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LP&E: Part 1, Page 3

Project 3 - The Beautiful and the Sublime

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Project 1, Thinking about landscape - Exc 1.1 - Exc 1.2 - Project 1.2 Pictorialism - Exc 1.3 - Project 1.3 The Beautiful and the Sublime - Exc 1.4 - Exc 1.5 - Exc 1.6 - Conclusion - Upsum - Eval

Adams - Alexander - Atget - Brandt - Daguerre - Emerson - Fox Talbot - Le Gray - Rejlander - Robinson - Sear - Seawright - Stieglitz - Steichen - Thomson - Weston - White -

Capon - Crimp - Galassi - Krauss - Grundberg - Meades - Miller - Morley - Papageorge - Vanderbilt - Wilson -

gaze - sublime -

Preamble - Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Asg.1 - Asg.2 - Asg.3 - Asg.4 - Asg.5 - Asg.6 - I&P - C&N - EyV -

[ spellchecked 24Oct ]

[23Oct p.42] The cmat states that beauty is an aesthetic matter and relates to the senses. There are two views:
1. beauty is universal
2. beauty is subjective and so a personal matter. My personal view resonates with this option.

If #2, then it becomes a matter of taste and, of course, there is a cultural component (musical scales, notions of female beauty, to take two examples) and this fatally undermines the notion of universal beauty.

Edmund Burke considered taste, in terms of flavours, to be universal, based on the spurious grounds that the concepts are used in other contexts (sweet disposition, sour temper etc). Even in in a purely Western domain this is demonstrably nonsense and can be dismissed, along with the "humours" (blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm) used in medical diagnosis for centuries before germ theory was developed.

Box A
Marcel Duchamp
Fountain, 1917
img: LPE p.43

The mapping of beauty to art came under attack with Modernism and the cmat. cites Otto Dix and the Dadaists. The great Marcel Duchamp and his fountain get a mention again. The cmat (p.43) states,

Duchamp confronted the relevance of the relationship between beauty and art by controversially placing a signed (with a pseudonym) porcelain urinal within a gallery context (Fountain, 1917). Duchamp intended viewers to consider the ideas behind the art, rather than just the object itself or the formal qualities of its representation. By appropriating an object completely and holding up an object of pure function, he divorced it from the troubling matter of aesthetics. LP&E p.43
Box B
Edmund Capon, I Blame Duchamp
front cover

but it is actually more interesting, profound and cleverer than that.
Duchamp was asking "what is a fountain". A definition might be "a water delivery and display system, often visually embellished, cf. light fitting vs chandelier". A urinal meets the definition, albeit at the low end of the embellishment scale, and this was the beginning of the age of the found object in art: the chosen urinal is elegant in itself and so can merit a place in a gallery. One failing of Duchamp was not crediting the actual designer: the piece is inelegantly signed "R. Mutt 1917", I have never understood the significance of that particular name but it does speak to the need for gallery art to be signed.

[28Oct] Edmund Capon, who named his collected essays, I Blame Duchamp (2009) is less kind in his piece on the French trickster. He states,

The simplistic, nihilistic notion that a found object or one of abject function might subvert the role of explored expression is one that has devalued the exclusivity and the role of art. And I use the word exclusivity with deliberation, for the work of art is exclusive; it is the product of heart and mind, of intellectual and emotional exploration, investigation and the distillation of those motivations into considered form. I think Duchamp has much to answer for, as we are now confronted with the pale horizons of so much conceptual art to which little but the vaguest, most superficial and indulgent , fleeting thought has been given. Lazy spontaneity seems to be the condition of much of this stuff. Edmund Capon, I Blame Duchamp (2009), p.165

Capon states that Duchamp "bought the urinal from the J L Mott Iron Works at 118 5th Avenue New York, turned it on its back, signed it and presented it to the world as a work of art. The art world is still reeling from that absurd gesture".
He suggests, "I suspect he simply whisked off the name of the company from which he had bought the piece of plumbing [and] substituted Mutt for Mott" (p.168).

