In Morley’s (2010) essay: ‘Staring into the Contemporary Abyss’, I thought the description an ‘agreeable degree of horror’ by Joseph Addison in the early 18th Century was still too strong and provocative a description myself and would have described it more like ‘a play upon the tension within the human mind, because of what is comprehended but not seen outside of it’. This would be for the reason the sublime from my experience doesn’t unsettle in the same way as horror, even to an agreeable degree. Having said this, describing the sublime like this at that time probably created a lot more attention and suspense around the name sublime itself, which I feel is a good thing as it renders the ‘play upon the tension in the human mind, because of what is comprehended but not seen outside of it’ more potent if you are aware of such stigma surrounding the sublime.
I would admit I had never assumed the sublime could exist on more than one level of definition but now thinking about it it is one of the most ethereal words to describe some thing indescribable. Therefore it stands to reason that different people referred to different meanings when using the word sublime. Morley (2010) distinguishes ‘five different ways in which the word is now broadly used’ and the one of the five mentioned which I most naturally associated with was: ‘the experiences of transcendence, terror, the uncanny and altered states of consciousness’, although to a lesser, more playful degree. This was because I had vaguely recognised this definition for the sublime being used and imagined it as a mysterious, darker force of nature, which couldn’t be quantified.
The piece of work I immediately attributed to the sublime was the famous work by Salvadore Dali in ‘The Persistence of Memory’ (1931). Although this work is more accurately described as ‘surrealist’, I thought it also or coincidentally bared traits of the sublime. Morley (2010) makes a distinction between two sides to the sublime and I would suggest ‘The Persistence of Memory’ (Dali, 1931) falls into the category of: ‘the sublime can only be signalled through an enhanced sense of human insufficiency and anxiety, and at this extreme it merges with another key concept in contemporary art – the uncanny’ – Morley (2010). This was opposed to a less fearful, more outwardly-reaching type of sublime: ‘because of the lack of ordered structures or codes, we feel a powerful sense of exaltation and release rather than fear’ – Morley (2010). My reasoning for Dali’s work falling into the former category would be that a lot of the objects apparent in the scene were familiar, although rendered in an unearthly manner. In particular the clocks appearing as though they are melting disorients the viewer from reality and makes them question somewhat fearfully the implications of seeing something so recognisable being portrayed in so unusual and unsettling a manner.
It could be true that the sublime in the medium of painting is not as striking a rendition of the sublime as it used to be, compared to the installations of artists like Hiroshi Sugimoto, for example. It would seem this taking over of conventions is just the nature of the sublime – ‘the eclipsing of the sublime in painting is part of the logic of the sublime experience itself.’ – Morley (2010). However, in my opinion the presence of converging perspective lines and a background in Dali’s ‘The Persistence of Memory’ (1931) does help to contrast the strange happenings that arrest the viewer’s attention in contrast with the seeming normality of the background and lines leading up to the background.
Nowadays, the sublime tends to react to technology rather than nature – ‘it is not so much the desert, the stormy sea, or the mountain range that serve as subject matter for a contemporary sublimity as the mind-boggling power of science and the infinite spaces created by digitalisation’ – Morley (2010) but I would suggest by leaving some semblance of reality present within the piece of art, be it installation, photograph, painting or something else, the sublime can be more powerful in its eventual effect on the viewer. An example of leaving some semblance of reality present within the piece of art would be the converging lines leading to the background in Dali’s ‘The Persistence of Memory’ (1931) for instance. The reason the sublime could become more powerful is because it would take what is known by the viewer and make them transcend this notion or alternatively become tight in thought about it.
Maybe the transcendence or feeling of being raised to a higher level described by Morley (2010) – ‘the sublime’s core are experiences of self-transcendence that take us away from the forms of understanding provided by a secular, scientific and rationalist world view.’, was the same as what de Zayas referred to as a ‘perfect state of consciousness’? What is the sublime? I found this to be a peculiar question because just by asking it, you are sort of dealing with the sublime; it has an element of the unknown. You are incidentally feeling the effect of separation, because the sublime distinguishes itself form other things – assuming you have a vague understanding of the basic difference between sublimity and beauty, where sublimity is often easily confused by us as the same as beauty, depending on context.
This is backed up by pleasure and pain being similar rather than opposite sensations. Although often perceived as opposites, they have a strong relationship. My understanding was that pain was just a more extreme version of pleasure. I felt, sublimity was a heightened sensation and possessed a (twisted) element of beauty within, quite like pain and pleasure’s respective relationship. I understood also the sublime always seems to be connoted with something powerful and neither exists inside us or extraneously but rather it is just there – maybe behind us all the time; with us aware of it subconsciously. I also gathered the sublime plays on our imagination – the need for completion. Here, there would be apparent the knowledge that the sublime can’t be completed but our minds play with this completion – it is almost complete.
Dali, S. (1931). The Persistence of Memory. [Oil on Canvas] New York: Museum of Modern Art.
Morley, S. (2010). Staring into the contemporary abyss. [online] Tate.org.uk. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/staring-contemporary-abyss [Accessed 19 Dec. 2014].