my head.

Kant, I think without meaning to, changed the direction art wanted to go in. Beautiful was becoming passe. Everyone wanted to get passed beautiful and into the sublime. This leads to the drastic shift about 100 years later to art not about any subject matter, just lines and paint and stuff. And then art that is more about the idea then the artwork itself. And really, love the idea, hate the idea, or just feel indifferent to it, Kantian Judgement is at the core of a lot of modern aesthetics.

Next week we will be back to talking about actual artwork again, I promise.

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Opifex

Opifex is a former art student, unrepentant nerd, and occasional annoying liker of things before they were cool. She keeps two sets of polyhedral dice in her purse, in case the first set stops being lucky. That's kind of how she rolls.

6 thoughts on “What’s the Deal with This Sublime the Art Eggheads Keep Talking About?”

  1. But does the sublime then invoke subliminal messages?  I believe that art is art if it invokes something inside of you.  It doesn’t have to be good or bad, but it must be something.  I have stopped labeling things in my life as  bad or good.  Its the experience and lessons learned that counts.

    1. Ha Ha. Sadly no. If only it were that easy.

      Being able to effectively communicate a message is pretty much the most widely accepted measure of good art. Still, visual art will always have an aesthetic component, and trying to figure out how to do that well occupies quite a bit of thought real estate for the artist. It’s where discussions like this come in.

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