Research

Between Ethos and Excess? A Critique of the Sublime

Hana Gründler

Ridley Scott, Blade Runner, 1982

"Le sublime est à la mode" – Jean-François Lyotard's sentence formulated in 1984 seems to no longer be valid today. Especially in Visual and Material Culture Studies, but also in Image Studies, the Sublime is increasingly described as a purely aesthetic-idealistic category that is no longer fruitful for contemporary discourses. Indeed, not only in art history, but also in other humanistic disciplines, the sublime has been predominantly associated with the late 18th and early 19th centuries. At that time, the visual representation or linguistic evocation of sublime natural phenomena had become a central motif of art and literature. As accurate as the criticism of a Western aesthetic – often based on the opposition of the beautiful and the sublime – with its essentialist and normativist narrative may seem at first, the contemporary treatment of this contradictory category proves to be historically inaccurate and reductionist upon closer examination. 

The research project therefore aims in several respects at critically questioning the topos of the sublime as well as its use in art and architecture and its interpretation in the formation of theory. First of all, the longue durée of the sublime and in particular those aspects that deal with the limits of the imaginable and the representable will be examined. This is not only fundamental for an analysis of modern representations of natural disasters, but also for that of contemporary images of violence. For as much as the aesthetic category of the sublime productively questions, deconstructs, and transforms (aesthetic) norms, it is also always susceptible to misappropriation by the totalitarian due to its relation to the enormous and the Superhuman, as can be seen, for example, in the megalomaniac architectural designs of fascist or communist regimes.

For this reason, it would fall short of the mark to try to fathom the Sublime merely from an aesthetic perspective. Rather, the epistemic, ethical, and political implications of this contradictory category must be specifically addressed. Only in this way will it be possible to analyze the close connection of the Sublime with ideas of freedom on the one hand and strategies of manipulation, disciplining, and even subjugation on the other. Against this background, it is also important to highlight how often current art and theory consciously or unconsciously refer to the Sublime, which moves between ethos and excess, and its manifold implications. 

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