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The Beautiful and Sublime (2013)

The concepts of the sublime and beautiful are often referred to in discussions on art practice, but what kinds of historical and philosophical meaning do these terms have? These concepts became problems, which were seriously considered in aesthetics during late eighteen century. These problems are also closely related to works of art of today. Thomas Weiskel noted that ‘the essential claim of the sublime is that man can, in feeling and speech, transcend the human.’ He emphasized that feeling is a very possibility of the sublime in relation to visual art. In this short essay, I will discuss the concepts and distinction of sublime and beautiful, and a relationship between the sublime and the contemporary visual art. First, I will give a brief introduction to the history of the sublime, and discuss the ideas of Burke, Kant, and Lyotard. Next, I will clarify the relationship between the sublime and contemporary visual art. Finally, I will give two artworks as examples to talk about the sublime. The first one is Ai Wei Wei’s artwork “Sunflower seeds” (2010), and the second one is Doris Salcedo’s artwork “Shibboleth” (2007).

At the beginning of this essay, I would like to introduce a brief history of the sublime. The concept of the sublime was used in the seventeenth century, and it first appears in rhetoric form by Roman-era author Longinus, and artists according to his ideas to created more refined style artworks. The sublime is also associated with Romantic Movement during 18th to 19th century. After aesthetic research of Edmund Burke and Baumgarten, the sublime finally became a philosophical concept appeared in the Kant’s philosophy.

I would like to start with Edmund Burke. First of all, Burke researched from the most natural emotions of the pain and pleasure, which are two majority strong feelings in a person’s mood. Whether it is pure pain or pleasure, they can be divided into two categories: one involves ‘self-preservation’; the other involves ‘social interaction’. These two types of emotion meet different purposes, the former aim to maintain the instinct of individual life, the latter is to maintain racial reproduction and satisfy desires of mutual communication. In short, the sublime comes from the feelings of self-preservation, and beauty comes from the feelings of social interaction.

When Burke analysis the sublime, he emphasized that the sublime originally comes from human’s feeling of terror or horror. Burke wrote ‘When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful, as people everyday experience.’ That is to say, the sense of danger makes people feel fear, but if keeps danger at a certain distance, it will not become a real danger, is the sense of sublime. Furthermore, Burke believed that the formation of the sublime object comes from vastness, powerful, magnificence, and infinity. From his point of view, an object has the feature, which I mentioned above, it is sublime.

As far as Burke is concerned, the beauty comes from the feeling of social interaction that the main psychological content is love. Burke’s ideas related to empiricism, which emphasized sensory experience. Paul Guyer described that ‘Kant thought that empiricism explained aesthetic response as a purely sensory response to the stimuli presented by particular external objects.’ His point of view shows that the empirical aesthetics as one-sided emphasize features of the sensory experience, that is to say, the empirical form of feeling is lack of reflection.

Immanuel Kant has different interpretations of the sublime and the beautiful. Kant’s ideas about the beautiful, in some way, are inherited from Burke. Kant believed that aesthetic judgment involves ‘common sense’. In the other words, when people say an object is beautiful, which should have a concept of an objective. Which means the majority of people have recognized that object is beautiful, not a sense of minority. From Kant’s point of view, the sublime and beauty belonging to the field of aesthetic judgment, and the sublime and beauty have common domains. First, they both could cause pleasure; second, they are not merely judged from people of sensory organ, logic and moral, they are reflective judgment. That is to say, both of sublime and beautiful are concerned about the quality of external form; both are generally effective; both are an exemplary inevitability, and based on common sense of humanity.

Most important, Kant made a judgment between the sublime and beautiful, he thought the beautiful and sublime are different in a certain of the level. From Kant’s point of view, the sublime and beautiful both produce pleasure, as Kant wrote that:

‘The beautiful in nature is connected with the form of the object, which consists in having boundaries. The sublime, on the other hand, is to be found in a formless object, so far as in it or by occasion of it boundlessness is represented, and yet its totality is also present to thought.’

From Kant’s point of view, the most important difference between the sublime and beautiful is the beautiful could be found in the form of objects, and the sublime only find in the subjective mind. The sublime beyond the sensory world, which involves the infinite concept, consequently, the feature of sublime is absolutely great, or a certain of violence. Beauty is the object of attraction that produced by the intuitional pleasure, which is charms and a playful imagination. Furthermore, Kant divided the sublime into three ways, first, if it conveys a certain dread or melancholy, which called terrifying sublime; second, if it conveys with quiet wonder, which called noble sublime; third is splendid sublime, which pervaded with beauty. From his point of view, the sublime becomes an aesthetic experience, people could follow Kant’s ideas and appreciate deeper in artworks. Kant in the analysis of the magnificent subject mentioned it is rational uncertainty, which is the transformation of moral feelings and inner spiritual power of subreption. These analyses were intended to create a universal theoretical framework for the ‘natural law’ for aesthetics but inadvertently opened a new way to thinking about the individual differences of the magnificent feeling as Lyotard’s idea of different aesthetics.