He concludes, "[my] problem is … that Duchamp opened the doors of false art to the indiscriminate, the opportunists and the simply talentless" and it led to examples such as Piero Manzoni, who "literally [canned] his own shit in ninety numbered tins, each labelled '100% pure artist's shit' in Italian, French, English and German and then sell them for the price of their weight in gold … but I'm afraid a tin of shit does not meet my criteria for a work of art" (p.171).

And see p.191 Jeffrey Smart's Portrait of Clive James, 1991-92.

Capon - and who else quotes Walter Pater, "All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music".

[23Oct p.44] The cmat quotes Robert Adams (1996, p.25)

Why is Form beautiful? Because, I think, it helps us meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life may be chaos and that therefore our suffering is without meaning. Adams, R. B eauty i n Photography (1996) New York: Aperture. Pg 25

This metaphysical viewpoint presupposes that chaos and no meaning is a bad thing. An equally valid point of view is to happily accept life for what it is and what is delivered.

It is perhaps surprising that no mention is made of Keats,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
the end of, Ode on a Grecian Urn, 1819

Writing about the poem in 2007, Martin Gardner, notes that T.S. Eliot called the lines "meaningless" and "a serious blemish on a beautiful poem", but Gardner applies Keats' notion to scientific and mathematical theories and concludes that even false theories can be beautiful.

It is possible to conclude that Keats' notion is better applied to photography. It has already been stated that accurate representation (a form of Truth) is unique to photography amongst art forms. Given that a photograph of a beautiful object cannot itself be intrinsically beautiful - it is only a photograph of a beautiful thing, perhaps the beauty of photography lies in its ability to represent beauty accurately and truthfully.

The Sublime

[23Oct p.44] We then turn to the sublime. Burke (writing in 1757) suggested that "astonishment" is necessary to reveal the sublime in nature. The cmat (p.44) states that "early pictorialist as well as topographic photographers inherited the preoccupation of the sublime from eighteenth- and nineteenth century painting." It goes on (p.45), "Where beauty might dominate the realm of aesthetics (taste, touch, sight), the sublime occupies the imagination."

Wells (2001, p48) is quoted, “...the sublime is associated with awe, danger and pain, with places where accidents happen, where things run beyond human control, where nature is untameable".

And Freud invoked - he looks to "the uncanny", things that are simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. There's a word for that, Das Unheimliche.

Ellman (1994) states, "The Sublime is rather a confusing term: in eighteenth-century aesthetics, it referred to the quality of awesome grandeur, as distinguished from the merely beautiful." She describes Freud as "a great 'prosepoet of the Sublime".
Ellman notes that Jung attributes the sublime to awesome nature and also to "numerical proliferation, when the mind undergoes a 'momentary checking of the vital powers' in the face of overwhelming multiplicity." and concludes, "Thus the Sublime involves two contradictory emotions, one of awe, the other of omnipotence: the mind, appalled by the experience of vastness, triumphs nonetheless in its ability to contemplate the magnitude of its beyond."

Jonathan Meades (2021, p.24) suggests that the British have to settle for the picturesque because nothing available locally merits the tag sublime, "a necessity born of the realisation that we inhabit a topographical Lilliput, a land of close horizons and of such abundant minor mutations that even monotony is seldom available".

Jesse A. P. Alexander
Site - LinkedIn
Box C
Jesse A. P. Alexander
Redcliffe Caves from
img: Saatchi

Jesse A. P. Alexander, one of the course authors describes a project photographing underground (both natural and manmade locations), which he feared and so sought to photograph from a comfort zone, only partially within the location. There is no mention of this fear on the project website Some images from the project were found on Saatchi Art, fig. C1.

The website states,

Using a large-format camera with only available light to illuminate the subject, it required exposure times as long as one week to render the final image. The resulting pictures are decoys – impressions that seem to depict a split-second yet actually portray an extended period of time, made possible only by the static and isolated nature of these spaces that have their own kind of timeframe outside that of the world above them. Jesse A. P. Alexander

This is just speculation on my part, but the light source in Redcliffe Caves, fig. A1, might be several days of sun trails, Solargraphy tamed (see Alternative Photography). If this is the case, it is a remarkably accomplished image.

