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Making Sense of Kant's Senseless Sublime

Making Sense of Kant's Senseless Sublime

6 Mins
May 9, 2018

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Rinaldo Enchanted by Armida, 1742 until 1745. Was this the kind of work Kant associated with charms and sensual delights of beauty?

Making Sense of Kant's Senseless Sublime

In the last decade of the 18th century Beethoven composed his 1st and 2nd piano concertos, Goya etched the series Los Caprichos, Jacques-Louis David painted The Death of Marat, and Mozart composed the Requiem in D Minor and the great Jupiter Symphony. These works coincided with the French Revolution, and together they guided European culture away from the extravagant art of Rococo exemplified by the sweetly-colored paintings of Boucher and Tiepolo, with their floating florid nymphs, cupids, silks, and princesses.


Jacques-Louis David, Death of Marat, 1793. The period of the French Revolution marked a new period of art with more gravitas.

This was a paradigm shift from the superficial to gut wrenching passion, as if Western art was going back to its roots in the dramas of Aeschylus and Euripides; answering the big questions of what is the good and what is important while at the same time elevating the creative process by innovation and superlative skill. This wasn't for the faint of heart. The artists would have to face inner turmoil and outer rejection as they attempted to get patrons to sponsor wildly dramatic depictions of death, war, and executions, which didn’t lend themselves to the decorative palace dining room.  Risking their livelihoods the artists bore down in this new direction. With this revolutionary spirit we can see the need for a new aesthetic to champion and reflect an Age of Enlightenment.

The Sublime the Absolutely Great

The year 1790, when Beethoven was 20, also marked the publication of Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment. It famously compares and contrasts the aesthetic values of Beauty with that of the Sublime. The treatise identifies Beauty representing the lighter more sensual pleasing side and the Sublime addressing what is the "absolutely great beyond all comparison." Kant wanted to free the Sublime from the constraints of art and launch it into the world of the mind unfettered by perception, form, or realization.

Kant: “Perhaps there is no sublimer passage in the Jewish Law than the command, ‘Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image, nor the likeness of anything which is in heaven or on the earth or under the earth. . . . ’”

J. H. Bernard, the translator of the 1914 edition and whose quotes on Kant we are using, summarizes Kant's Sublime: "Nothing in nature is sublime; and the sublimity really resides in the mind and there alone. Indeed, as true Beauty is found, properly speaking, only in beauty of form, the idea of sublimity is excited rather by those objects which are formless and exhibit a violation of purpose."

With an abundance of confidence Kant offered powerful arguments and moral righteousness to face painful choices and lead to a new era of the great unknown.


An interesting association that Kant attaches to the Sublime is that it inflicts spiritual/mental pain: "The quality of the feeling of the Sublime is that it is a feeling of pain in reference to the faculty by which we judge aesthetically of an object, which pain, however, is represented at the same time as purposive."

It is hard to imagine as ideal a world in which mental pain is both the experience and the goal. A dear friend of mine, Rick Barker, author of Transcending Evolution, conveyed to me while discussing aesthetics at the Idyllwild dog park, that contemplation of the formless nature of the Kantian sublime with its disconnect from the senses "is a terrifying introspective experience, undoubtedly that is why pain is associated with it."

The Challenge

Though Kant is explicit in that the Sublime is not to be found in art or nature but only in the recesses of the mind, he threw down a challenge to artists everywhere by stating the Sublime was "absolutely great" not merely "playful" as in the case of Beauty. That challenge was irresistible to all the artists who saw themselves as serious.

The Tate

Kant's intention of disconnecting the sublime from art backfired as artists went ahead with that program anyway. A good example of this is that the Tate has several research publications on the aesthetics of the Sublime covering periods from the 18th century to now. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/the-sublime

So what started as a call from Kant to raise the mind to a higher level beyond art unwittingly made Kant a key player in fine tuning an aesthetic perspective that would drive this disturbing version of the Sublime to future generations.

The Formless and Senseless

The obstacles to artists were enormous. How to create "absolute greatness" without form or sensory perception? Kant: "The Beautiful in nature is connected with the form of the object, which consists in having boundaries. The Sublime, on the other hand, is to be found in a formless object, so far as in it or by occasion of it boundlessness is represented, and yet its totality is also present to thought."

"Nothing, therefore, which can be an object of the senses is to be termed sublime ….The sublime is that, the mere capacity of thinking which evidences a faculty of mind transcending every standard of sense."