Lyotard pointed out in the ‘The Sublime and the Avant-Garde’ that the sense of beauty by Kant is a harmony. It was worked through the function of image and concept of art object or nature, and finally, it could cause to a pleasure of human. The sublime sense more ‘uncertain’, because it mixes the pleasure and pain. When a person faces to an object of the sublime, it will produce an absolute concept that can only be thought without any emotional intuition. This expression failure caused by a pain and this pain produces a double pleasure: the impotence of imagination makes people see something cannot be figured, consequently, the imagination to bring objects of imagination and reason into harmony; furthermore, insufficient of images are a negative sign shows that rationality of infinite power. Lyotard believed that, in the avant-garde, the basic situation is “uncertainty”. The thinking about the beauty by Kant is no longer exists in the avant-garde art theory because common sense requirement has been waived. However, the avant-garde still focused on ‘Is it happening?’ A kind of collusion between Capital and the avant-garde. In the capitalist economy, some artworks created for meet public taste and just reflects the spirit of the market. He wrote: ‘Sublimity is no longer in art, but in speculation on art.’

Equally important, in Newman’s essay ‘The First Man Was an Artist’, he argued that science could not tell us any experiences of aesthetic. From his point of view, the artist should be natural, not like the scientists always follow the ‘method’ when they doing something. However, that is not to say science could not be the beautiful or sublime in nowadays. In the modern society, the beautiful and sublime had involved the field of science, and technology products becoming more and more popularized, in some way, enjoy of visual and sensory. Furthermore, refer Gilbert-Rolfe’s point of view, the contemporary sublime what he called ‘technological sublime’, that is to say, the man made associated with nature.

Next, I will talk two examples and evaluate what might be meant by references to the sublime in art. The first one I will discuss an artwork called ‘sunflower seeds’ by Ai Weiwei.


                               Fig 1, ‘Sunflower Seeds’ by Ai Weiwei, in TATE Modern

Sunflower Seeds is made by hundreds of skilled hands in Jingdezhen and each product in the individually way. From Fig 1 it can be seen that his work of art has a link to the sublime. Firstly, the sunflower seed is a kind of natural product, but in his artwork, which made by ceramics. From Burke’s ideas, objects of infinity can be sublime. Ai Weiwei’s artwork definitely meets infinity, because the sunflower seeds seem to have a large of the number. Second, his artwork was made by hands, which related to man-made associated with nature. However, as Lyotard’s point of view ‘sublimity is no longer in art, but in speculation on art,’ which I had mentioned above. That is to say, the sublime in the contemporary visual art occupy the main position of marketing. Furthermore, the traditional sublime, which focused on sensory of people, in some way, has been retaining in the contemporary visual art. However, today is technology provides more strong sensory of the sublime rather than nature.

The second example is an artwork called “Shibboleth” by Doris Salcedo.


                           Fig 2, Doris Salcedo, ‘Shibboleth’ 2007, Tate Modern

Firstly, Shibboleth works intervene directly in the Turbine Hall rather than fill this space with common sculpture or installation. Salcedo has created an underground gap. The concrete walls in the crevice are crack by a steel mesh fence. This gap extends the length of the Turbine Hall. Her work asked a question about the interaction of sculpture and space and something about racism. Apparently, the politic and social events have become one of the sublime element. Such as Ai Weiwei’s the sunflower seeds, that related to Chinese Cultural Revolution.  However, in Shibboleth, through broken the floor, seems to communicate the message that mind the gap. That is to say, Salcedo is exposing that there are dangerous under the people’s feet. The dangerous could derive the feelings of horror, which is the sense of sublime comes from. This sublime not only is horror but also is self-reflection. The gap makes people reflect on dangerous, in some way, which is a kind of self-reflection.

In conclusion, what kinds of ideas lead to the feature of sublime in an artwork? In nowadays, the contemporary sublime is transcending the human. In the past, nature was the main point of the sublime. The contemporary sublime is the technology, and the human is using the technology to dominate the nature. The traditional sublime has been retaining in the contemporary art. For instance, the definition of sublime by Burke has been used in Ai Weiwei’s artwork and Doris Salcedo’s artwork. For the sublime, the technology can do better than the artwork. However, in the art, which more necessary is natural content, rather than the technology. In the contemporary art, the sublime not only involved in nature but also related to man made and technology. Obviously, the sublime is changing with times, which is a kind of experience looking for a context. In the past, the content was mostly text, religion, philosophy etc. Now, it is artists themselves to decide what the content of sublime in the further.


BURKE, EDMUND (2008). A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. New York: Oxford University Press

GILBERT-ROLFE, JEREMY (1999). Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime. London: Allworth Press

GUYER, PAUL, Kant and the Claims of Taste, Cambridge University Press, 1997

The Unilever Series: Ai Weiwei (2010). Available: Last accessed 25 March 2017.

Doris Salcedo ‘Shibboleth’ (2007). Available: Last accessed 25 March 2017.

KANT, IMMANUEL (1951). The Critique of Judgment. Translated by J.H. BERNARD. New York: HAFNER PRESS

KANT, IMMANUEL (1960). Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime. Translated by John T. Goldthwait. London: University of California Press

LYOTARD, Jean-François (1999). The Lyotard Reader. Edited by Andrew E. Benjamin. Wiley-Blackwell

LYOTARD, Jean-François (1998). The Inhuman. Translated by Polity Press. UK: Polity Press

MORLEY, SIMON (2010). The Sublime.  Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press

NEWMAN, BARNETT (2002). ‘The First Man Was an Artist’. Art in Theory 1900-2000. Edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood. BlackWell Publishing

WEISKEL, THOMAS (1976). The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of transcendence, Johns Hopkins University Press



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