The sublime evokes experiences of awe-inspiring grandeur, vastness or beauty. Explore the varied ways in which the sublime has been interpreted from the seventeenth century to today in this issue. Anna Cutler writes about learning in cultural institutions, and John Stack publishes Tate’s online strategy for 2010–12.
The Sublime Object
This paper addresses the work of Mark Rothko (1903–1970) and Robert Smithson (1938–1973), and, referring to the philosopher Kant and psychoanalyst Lacan, discusses how the sublime can have a psychotic aspect. It argues that Kant’s categorical imperative, for all its attempts to exclude self-interest and the pathological aspects of the hypothetical imperative, establishes a frame not only for sublime aesthetic experience but also for psychotic delusion.
Lucretius’s De rerum natura is a neglected source for the emergence of the theory and practice of the sublime in the early modern period. This paper shows how two committed Puritans, the poets John Milton (1608–1674) and Lucy Hutchinson (1620–1681), engaged with Lucretius. After examining Lucretius’s quest for sublimity in subject and style, the article considers the ways in which Milton and Hutchinson responded to his presentation of the gods, his cosmology, his treatment of the death of the soul, his politics, and the ways in which sublimity might be gendered.
The paper traces the frequency with which familiar tropes of the sublime are used in the writing and painting of the 1930s. Crowds, boundaries, mountains, theatricality and death carry a legacy of ideas of the sublime but tend to be treated allegorically rather than in their own right. Looking at paintings by Wyndham Lewis, Paul Nash and Edward Burra, and written works by Stephen Spender and Rex Warner, among others, I argue that the way the idea of history is conceptualised in the urgent melodramatic politics of the decade creates a different sort of sublime, one in which the inexpressible, the void, is located within time itself. Time, allegorised under the pressure of the intensity of political anxiety, becomes an uncanny sublimation of the sublime.
This essay examines the relationship between George Stubbs’s Lion and Horse series of paintings and the redefinition of the sublime given by the philosopher Edmund Burke in his famous treatise of 1757. It argues that Stubbs sought to provide visual equivalents for Burke’s maximalist languages of neuro-physiological description of viewing experiences, exploring the visual implications of the novel concepts of sympathy, pain, contractility and expression in ways that help explain the unconventional intensity of his images.
This paper examines images relating to therapies for mental illness in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Seeking to trace the history of the sublime aesthetic in the visual culture of medicine as well as in the fine arts, I suggest that clear traces of the literary and visual rhetoric of the sublime can be identified in the literature on lunacy and later professionalised discourses of psychiatry.
This article explores the difference between learning and education within the context of contemporary cultural institutions. It discusses current theory and practice and argues that learning needs to shift from the margins to the heart of these institutions. It identifies structural and practical obstacles that need to be overcome for change to take place and concludes with suggestions as to how this might be achieved.
Parodic humour was integral to Dada, and the influence of Nietzsche on dada is well known. However, the connections between buffoonery, Nietzsche and the anti-sublime in Dada have remained under-explored. This paper links key Dadaists in Berlin and Zürich to Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo, and to the Hanswurst – a tradition of German buffoonery – which Nietzsche deploys to counter the Schopenhauerian sublime.
Nineteenth-century images of the Arctic suggest that the sublime lost its religious and moral dimensions. While Frederic Church’s painting Icebergs 1861 evoked the glories of this pristine environment as God’s temple, Edwin Landseer’s grimly materialistic Man Proposes, God Disposes 1864 – polar bears crunching the bones of Sir John Franklin’s lost men – equated human traits with bestial behaviour. This might have been related to a growing Darwinian awareness that humans and other species were united by a struggle for existence in a hostile environment.
This article summarises the key concerns of Pseudo-Longinus’s On the Sublime, and considers their interest for one of the most influential translators of the treatise, Nicolas Boileau (1636–1711). Boileau’s translation of the ancient Greek text is situated in the context of seventeenth-century French literature, looking particularly at the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns and seeking to explain why modern criticism has taken Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) as the sublime painter par excellence.
This paper discusses Lucretian themes in the idea of a ‘cosmic sublime’ in the context of the discourse of the night sky at the end of the seventeenth century and through the eighteenth century