Almost Impossible

Kant's Sublime project was almost impossible to project through art, which makes the challenge even greater. I am not saying that artists literally took the challenge from Kant, but his aesthetics was in the air. For example in my college fine art classes in the 1970s the students "knew" by a combination of cultural osmosis and teachers' explicit statements that classical forms no longer mattered: painting was dead, abstract painting was history, and the future was installation art and any wacked medium one could imagine, so long as it didn't fit any form of painting, dance, sculpture or theater. The race was on to discover non-art mediums such as pre-made and found objects, Vaseline, body fluids and waste products, emptiness, crude oil, chocolate sauce and other food products, etc. The idea being to use a shocking and unique medium that wouldn’t be associated with any technique or traditional form or art.

It would take roughly 150 to 200 years for Kant's Sublime to find its home in artists that could engineer the daunting tasks of the total rejection of art forms and create conceptual works that would be mentally painful to contemplate, i.e. shock.


The original Fountain by Marcel Duchamp photographed by Alfred Stieglitz at the 291 (Art Gallery) after the 1917 Society of Independent Artists exhibit. Fountain was rejected by the committee, even though the rules stated that all works would be accepted from artists who paid the fee. In December 2004, Duchamp's Fountain was voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century by 500 selected British art world professionals. Presumedly the original was trashed shortly after this photo was taken.


With Fountain Duchamp fulfilled three of Kant's concepts of the Sublime: it is "formless" in that the art experience is not about the object; it is “senseless” in that it does not require our sensory appraisal of it; and it inspires pain, in that the thought of contemplating a urinal as art is “painful.” It must have been personally frightening for Duchamp to reject art as we know it and surrender to the senseless and absurd. A few years after Fountain Duchamp quit art and pursued playing chess.


In addition to all the above, Kant adds the mathematically Sublime. "Now the Sublime in the aesthetical judging of an immeasurable whole like this lies not so much in the greatness of the number [of units], as in the fact that in our progress we ever arrive at yet greater units."

I cannot think of a better art example of the mathematically Sublime than Christo's The Umbrellas. The umbrellas were placed on rolling hillsides, many disappearing over hilltops giving the illusion that they went on forever. Wowing us with its enormous expanse which we can never see in its entirety.


Christo and Jeanne-Claude, The Umbrellas, Japan-USA, 1984-91. Photo: Wolfgang Volz.

It was perhaps the largest art project ever created and famously received worldwide. Christo installed The Umbrellas, consisting of 3,100 industrial umbrellas 20’ x 28' and weighing 485 pounds each, in Japan and California for a total of 18 days. The project was also painfully mind-numbing as it cost $26 million to be shown for 3 weeks and then dismantled, restoring the areas to their previous states. Jeanne-Claude (Christo's partner): “But there is one quality [that artists] have never used, and that is the quality of love and tenderness that we human beings have for what does not last.” It was like some humongous pop up show quickly over leaving nothing in its wake.


Perhaps the highest point reached and most apt by the aesthetic of Kant's Sublime is Creed's Work No. 227: The Lights Going On and Off. It is simply an empty room. The essence of the experience for viewers is that they are there to see an exceptional artwork, they realize the room is empty (formless) and there is nothing to be aware of (senseless), and then realizing their expectations have been shat on (pain), or in some sadistic psychologies, gleeful that others less savvy have been had.


Creed, Work No. 227: The Lights Going On and Off, 2001 Turner Prize winner.

Kant's aesthetic theory of the Sublime is an interesting thought experiment and has been worked out to its furthest ends. After two centuries of literally and by osmosis exploring Kant's Sublime we find out that instead of furthering our experience of the good, what is important, and awed by the art we are left with its antithesis: cynicism, irrelevancy, and emptiness.

New Direction for the Sublime

It is unfortunate that the real Sublime had to go on such a painful detour and be cut off from reality. The value it learned from this experience is that it need not go in that direction again. Now armed with perception, sensory appeal, beautifully realized forms, and innovation the Sublime can reclaim its place as the primary leading force of humanity's evolution.

Michael Newberry


Michael Newberry

Michael Newberry, b. 1956, is an American neo-romanticist painter based in Idyllwild, California. He blends a variety of influences, notably Rembrandt and the French Impressionists. His major works are typically life-sized canvases. He has exhibited in N.Y., L.A., Santa Monica, Rome, Athens, and Brussels. His works are collected by internationally renowned people such as designer Chan Luu and philosopher Stephen Hicks. Full bio and CV including links to important artworks, articles, and presentations. https://newberryarchive.wordpress.com/bio/

Michael Newberry
About the author:
Michael Newberry

Michael Newberry, b. 1956, is an American neo-romanticist painter based in Idyllwild, California. He blends a variety of influences, notably Rembrandt and the French Impressionists. His major works are typically life-sized canvases. He has exhibited in N.Y., L.A., Santa Monica, Rome, Athens, and Brussels. His works are collected by internationally renowned people such as designer Chan Luu and philosopher Stephen Hicks.

Full bio and CV including links to important artworks, articles, and presentations. https://newberryarchive.wordpress.com/bio

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