April is the cruelest month (1) , but January may well be the gloomiest. So let that be my excuse for a darkly brooding post, about vast vacuities , sinister seas, gory crucifixions and an utterly illegitimate use of Kant’s definition of the sublime.
Sitting here safely at my desk on the third floor, with a banal view of backyards, rooftops and windows, all of them easily comprehended by even the dullest of sensibilities, I might just have the right set of mind to be awe-struck by the image of a dark sea, of a stark vastness swallowing the very edges of the world. Partly I may feel terrorized by this infinity (2) which my senses cannot grasp, and yet...., this image gives me delight.... A paradoxical aesthetical delight, in spite of the inadequacy of my senses to comprehend this formless vastness.
The venerable Kant explains that our mind then experiences the sublime, which is a form of mental delight precisely because that wayward mind of ours feels somehow proud that it can conjure up this idea of infinity, that it can have ideas that transcend the limits of our naïve sensibility. (3) “[the feeling] is sublime because the mind has been incited to abandon sensibility, and employ itself upon ideas involving a higher purposiveness”.
And what about the feeling of sublimity we experience when we see nature’s elements fearfully unchained? Again the sublimity does not reside in the sensuous objects as such, which are merely horrible, but in our mind which links them to a ‘higher’ human moral faculty. Says the undaunted closet scholar Kant, about mighty & fearsome natural phenomena : “[…] provided our own position is secure, their aspect is all the more attractive for its fearfulness; and we readily call these objects sublime, because they raise the forces of the soul above the height of the vulgar commonplace, and discover within us a power of resistance of quite another kind, which gives us courage to be able to measure ourselves against the seeming omnipotence of nature.” (4)
So the feeling of the sublime is altogether a more ambiguous and complex feeling than the obviously pleasing feeling of the beautiful. The “beautiful charms”, and all one needs are well-honed senses, taste and a freely, dis-interestedly playing imagination. But “the sublime moves”, and requires more of us than taste & imagination, it also appeals to our faculty of ideas, to our moral feelings. So: “The sensations of the sublime exert the powers of the soul more strongly” (5)
Thus far a well-intentioned (albeit crudely amateurish) summary of Kant’s distinction of the sublime from the beautiful in aesthetical judgments. So what’s with the illegitimate use I announced? In fact I must confess I had always seized upon this notion of the sublime to explain the aesthetical appeal of art works that definitely are not charming but are bloody well moving. And actually I must find that Kant’s analysis of the sublime only relates to the sublime in nature, not in works of art. (6)
But oh well, unhindered by any methodological qualms I will now pass on to the gory crucifixions (also as announced) and qualify them as sublime.
Take Grünewald’s famous Crucifixion for instance. How can we bear to look at it? Suffering depicted in its most gruesome physical aspects. A bleeding man nailed to a cross, surrounded by a stark, vast darkness. Isn’t it just a repulsive image that offends our senses & our finer sensibilities?
And yet, we stand in awe in front of it, we indeed experience something of the sublime. Because, beyond the sensibly repulsive, this image moves us, speaks to our moral faculties that are roused to pity. And it evokes ideas of redemption of human suffering that we may find consoling (religious ideas in which the faithful at least may find consolation, and in which non-believers are moved to recognize a human all too human longing for redemption of unredeemable sufferings).
But still, again, how can we bear to look at it without horror? Well, of course, it’s not we, nor one of our loved ones, writhing on that cross. More, it’s simply not real. A photo of a real life torture would be horrendous to look at. No way we could be looking at such a photo and enjoy the disinterested deployment of our faculties of pity. We would have to act, we would have to do something – we would be under the full horrible stress of facing real life suffering. With Grünewald’s crucifixion, we’re in the safe realm of mere mental representation.
There is a message of suffering, but it is delivered not without sweeteners. (7) There is beauty in that contrast of the red mantle with the white mantle against a black background. There is a moving musical melody in that duet between the fainting Mary and the compassionate John (8) . There is a god given sense and a promise of ultimate redemption delivered by the religious sermon ( the lamb of god carrying our sins, the son of god dying on the cross for us etc. ).
Humankind cannot bear much reality (9). We want artistic beauty and/or religious sense to transform the ugliest aspects of the suffering. In fact we always want our tales of suffering duly packaged: in stories where heroics redeem the suffering, or stories where human dignity and love ultimately prevail over hardship, or in tragedies of fate that with their Greek necessity and ultimate understanding of one’s fate at least spare us the demeaning meaninglessness of most suffering, the revolting meaninglessness of the accidents, the violence , the maladies which are blindly inflicted upon us. So - “the bitterness of greatest grief cannot be expressed by art” (10).
So: away with this foul irresponsible art, however sublime ? Away with all safely experienced catharsis? Away with this artificial outlet for pent up emotions? Shouldn’t we instead do something (take political action, become a medical doctor, etc).
It’s no use to oppose art to action. Of course art is artificial. Of course art shan’t save the world. But, especially in a world without an all-seeing god, humankind is entitled to a mental realm where we tempt to make some sense of the human condition, and where we can find shared forms of mourning and pitying.
We’re entitled to a realm where we are moved by Grünewald’s crucifixion, although we know fully well that the world is full of sufferings that will never find a Grünewald to express them. Art is just another kind of power of resistance, one which we also need. (11)
futilely resisting footnotes
then the musing-credits:
(1) he was so good at that, TS Eliot, coining phrases that acquire their own autonomous afterlife
(2) "le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie" (Pascal)
(3) This is how Kant phrases it: “The sublime, in the strictest sense of the word, cannot be contained in any sensuous form, but rather concerns ideas of reason, which although no adequate presentation is possible, may be aroused and called to mind by that very inadequacy itself which does admit of sensuous presentation” (Critique of Aesthetic Judgement)
(4) Critique of Aesthetic Judgement
(5) Kant – Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime
(6) “If the aesthetic judgment is to be pure (unmixed with any teleological judgement which, as such, belongs to reason) […] we must not point to the sublime in works of art, where a human end determines the form as well as the magnitude.” (Critique of Aesthetic Judgement)
(7) “the emotion of the sublime is stronger than that of the beautiful, but that unless the latter alternates with or accompanies it, it tires and cannot be so long enjoyed”
(8) no wonder the Grünewald crucifixion can be found on the cover of Bach-cantata CD’s
(9) yet another of those TS Eliot phrases
(10) said by a Valerius Maximus, as quoted by Lessing in his Laocoön
(11) Granted, not quite the most representative out-of-context Kant-quote to head this post. I suppose I liked its hesitant ambiguity, which may be the only tone suitable to musings about art and unpleasant realities.