The Sublime Does Not Exist
Observations on Modern Day Perceptions and Thinking
Alison A Raimes, February 2002
My engagement with the possibility of a contemporary sublime experience has developed over the last five years as a response to first reading Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke , and later Jean-Francois Lyotard . I was drawn to the idea of the Kantian 'super sensible self' (1790: Third Critique) and the relationship in contemporary thinking where art serves as a communicating vehicle to the profound - that area of the mind which provides intensification of the senses and succeeds in elevating the viewer beyond the everyday to that which Susan Hiller describes as the "things that are outside or beneath recognition" (Morgan, 1996). An awareness of Kant's claim that the sublime can only be sought in the mind of the judging subject (Oblak, 1994), made me curious as to the increasing popularity of the term in modern day usage. My inquiry extends to the influence of Kant's texts in providing the basis for Modern Art where pure, formless abstract art serves as an agent of the sublime. Hence, I find it necessary to make observations on the behaviour of western culture in which this investigation takes place, in order to examine the relationship between the contemporary and the Kantian sublime and to identify, if necessary, a new expression for the experience. For the purposes of this essay, I here place myself in the position of social observer and cultural commentator - as artist and audience on an expedition in search of the contemporary sublime.
Influenced in my early work by the paintings of JMW Turner, Casper David Friedrich and Mark Rothko, the spiritual search these artists embarked on through their art, inspired much of my commitment to abstract work. Although the subliminal elements of Turner and Friedrich's work seem to be more related to Edmund Burke's sublime and man's relationship to nature, the transcendental ideas in Rothko's work contain a relationship to the Kantian idea of an elevation of the senses through the idea of transcendence. The clear tendencies towards pure abstraction in Turner's work come to a front in Rothko's. As Gerhard Richter said in a recent interview "Abstract art is inherently about the search - and about not finding anything" (The New York Times, 27th Jan 2002) and it seems that both artists were tormented by the perpetual hunt. In this, I am able to relate my philosophical inquiries to my artistic practice where the journey is more important than the destination and where pure abstract art, devoid of reference, form and narrative challenges and defies the rational mind in the viewing subject. As we are reminded by Krauss and Bois in Formless: A Users Guide, "... the formless has its own legacy to fulfil, its own destiny - which is partly that of berating our thinking from the semantic, the servitude to thematics, to which abject art seems so thoroughly indentured" (1997, pg 252).
Jean Baudrillard claims that the power of illusion is now over (1994 pg19). Art has historically relied on this power and it now poses the question regarding its place in modern day western society. Baudrillard also claims there are no longer rules or any form of criteria by which judgement can be made (1992, pg14) - no way to distinguish beauty from ugly; good from evil; truth from false; real from unreal (1992, pg 9). He tells us that art has "disappeared as a symbolic pact, as something thus clearly distinct from that pure and simple production of aesthetic values, that proliferation of signs 'ad infinitum', that recycling of past and present forms which we call 'culture' (1992, pg14). We are left with the idea that everyone now has the potential to be a creator and therefore everyone can be an artist. In addition to this, artists now work without rules (Lyotard, 1984, pg81) and, therefore, cannot be judged. We, as artist and audience, have been released from making decisions about what is good and what is bad, not only in art. There no longer exists any form of hierarchy, which determines our consensual judgement. No value system by which to estimate. These are conditions in which ideals can no longer survive because there is an absence of one single mode of dominant thought over another. Pluralism now replaces the hegemony. And with it an era of confusion.
To make matters worse, Paul Crowther suggests that sensationalism is an "addiction of the modern day audience" (1996,A&D) and what are now demanded of the artist are novelty, outrage and scandal as "a matter of course" (1996, A&D). In that, Crowther is suggesting new priorities ruled by critical reactions rather than by contemplation. Is the audience now more involved with a critical approach to art, rather than a reflective one?
An interesting observation by Walter Benjamin in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, tells us "a man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it" (1992, pg 232) whereas "the distracted man absorbs the work of art" (1992 pg 232) is particularly pertinent when studying the masses in the galleries. But what is it that draws these huge audiences? It seems there are now at least two audiences - the distracted and the informed. The latter being made up of artists and those who are passionately involved in art for contemplation. But the popularity of the art gallery today, has also created the 'been there' audience - the distracted. The bustling crowds, lured in by billboard advertising and clever marketing, flock to the hyped up exhibitions and galleries in order to announce their engagement with art, the fashionable, cultural statement of our times. They buy t-shirts, tea towels and posters to affirm their engagement. Art has become a fad! A visit to the art gallery is comparable to a shopping mall visit where the souvenir industry thrives. Art, for them, has become a consumerist product.
