An Artist's Genealogy of the Sublime in 2014 (McDonald's edition)


(This text is the third in a series of context-based adaptations. Originally written as an essay, it was adapted for a talk in rural Wisconsin, read in near-total darkness on an empty county road under a starry night sky. It was later adapted to be read aloud at a Chicagoland intermodal shipping facility. This version is a further adaption intended to be read aloud while eating french fries in a McDonald’s restaurant.)

What happens when one invokes the phrase “the sublime” today? It means something different than it did almost 2,000 years ago when the philosopher Longinus described it as the result of a skillful and poetic rhetoric, a rhetoric that brings listeners “not to persuasion, but to ecstasy.” Since then, philosophers, writers, artists, and propagandists have stretched the meaning of the term in countless directions. Instead of recounting a complete history of the development of philosophical redefinitions of the idea, which might be too long and boring, in this talk I’ll address a collection of problems that might confront contemporary artists who are tempted to contextualize their work within this tradition. Talking about the sublime today calls out for a critical approach, as it is tightly bound up in such grand (and contentious) Western narratives as Beauty, Reason, Nature, and the Individual. But despite these challenges, I believe that the sublime is an important topic for contemporary art and philosophy to consider. At stake in this conversation are fundamental questions about how we, as inhabitants of increasingly complex and formidable global systems, can understand ourselves as subjects with agency.

But first, what is the sublime? In colloquial adjectival use, the word means awe-inspiring, lofty, or majestic, and a number of other aggrandizements you might not often find describing the work of a critical artist today. As a noun, “the sublime” has a more respectable air, as it directly invokes a specific philosophic history. Longinus is often cited as the instigator of this conversation, but it was Edmund Burke who much later laid most of the foundation of the sublime we talk about today. Burke located the source of the sublime not in the rhetoric of poets but in the awe-inspiring, apparently infinite, and terrifying forces of nature, and their physiological and emotional impact on the individual who experiences them. In Burke’s version, the sublime was not so much about nature itself, but rather a specific kind of encounter with it: one characterized by astonishment, horror, and fear. To Burke, the experience of the sublime would always dwarf the experience of the “merely” beautiful because of the relative emotional weights of the psychological roots of each experience. Fear, the passion behind the sublime, always trumps beauty’s pleasure in primacy and intensity, Burke argued. Perhaps paradoxically, and key to Burke’s idea, the sublime can be experienced as a mixture of horror and delight, so long as the horror is experienced “at certain distances, and with certain modifications.”

A brief etymological detour might shed some light on the importance of distance to Burke’s sublime of “delightful horror.” The word’s origin is the Latin sublimis, meaning “lofty.” It is a conjunction of sub and limin, which mean “up to” and “threshold, lintel, or limit,” respectively. This spatial sense of this combination conjures something interesting: the approach to a doorway, an explicit boundary that offers the possibility or the question of passing through. The separation provided by the threshold is central to Burke’s idea of delight found within horror. Without it, delight would be consumed by fear. The notion of approaching a threshold or border suggests a certain kind of relationship: one of a subject who, with some measure of control over the situation, contemplates crossing. The real possibility of crossing over the limit into oblivion is also essential, as without it, the sublime would fall short of instilling true fear. Immanuel Kant later expanded this idea of the limit, arguing that the experience of the sublime arises from an encounter with something beyond the grasp of reason, and also something that is inherently unrepresentable. For Kant, the sublime doorway or threshold is the limit of human power and understanding. In re-introducing the issue of representation to the discussion, Kant opened a challenge to artists seeking to engage the topic. How can you represent the unrepresentable? How can art address the sublime?

In the centuries since, this question has been asked and answered in many different ways, and philosophers and artists have continuously questioned and re-interpreted the nature of the sublime. In lieu of recounting this history, let’s instead focus on several problems to consider when invoking the word “sublime” in art today. First is the way that the natural sublime is now mired in cliche. The conflict between Romanticism and the Enlightenment happened centuries ago, and in some sense the natural sublime is an antiquated relic of that war. Since the late 1700s, so much art has been concerned with evoking this sublime through depiction of nature that the genre has become tired, especially in America with often hokey evocations of the raw natural grandeur of the West. These musty associations challenge the artist who aims to make work relevant to contemporary conversations about art, experience, and representation.

The sublime is also problematic to invoke, especially in Germany and those countries affected directly by Nazism, after the propaganda of the Third Reich. Borrowing heavily from the visual language of German Romanticism, Leni Riefenstahl and other fascist propagandists easily bent the sublime’s ecstasy of the individual’s submission in the face of natural power into ecstasy of submission to the community, state, and the Fuehrer. Even though the fascist ideal of elevating community above all else directly contradicts Romanticism’s exaltation of individual experience and emotion, the sublime had become ripe for adaptation. Anselm Kiefer highlighted this lineage in a photographic series entitled “Occupations,” in which he poses facing the ocean in a reference to Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog,” dressed in a Nazi outfit while performing a Hitler salute. It’s important to ask whether the sublime may be forever tainted by this association.

