Guest Post: Modernism, Postmodernism and the Sublime

By Phil Cava


The impact of  Greek culture on the world  from the 5th Century BC forward has had long lasting foundational effects on Western Culture. Man’s concept of himself  expanded and evolved through the works of philosopher/scientists, poets, tragedies, historians, sculptors, architects, and others, during this  period.

The Greeks invented a conception of beauty, which still sways us. Classical beauty gave privilege to the purity of form, to proportion and to symmetry over content, and matter  The thoughts of Plato and Aristotle were foundational for Western Culture’s determination of what constitutes Beauty. Against this sway mid-twentieth century artist Barnett Newman in his famous essay “The Sublime is  Now”  (1948)  said that the Greek conception of beauty was conflated with Christianity which led to:

“Man’s natural desire in the arts to express his relation to the Absolute became identified and confused with the absolutisms of perfect creations…with the fetish of quality…so that the European artist has been continually involved in the moral struggle between notions of beauty and the desire for sublimity.



                                           Adam                                                          Eve

Edmund Burke was “first philosopher to argue that the sublime and the beautiful are mutually exclusive” (1) Burke thought of the sublime as a kind of negative pleasure, the delight experienced in the removal of pain or our  attraction to  profoundly disturbing aesthetics  such as Kramer’s portrait,  which no one can look away from.  Or on a more serious note, the figural portraits of Lucian Freud, which repel and attract us simultaneously,  ultimately we, or at least I can’t look away.

Kant picks up on Burke’s concept of sublimity in his 1790 “Critique of Judgement”. Kant has a lot to say, and it is not possible to bypass his contribution to our understanding of the Greek gift.  He separates general knowledge from our sense of beauty and the sublime. Judgements regarding general knowledge are based on determinate concepts, concepts which are bounded by our imagination and whose totality is grasped by our faculty of reason. This is how particulars become assumed under universals, and how a work of art can be a universal particular.   Kant contrasts determinate  judgements  with reflective judgements. In reflective judgements the limitations of our determinate conceptions are challenged. Our imagination opens up mental space wherein new concepts,  judgements, relationships become possible, in the free play of reason with our imagination pleasure arises.

Kant states that our judgement of taste is aesthetic  (45S1):

“In  order to decide whether anything is beautiful or not, we refer the representation, not by the Understanding to the Object for cognition but, by the Imagination (perhaps in conjunction with the Understanding) to the subject, and its feeling of pleasure or pain

For Kant the feeling of pleasure or pain we experience is based on the ability of our imagination, our reasoning and our judgements to correspond with one another or not. Judgements concerning  determinate concepts can be agreeable, pleasurable, but they are limited determinately. Reflective judgements are pleasurable in themselves, in the very action of their conception. Determinate judgements and reflective judgements are bound by our imagination.  They are finite in the sense that they are bound, unlike the Sublime.

Kant differentiates  beauty from the sublime he states (BkIIS23)  “The Beautiful and the Sublime agree in this, that both please in themselves. Further, neither presupposes a judgement of sense nor a judgement logically determined, but a judgement of reflection.”

The sublime is a formless object whose  totality escapes unambiguous interpretation. The imagination fails to synthesize the power of the Sublime determinately or reflectively, but  reason is able to gape at the whole in its freedom from the determination of the senses.  Kant agrees with Burke that the Sublime attracts and repels, and he too calls it a negative pleasure, it is a dynamic concept for Kant. Unlike Burke, he includes a subjectively beautiful  aspect to the  sublime.

Kant tracing of the pleasure/pain we experience in the beautiful seems correct enough, but in the playful congruence of our conceptions with our understanding generating pleasure/pain he accepts the Greeks gift.  The physical source of pain and pleasure is the body.  We learn what it is to feel pleasure and pain and these feelings drive us erotically, where the erotic is thought of as man’s instinctive drive to reproduce, to conceive, it invent. (as in Diotima’s speech in Plato’s Symposium, a “pregnant soul”)

Evidence for man’s instinctual drive to create  seen on the walls of the Ice Age caves in various parts of the world. The fantastic renderings of animals in these caves demonstrates accomplished art dating back 40,000 years.  The distribution of these caves in  disparate places during the same time periods, in France/Spain and Indonesia, suggest that man’s desire to create art  is an integral part of what it means to be a human, as  Newman said:  “For artists are the first men.

The Renaissance conflated the Greek ideal of Beauty with the Christian legend.  “It was no idle quip that moved Michelangelo to call himself a sculptor rather than a painter, for he knew that only in his sculpture could the desire for the  grand statement of Christian sublimity be reached…Michelangelo knew the meaning of Greek humanities of his time involved making Christ, the man into Christ who is god…” (Newman-2)

The Renaissance view of the absolute as perfection, as beauty remained the controlling value system that subsequent generations of artists have had to struggle with.  Not until the 20th Century that artists began to search for new ways to realize their works.   Still most artist’s works remained bound to the representational world either directly or by metaphor.

images (1)


Comparing  Picasso’s Guernica to Jackson Pollock’s 69:

Where Picasso’s Guernica uses the pictorial plane to express the fear and the terror of war, in pictorial representation, Pollock’s 69 suggests an urgency, a sense of conflict with no representation beyond the paint on his canvas.  We can wrap our heads around what Picasso’s is intimating; Pollock’s work is much more ambiguous, it draws us in and we wander and wander, feeling its sense of conflict and urgency, but it denies any determinate point of view. Its formless formal purity is foundational but this purity is not based on the Greek conceptions of the purity of form and matter. Pollock allows matter to be itself on the pictorial plane.

Fransaw Lyotard railed against  the meta-narrative of classical beauty and the absolute that has dominated art values since Plato’s time.  Modern science has taught us that the what we see does not include all that’s there in what we see. Lyotard’s sees modern artists such as Joyce, Kandinsky, Picasso, Dali and others attempting to  put forward  the inexpressible in their works.  A negative space, that defies representation, the sublime.

His theory separates these artist into two groups:  1) those whose works intimate the ineffable indirectly, modern as in Picasso’s Guernica and  2)those whose works are directly aimed at conveying what can’t be conveyed in the classical meta narrative, postmodern works such as Pollock’s 69 (or  look at Rothko’s Chapel which also includes Barnett Newman’s Broken Olelisk.)  

This suggests, in a  non-periodizing way the structure difference between  Modern Art and Postmodernism  lies in a methodic difference in which the aesthetic affect, how we feel upon viewing these works differ and what those feelings suggests to us. Where Modernism’s uses representation in the pictorial plane to  express the Sublime,  Postmodernism uses the pictorial plane itself  as its  expression of the Sublime, Lyotard’s expression of the inexpressible.  



Broken Obelisk



Barnett Newman,
Edmund Burke,
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment 1790, Section 1  (pg 44) and Book 2 Section 23 (pg 97)
Plato’s Symposium 208/209



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