Baudrillard has claimed advertising to be "the destroyer of intensities" and the " accelerator of inertia" (1994, pg 92) and the very cause for the demise in art as a vehicle for contemplation and reflection. He states that "We live in a world where there is more and more information and less and less meaning" (1994, pg 79) and here, he says, "it is no longer possible to fabricate the unreal from the real" (1994, pg124). But these should be perfect conditions in which to consider the idea of the sublime, after all, the sublime is found in the space between the human ability to reason in the face of the inexplicable.
Why would the issue of audience behaviour be of concern to the artist or to anyone interested in the sublime? For many it is not. The audience is alienated and receives no consideration during the process of making. But alongside that there also exists a genuine interest to engage with, and respond to the audience. Artists have increasingly stepped out from their 'garrets'. They have become more involved in the combined experience of maker and observer and that has become a matter of concern in their process. In Lyotard's essay Presenting the Unpresentable, (Art Forum, April 1982), it was suggested that "art is a vehicle of knowledge able to change society" and many artists now work with this preconception. From world observations, popular British art appears to be playing to the masses rather than seeking any change, but there may be some signifiers within that worthy of discussion. Tracey Emin and Susan Lucas, for instance, whom deliberately antagonise or tantalise their public are recognised world wide as models of British contemporary art. The ensuing ridicule of the Turner Prize inspired the Pope to mention last years winning exhibit by Martin Creed in his Christmas Day speech, Urbi et Orbi (25th Dec 2001), in which he stated that "it helps us to understand where we are close to running out of anything to celebrate in the glare that is next door to darkness" (Daily Telegraph, 26th Dec 2001). The inclusion reminds us of how watchful the world has become of British Contemporary Art. In Britain we are more than aware that popular art is dependent on mass media attention to promote and market the artist in the same way as they would with a pop star. But in order to maintain the media attention it seems it has become increasingly essential to shock and artists have deliberated their intentions in order to meet this demand. Yet if we observe the shock elements we find nothing but banality and the everyday. Have we, the masses, become shocked by our own existence? Perhaps the shock element will be in realising this.
The idea that the artist can change culture by "emphasizing certain aspects of it" (Hiller, 1996 pg 68) intrigues me. It is not a new idea, of course. Kant was fully aware of art as a cultural practice and in his discussions on taste he claimed it "introduces clarity and order into a wealth of thought, and hence makes the idea durable, fit for approval that is both lasting and universal, and fit for being followed by others and fit for an advancing culture". (1790, third Critique: section 50) But so much has changed since Kant. Kant had not experienced images of the moon's surface or even of flying. He had not experienced the screen or the power of colour that dominates the everyday images, which surround us. He had not been exposed to the speed and technology that we take for granted. Nor to the vast bodies of information made available to us by the World Wide Web. He had not parachuted out of an aeroplane, or bungee jumped over Niagara Falls. Nor had he experienced the embraced notions of spontaneity and autonomy that has now become synonymous with Modernist art (Gablik, 1984). And Kant had also not witnessed Adolf Hitler, Sadaam Hussein and Osama bin Laden - or the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Vietnam War, Ethiopia, AIDS, or 11th Sept 2001. He had not seen the images of the emancipated and dead through a screen in his living room as he ate his TV supper. He was unaware of the modern day human morality in its self-destructive tendencies. Desensitisation through the imagery we encounter daily has affected the way we react, emotionally, to conditions that we have not, nor are we likely to, experience. Thus our visual and sensory perceptions have dramatically evolved and simultaneously so have our relationship with nature and the world that Kant wrote about.
I am now convinced that the sublime experience relies on the ability of the mind to free itself from all obstacles of distraction. I'm also extremely aware of how difficult that is in modern day life, hence my observations here. The mind like any muscle in our body needs to be exercised but not overstretched. Art has the space for that. It is the task of the artist to disrupt and defy the conformist mind in which the audience now responds in a collective trance (Gablik, 1984). We must wage war on Baudrillard and his pessimistic stance. We must seek out new perspectives and new sensibilities on the profound in art. Be encouraged by the female perspectives of Susan Hiller's art, Lucy Lippard writings, for instance, who reminded us that a "change of course is not necessarily progress" (1977, pg 28) and Suzi Gablik's call for a "reenechantment" of art (1991). Not to ignore Susan Sontag , who called for a recovery of the senses and for "real art [that] has the capacity to make us nervous" (1966, pg 8). We should continually draw on the legacy of the sublime, the ambiguity and tension and the compelling and universal ability to unnerve and baffle the audience not through banality but through mystery. In response to the terror of the nineteenth and twentieth century, Lyotard called for a war on "totality" (1984, pg 83). "Let us be witnesses to the unpresentable; let us activate the differences and save the honor of the name," (1984, pg83) he cried. Our task now, as both artist and informed audience, is to wage war on the death of art, to give it a future and help restore meaning in a society that no longer believes in anything. And meaning cannot happen without feelings. Our task is too restore the aura (Benjamin, W 1992) to art.