Some ethical implications
There are, perhaps, ethical implications to be drawn from this discussion, both in relation to humanity’s relationship with non-human nature, and also in the sphere of human to human relations. I will give just one example of the latter, drawing upon the work of academic Vivienne Jabri. She writes:
Politically, the sublime must remain a problematic concept, for it assumes the capture of the subject and the capture of the universal. It appears to deny difference and places itself beyond politics and political agency; it is assumed to belong to a realm that is beyond contestation and the ‘stuff’ of the public arena. In referring to the transcendent, it has a certain aura conferred on it that is forever extraordinary, defiant of the everyday and the routine. This article argues that any reflection on politics, and distinctly one that seeks to explore the relationship between art and a politics of resistance, is one that in a sense de-sublimates, that is, relocates that which may be construed as constituting the sublime into language and representation.
The invasion of Iraq was a distinctly late modern affair, with its high technology rendering, its unashamed display of power, intended as a spectacle for a global gaze. The initial images of the invasion were not of troops crossing sacrosanct state boundaries, occupying territory in the aftermath of victory over a vanquished enemy. Across the globe, the images that will be remembered are those of overwhelming night-time aerial bombardment of a capital city, with persistent second-by-second explosions that lit the darkness of the metropolis below. The ‘shock and awe’ tactics celebrated by their perpetrators in the Iraq invasion were not simply aimed at the defeat of a spent regime, but rather at a global public gaze, a display of overwhelming power the immediate target of which was not just the high-density population of the city, but the Middle East as a political region and the global population as a whole.
The strategy of ‘shock and awe’ was devised by its strategists in the Pentagon as one based on the assumption that the unleashing of firepower so overwhelming in its intensity and frequency would compel the enemy into almost immediate surrender. Punishment had to be performed in excess and such excess had to be turned into a form of spectacle, to generate awe in those witnessing the performance of sovereign power that was, in the act, reconstituted as triumphant power. But when war is spectacle, experience and its materiality in the body are somehow occluded.30
But, Jabri argues, there is a sense in which art can desublimate, enabling resistance to that which seeks to produce awe as a tool of political aggrandisement. It will do so if and when it concentrates on the depiction of smaller-scale realities – most effectively, perhaps, the suffering and mutilation of human bodies which follows as a direct consequence of the spectacular displays of military power that seek to dominate our visual perception of the events in question.
Jabri’s viewpoint is interesting in this context, because (like Janz) she issues a call for a return to the body. But for her this is premised upon an insurmountable opposition between the idea of the sublime and the fragile fact of the human body. The two things cannot for her be reconciled in the same space. The totalising, universalising pretensions of the modern sublime must always in the end eclipse or crush the human form, and the depiction of human-scale things – the body and its suffering above all – are to be understood as a necessary act of resistance to this sublime. The body can achieve a very necessary de-sublimation of a godless sublimity’s excesses, on occasions when the sublime is used to further an ambition to wield absolute power; but there is no sublime, for Jabri, that could come to any sort of reconciliation with the body.
Christian accounts of the glorious body of Christ do not, however, accept that there must be this incompatibility between sublimity and corporeality, glory and the body. A brief look at the quintessential iconographic subject of the Transfiguration shows this to be the case. The light of infinity shines from and through the body of a human being, and does not overcome it. This is because, encoded in Christianity’s traditions and practices, is a different sort of sublime: a divine light which is adoptive of, and not hostile to, particular, local form. A Christian aesthetic can on this basis articulate a notion of the sublime that is most certainly not what the modern period has made of it.
[A] Christian understanding [...] entirely reverses the logic of the modern or postmodern sublime, by proceeding from a theological account of beauty: a beauty in which a truer sublime (the inexhaustible glory of being) is contained.31
This set of Christian commitments has manifested itself – in various ways at various points in history – in what I would call a ‘habitable’ art; an art which nonetheless remains an art of the divine transcendence. In this tradition, in a way that corresponds closely to Augustine’s awakening appreciation of the sacramental power of the mundane, the beautiful is shown not to be trivial, and often to be simultaneously worldly and divine. A concern with habitability is – equally and by the same token – shown not to be a despicable concern. The body is central to this aesthetic – although so is the space around and between bodies. Whether in the Fra Angelico frescos in San Marco, or the dead Christs by Mantegna, or the delicate evocations of human presence and human hope through dislocated humanly-made objects like those of the contemporary British artist Anna M.R. Freeman,32
there is a sense that ultimacy can be discerned in human-scaled things by the grace of a God who works sacramentally in them.
Although the theology in his work is often implicit, we might turn to David Jones at this point, and to the fascinating essay-fragment published after his death and entitled ‘An Aspect of the Art of England’.33
It is speculative – almost whimsical – but also rings true in its identification of a ‘distinguishing quality’ of the art of what ‘the Greek geographers,’ Strabo and Diodorus of Siciliy called ‘the Pretanic Isles’:
[T]he Romans got their ‘Picti’ from the same source – the Old Welsh Priten
, the Old Irish Cruithin
, the speckled, mottled, variegated, painted men.34
The distinguishing quality in question is a love of the ‘fretted, meandering, countered image,’ and it is paradigmatically found in ‘the
one art which has taken its name from us,’ namely, ‘that kind of needlework called “Opus Anglicanum”.’ Eclectic as ever, Jones traces this ‘flexible, delicate and chequered art’35
through the English Gothic tradition in architecture, and the poetry and watercolours of William Blake, and ends up in a garden:
It is said that the ‘cottage garden’ is peculiar to this island, and that is not without interest – for the dappled complexity that makes the unity of those small gardens... – especially after sunset, when each colour and each form is distinct and like an embroidery and as complex as an embroidery – is very much akin to the quality I mean.36
An alternative to any nature-excluding rationalism would find better expression in an English garden. Not the highly regimented, geometrical gardens of continental Europe and its imitators (rationalist aesthetics may aim to subdue a nature that is feared to be inhumane, but in doing so can become inhumane itself). Instead, the tumbling, intertwining, organic shapes of, say, Sissinghurst in Kent, which represent not an imposition on wild nature, nor an attempt to suppress it, but rather a sort of ‘settlement with’ it. Such a sampling of wild nature cannot regard it as simply ‘other’ or even ‘irrational.’ On the contrary, it expresses the view that we can be at home with the non-human creation, and that our loves – the things that give us pleasure – are qualities that reside in nature already, and that can be elicited further by our human interaction with them.
This is a characteristically Christian theological sensibility, affirming what we find ‘out there’ in the world; seeing ‘not some independent “nature,” but God’s creation and creatures’.37
We belong among non-human creatures, neither identical to them nor wholly separate, but in relation to them as well as to their creator
. ‘Wisdom’ is the deepening of our relationship to creation and its ongoing history, and is not something accomplished by an a priori
‘reason’ located strictly in us
. Reason is ‘nothing less than the Logos, God’s Word as it continually creates the world and as it is revealed to us in Scripture and in the body of Jesus Christ’.38
Such a theology insists on the affinity of human reason with the grain of the world, and stands in the tradition of Hooker, Traherne, Herbert, Coleridge and many others. As Coleridge put it, we find what we have discovered inside us actually outside us too, and the arts are beautiful when they ‘make the external internal, the internal external’, and when nature is turned into thought, and thought into nature.