[23Oct] Weston, writing in 1931 (1971, p.46) does not use the word 'sublime' but states,

I feel that I have been more deeply moved by music, literature, sculpture, painting, than I have by photography, that is by the other workers in my own medium. ... Reading about Stieglitz, for instance, meant more to me than seeing his work.... I never hear Bach without deep enrichment – I almost feel he has been my greatest “influence.” It is as though in taking to me these great conceptions of other workers, the fallow soil in my depths, emotionally stirred, receptive, has been fertilized.
Whenever I can feel a Bach fugue in my work I know I have arrived. Weston, 1971, p.46

I suggest that the sublime is the punctum of beauty - a personal trigger that elevates the experience to a higher threshold. As Weston, might have said, there is a lot of beautiful music, but little that is sublime.
Fear, Unheimliche, awe, astonishment may be present but are not prerequisites.

[16Nov] Andrews (1999, p.140), quotes John Dennis writing in 1704 that,

the Sublime 'commits a pleasing rape upon the very soul' Andrews, 1999, p.140

Helen Sear
b: 1955
Site - Wikipedia

[23Oct p.47] The paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, particularly Wanderer above the Mist (1818), an expression of the sublime, are referenced by Helen Sear in two series, Inside the View (2004-8) and Beyond the View (2009-10). We are told (p.47),

In these works, Sear layers different perspectives of views, and with a time-consuming digital (manual) process, picks out holes to form an intricate, lace-like patina across the ‘surface’ of the image. The obscurity of the resulting image – a simultaneous combination of a partially visible female subject and multiple views of a place – demands the eye to render some visual order from this beautiful chaos and, in so doing, establishes for the viewer a challenging inquiry into the sublime. LP&E p.47
Friedrich Sear Sear
Box D
1. Caspar David Friedrich, Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog or Wanderer above the Mist, c. 1818
2. Helen Sear, No. 17 from Inside the View, 2004-8
3. Helen Sear, No. 2 from Beyond the View, 2009-10
© the artists, their agents or their estates
img: 1. Wikipedia; 2-3. artist's site

Finally, Louse Ann Wilson states that there is a 'feminine sublime' that has been suppressed by a domineering male sublime, she states,

the concept of the masculine sublime – an intellectual and spiritual experience that transcends physical matter – came to dominate discourses on landscape. It then proposes how, in contrast, the feminine ‘material’ sublime is concerned with being located in and materially present to the physical landscape, not as a place from which to escape or disappear but to ‘reappear’ – a process she... argue[s] is transformative and therapeutic. Louise Ann Wilson, Into the Mountain- A Meet (2018) Into the Mountain.

This is entirely plausible, given the male gaze / female gaze controversy. It is undermined a little if sublime is regarded as an individual thing and could only be tested be interrogating a representative sample of both men and women and mapping their individual concepts of the sublime, having developed some definitions. Nevertheless, a priori, it is likely that there will some gender aggregation.

[4Nov] A final comment.
In EW:100, Centennial Essays in Honour of Edward Weston (1986), Paul Vanderbilt, who writes the final essay, begins with a description of a book by Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy (1923).

Rudolf Otto actually lists the parts, "elements" he calls them, that make up not Holiness itself nor the word Holy, but the Idea of the Holy, namely Awe, Overpowering Majesty, Urgency, Otherness, Fascination, Sublimity and, in a special sense, Eroticism. His little book is well-known among philosophers of religion, but I feel sure that the precision With which he discusses the ingredients of an idea must have led others to apply his eloquent line of thought in other fields, just as it has led me to see in his method a way toward photographic clarification. Paul Vanderbilt on Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy (1923) in EW:100, Centennial Essays in Honour of Edward Weston, 1986, p.125.

"Awe, Overpowering Majesty, Urgency, Otherness, Fascination, Sublimity and, in a special sense, Eroticism." There are substantial reads-across to definitions of the sublime over several centuries.

Later in his piece, Vanderbilt writes, "In photography, discovery and recognition together constitute a special form of creation, for something is brought into the consciousness that was not there before" (p.129). That could be a working definition for a more peaceful, better considered, less charismatic and less noisy formulation of the sublime than Morley's.