Also important to consider is the now disreputable status of the sublime of Abstract Expressionism, especially maligned today for its relationship to the macho heroism of the artist who chases, encounters, and somehow manages to capture and evoke the sublime on a massive canvas. This celebration of the artist as prodigiously expressive individual, an echo of Longinus’ original formulation of the sublime, celebrates the creative and successful individual as championed by Western capitalist nations during the Cold War, in a way that lent itself to easy appropriation as state propaganda. Further, the quasi-religious and not-so-humble sentiment that purports to speak without mediation to timeless and universal truths is now a highly unfashionable relic of high modernism that should remain kept behind glass. In his essay “Turned Upside-Down and Torn Apart,” Thomas McEvilley takes apart this AbEx sublime:

This idea – that beauty bypasses the mind as it streaks directly to some deeper faculty – seems the weakest point in the art-critical doctrine that used to be called formalism – meaning simply Kantianism in a somewhat simplified (Greenbergian) form. The idea that the most significant experiences of human life bypass the mind and all its associations, reactions and impulses leaves one wondering how they may become ‘significant,’ that is, meaningful, without involving the mind, which is the organ that provides meaning. This line of thought points to only one place, and that is the traditional Christian idea of the soul as a centre higher than the mind, which deals with matters of eternal importance only. That this primitive notion should have re-arisen in the minds of cultural spokespeople today is disheartening and recalls Adorno’s suggestion that ‘it might be better to stop talking about the sublime [or beauty?] completely,’ seeing that ‘the term has been corrupted beyond recognition by the mumbo jumbo of the high priests of art religion.’

Adorno’s suggestion might be hyperbolic, but Abstract Expressionism’s crypto-theological and thoroughly universalizing sublime surely complicates present-day use of the term.

Last, it has become popular in the past few decades to speak of a “technological sublime.” Fredric Jameson’s analysis in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism is especially relevant to this discussion. Jameson argues that the sublime’s specific relevance to post-1940s culture arises from the difficult-to-represent technologies that underlie the current multinational stage of capitalism: nuclear power, electronics, and computer networks. Our culture’s inability to adequately represent these technologies is not, however, the ultimate root of the issue, as Jameson continues:

…our faulty representations of some immense communicational and computer network are themselves but a distorted figuration of something even deeper, namely, the whole world system of a present-day multinational capitalism. The technology of contemporary society is therefore mesmerizing and fascinating not so much in its own right but because it seems to offer some privileged representational shorthand for grasping a network of power and control even more difficult for our minds and imaginations to grasp: the whole new decentered global network of the third [multinational] stage of capitalism itself.

The terror of today’s sublime, it follows, is not found in nature, or the nebulous concept of “technology,” but in the incomprehensible and all-powerful systems of global economic relationships that structure technology and multinational capitalist society. The technological sublime, as invoked by a growing number of contemporary media artists, may also draw from a similar authoritarian tendency as the Nazi sublime. In some of these works there is a fetishization of capitalist economic relations, which become invisibly embedded in the many manifestations of technology. Uncritically presenting technology as an unstoppable and overpowering force akin to the sublimity of a violent ocean is problematic to the extent that it trades in and profits from a sublime shock and awe that diminishes the scope of individual agency and permits no possibility of critical disassembly or opposition.

You might now be starting to imagine why we’re sitting in McDonald’s. Or maybe “a McDonald’s”, though both identifiers seem equivalent. We might consider McDonald’s as the anti-sublime: every aspect of our experience has been painstakingly crafted to promote economy, uniformity, safety, comfort and familiarity, not terror and incomprehension. All possible accidents here are carefully studied and managed. The prospect of stepping over the threshold into the McBeyond doesn’t conjure anything like the fear of annihilation – it actually seems kind of bland. Even if you don’t have a taste for the food, it has always been a wonderful place for a bathroom break. (Though I must admit it is tempting to imagine the design of a Kafka-esque anti-McDonald’s.)

But of course we all know that McDonald’s is a multinational mega-corporation. We all know that the brand is synonymous with cheap corporate uniformity, and a little terror creeps in if we allow ourselves to imagine our own lives becoming too enmeshed in its narrative. A familiar unease sets in when we ponder the global systems put in place to facilitate its operation, maintenance, and procreation. Last year, McDonalds began stockpiling chicken in anticipation of the release of the “bone-in mighty wings” dish, causing a 26% increase in US chicken prices. The movie King Corn explained with shocking numbers how McDonald’s (and other fast food restaurants) have helped transform US agriculture into a corn-dominated landscape. But however stunning, these numbers only hint at something. The truth is that we don’t really have a conceptual apparatus that can grasp the enormity of this simple meal. We can’t fathom the story of how these fries got here.

Perhaps you’re saying now “Thanks, Morgan Spurlock, for telling me how evil McDonald’s is.” McDonald’s has of course been maligned from hundreds of different angles, but that’s not really what I’m trying to do. Instead, I want to ask how a notion like the sublime can have any relevance to where we are now, in this restaurant, in this economy, this climate. How is it irrelevant? And where would that leave us, sitting here, now?

Is there anything to recover? Does it make any sense to make art that is about or contextualized in the sublime today? I think so. Right now, despite the supposedly liberatory promises of the digital revolution, the scope of individual agency in the world seems more imperiled than ever. Ever-expanding corporate and state surveillance, the commodification of social relationships, and the near total reach of global capitalism all contribute to the experience of a new sublime which we feel powerless and sometimes terrified in the face of. How can we as individuals make sense of our place in a world that is at once a giant machine bent on accumulation and domination, a world where it seems we have no place except as objects, but also one where we fall in love, grieve, and hope for change? What is the space between person as component of a system and the thinking, feeling individual who takes initiative to join with others and transform that system? If our identities are increasingly constituted by consumer culture, technologies of control, and panoptic apparatuses, how can we imagine ourselves as people who can honestly ask existential questions or help change the course of the world? The sublime and its history are part of this conversation.

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An Artist's Genealogy of the Sublime in 2014 by David Allan Rueter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.