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The splendid show American Sublime, which originated at London’s Tate Museum and will travel from summer in Philadelphia to autumn in Minneapolis, raises, with its article-free title, the question, Why does one hear often of the American Sublime but never of, say, the French or Chinese Sublime? The very word, from Latin meaning “under the lintel”—i.e., as high as one can go in a constructed opening, just under the upper limit—is a roomy and aspiring one, with precise senses in chemistry and psychiatry having to do with the vaporization of solids and the taming of instinctual desires. In philosophy, too, it is subject to close definition, we learn from Andrew Wilton’s authoritative catalog essay “The Sublime in the Old World and the New.” Critical minds of the eighteenth century distinguished the Sublime from the merely Beautiful: “Addison, for instance, found it natural to refer to the Sublime of Homer and the Beautiful of Virgil.” The Alps, one supposes, were sublime and the verdant landscapes of England’s home counties merely beautiful.
Edmund Burke, in 1757, put the distinction on a firm footing in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. In Wilton’s paraphrase, Burke relegated the Beautiful to our human function of “generation,” or sex: “In a male-dominated society, beauty is governed by what men find desirable in women: smoothness, gentleness, softness and so on.” Against this startlingly genderized category (do women then find hardness and roughness beautiful or, imitating men, only other women?), the Sublime has to do with “the other basic hu- man instinct, that of self-preservation.” And here Burke is quoted directly:
Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain or danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant with terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.
For examples of “whatever is in any sort terrible,” Wilton lists “darkness, obscurity, privation, vastness, succession, magnificence, loudness, suddenness,” and in passing cites three natural phenomena that in fact are more than once depicted in the works on display: “the storm, the precipice, the waterfall.”
All three natural manifestations, it will be noticed, dwarf Man and render him helpless. Immanuel Kant, commenting at the end of the eighteenth century upon Burke’s concept of “a sort of delightful horror, a sort of tranquillity tinged with terror,” defined the Sublime as something “the mere capacity for thinking which evidences a faculty of mind transcending every standard of sense.” The Sublime is that which is “absolutely great” and “comparable to itself alone”; comprehending it places the mind under extreme tension. Of course, the attempt to include the terrible and menacing in objects of aesthetic representation is ancient, to be found in the idols of Africa, Mesopotamia, and Central America; if such are sublime, the …
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