Exercise 1.4 - Perspectives on the Sublime

[24Oct] Discuss gendered sublimes.

This is shown on a separate page.

Initial post 24 Oct. Awaiting dialogue on link. [30Oct] No responses a week later.

The cmat (p.49) states that horror films can be a manifestation of the sublime - "[the] terrifying aspect of the sublime is no more clearly expressed than in the Hollywood disaster movie". I regard this as an inappropriate, undermining and demeaning application of the concept.
[Or perhaps I am being elitist, as I accuse Morely of being in his essay, Staring into the Contemporary Abyss.]

Tate sublime
Box C
Tate sublime search


[24Oct p.49] We are instructed to search for "the sublime" on the Tate website.

The most intriguing link on offer was a conference from 2009, ‘Wrong From the Start’ Modernism and the Sublime. The first link I followed was, rather disappointingly just the agenda. nevertheless, that in itself looked interesting,

‘Wrong from the Start’: Modernism and the Sublime
Tate Britain, Clore Auditorium, Monday 30 November 2009
Convenor: Philip Shaw (Leicester)
10.15 -10.30 - Philip Shaw - Introduction
10.30 -11 - Christine Battersby (Warwick) - 'Behold the Buffoon': Dada, Nietzsche's Ecce Homo and the Sublime
11 -11.30 - Break
11.30 - 12 - Steven Vine (Swansea) - T.S. Eliot’s ‘Criterion of “Sublimity”’: The Waste Land
12 - 12.30 - Mark Rawlinson – ‘Waste dominion’, ‘white warfare’, and Antarctic Modernism
12.30 - 1 - Discussion (of first four papers)
1 - 2 - Break
2 - 2.30 - Scott Freer (Leicester) - Magritte: The Uncanny and the Sublime
2.30 - 3 - Ian Patterson (Cambridge) - Wild Geese Over the Mountains. Theatricality and the Sublime in the 1930s
3 - 3.30 - Break
3.30 - 4 - Gavin Parkinson (Courtauld) - The Gleam of the Sublime in The Tiger's Eye: Newman, Surrealism, Bataille
4 - 4.30 - Timothy D Martin (De Montfort) - Psychosis and the Sublime in American Art: Rothko and Smithson
4.30 - 5 - Discussion (of last four/ all papers) & Finish Agenda, ‘Wrong From the Start’ Modernism and the Sublime., Tate conference, 2009.

The next find was a longer document, but only abstracts of the presentations - here's a link to the full document. Gavin Parkinson's presentation on The Gleam of the Sublime in The Tiger’s Eye draws attention to

the special ‘Sublime Issue’ of the US art journal The Tiger’s Eye, which appeared in December 1948. That is where Barnett Newman’s short essay ‘The Sublime is Now’ was first published

No sign of the December 1948 Tiger's Eye, though a copy does seem to pop up occasionally on Amazon. The Barnett Newmann essay is easily available, though, and here's a copy.

Newman argues that art movements have repeatedly been distracted form any plausible pursuit of the sublime by becoming obsessed by their methods and lifestyles. He applies this to the impressionists, the cubists, even poor old Mondrian (a previous obsession of mine). Of Picasso, he is less critical, "Picasso’s effort may be sublime but there is no doubt that his work is a preoccupation with the question of what is the nature of beauty."
But it is to the US he looks for a reassertion of the sublime, "free from the weight of European culture, [we] are finding the answer, by completely denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty and where to find it".
"We are reasserting man’s natural desire for the exalted, for a concern with our relationship to the absolute emotions ... We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or “life,” we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings."

This approach suggests that individuals should pursue their own notion of the sublime, a positive, individualist suggestion that has stood the test of time since 1948 (though see Morley, Staring into the Contemporary Abyss).


[23Oct] Beauty is aesthetic and sensual, it is subjective, not universal, it has a cultural component.
The sublime is, in my view, the punctum of beauty - a personal trigger that elevates the experience to a higher threshold. Fear, Unheimliche, awe, astonishment may be present but are not prerequisites.
And see the Vanderbilt entries.

LP&E 1.3


References for Part 1 are shown on the first page.

Page created 23-Oct-2021 | Page updated 06-Nov-2022