In 1764, when Emmanuel Kant was 40 years old, he wrote a little,124 page book by this title that would become famous. It is the theme of the show opening at C.Emerson Fine Art Gallery. this Friday, Jan 15th 2011. In no way is this meant to be a synopsis, only a helpful guide for the gallery-goer who may not be familiar with this book. Kant divided the book into four sections.
He specifies his approach, which is through the "finer feelings". There are two kinds: The Beautiful and the Sublime. Both pleasant, but different. He defines the Beautiful as feelings that "occasion a pleasant sensation but one that is joyous and smiling." The Sublime as a feelings that "arouse enjoyment but with horror."
The Sublime feeling is sub-divided into three kinds: The terrifying sublime, often involving dread or melancholy. The noble sublime as quiet wonder, and the splendid sublime which is rife with beauty. These two feelings can and often do overlap. In the theater, Tragedy is on the Sublime side, and Comedy on the side of Beauty. Human nature shows many aspects pertaining to either. For example, the Beautiful has its degenerate facet, which in us produces triflers, fops, dandies, chatterers, silliness, bores, and fools.
"A profound feeling for the beauty and dignity of human nature and a firmness and determination of the mind to refer all one's actions to this as to a universal ground is earnest, and does not at all join with a changeable gaiety nor with the inconstancy of a frivolous person."
Kant saw human temperament as fixed and separate character. In gender terms, women are with the Beautiful, men with the Sublime. Together, they form one "moral person". He also thought that different nationalities weighed in at varying points on this continuum. He applied this to space, in that positive space, like mountains, were Sublime, valleys, Beautiful. And Time, too. Long durations are Sublime. Short, Beautiful.
The Past is the Noble Sublime, but the Future Terrifying. The Beautiful is identified with the senses. The Sublime is more concerned with nature and art.
Seven years before Kant, Edmund Burke, another philosopher, wrote an essay on the Beautiful and the Sublime. For him there was little or no overlap between the two. In a latter essay, Kant described the Sublime as: "Purposiveness without Purpose"
In Art, the Picturesque served as a middle ground between the Beautiful and the Sublime, particularly in the context of 18th century British Landscape Painting. This also found its way into Literature, as in Milton's Paradise Lost, and in poetry, in Wordsworth. It also influenced many other things and people, including Frederick Law Olmstead's parks landscaping
Artist, writer and critic Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe wrote a book titled: "Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime" in 1999. He posits the notion that the Sublime can only be expressed by technology nowadays, and Beauty is relegated to glam and frivolity, not the virtues expressed by Kant and Burke. Gilbert-Rolfe analyzes the role of these two principles in media by relating the Sublime, Beautiful and Picturesque to the different ways media covered 9/11.
Writer Alexander Ross further breaks this down into the Sublime as the Real, the Beautiful as the Ideal, and the Picturesque as reconciling the two.
The Sublime and the Beautiful have been the source of endless philosophical discourses (and arguments) and Art essays and analyses. Largely out of that tradition emerged our current aesthetics. It is the way we use language about our feelings and experience of a thing(s). Since most media are at some level about communicating or shaping experience, this is of pivotal importance in the arts.
[Again, this does not begin to do justice to Kant, Burke, et al, or the great number of philosophers, artists critics and writers that have addressed this issue for over a century. I encourage anyone who is interested in this to read Kant's book.