The sublime in art: Can an artwork capture the experience of the sublime?

For centuries philosophers and artists thought there was only one main way to aesthetically judge the world around us. This aesthetic judgement is what is commonly known to us as beauty. However, in the 18th century there was a shift in the way we aesthetically judge by the revival of the sublime. This shift is known as the neo-classical and romantic period. Romantic artists used paintings, poetry and sculpture to provoke the same feeling explorers and scholars had, the sublime experience. Sublime is profound, ineffable and something language is not capable of describing. Explorers experienced the sublime and its contradiction of feelings on expeditions to the alps and at sea. It is in theses settings you will find both the beautiful and dangerous. Thinkers such as Emmanuel Kant would agree with the view that we can only find something beyond human capabilities in nature. That is why one must trek out into the wilderness if in hopes of experiencing such a feeling.

In this post I set out to explore notion of the sublime within the context of modern art. I will specifically be applying the concept to two pieces of artwork, that of Casper David Friedrich and Barnett Baruch Newman. Using their artworks and the ideas of philosophers Emmanuel Kant, Edmund Burke and Jean-François Lyotard to evaluate whether modern artists artworks could capture the sublime experience. I maintain in this post that the impulse of modern art is the need to dismantle beauty and replace it with notion of the sublime specifically the mathematically sublime. I first intend to define the sublime as a reaction to the traditional measurement of aesthetic value that proceeded the notion of the sublime, namely beauty. Although my main focus in this essay is to assess the representation of the sublime in modern art, it is only right to also highlight the role beauty played in shaping the following definitions of the sublime as an aesthetic judgement on the world.

For Kant there are two basic forms of aesthetic experience, judgments on beauty and judgments on the sublime. He first explores this through the Critique of Pure Reason, starting with beauty. There are four distinguished features about Judgments of beauty. One, they are disinterested. This means that we do not take interest in objects through pleasure and call it beautiful, but we derive pleasure in it because it is beautiful. For example, I don’t call a sunset beautiful because it makes me happy rather it makes me happy to do to my aesthetic judgment to view it as beautiful. If we judged it as beautiful because it makes us happy, Kant would describe this as a judgment of the ‘agreeable’. This is for statements not judgements, such as I like pasta as is subjected to that person’s opinion. However, this leads to Kant’s second and third condition is that these judgements are universal and necessary. This means that they will not be products of culture but in human nature. Part of judgments of the beautiful is that we expect others to agree with us and this achievement of agreeing gives us humans ‘common sense’. Kant’s common sense is not defined as having general knowledge but an a-priori principle of our taste. The final condition is based around Kant’s logical approach that beautiful objects appear purposeful without purpose. He argues they affect us as if the beauty should have a purpose, however none can be found.

In the Critique of Judgement Kant defines the sublime as “that, the mere ability to think which shows a faculty of the mind surpassing every standard of sense.”[1] Kant draws a distinction between two conceptions of the sublime: 1) the mathematically sublime and the dynamically sublime. Within both of these conceptions, the occurrence of the sublime resides in the superiority of our own power of reason, as a super sensible capacity, over nature. Concerning the mathematically sublime, the impression of reason’s superiority over nature takes the form of feeling of reason’s superiority to imagination, understood of as the natural capability required for sensory uneasiness, an apprehension, specifically concerning the magnitudes of empirically given things. The mathematically sublime, thus, owes its name to the notion that the sublime is stimulated through that which is vast beyond any comparison we can empirically make, which is absolutely large. “Just because there is in our imagination a striving to advance to the infinite, while in our reason there lies a claim to absolute totality, as to a real idea, the very inadequacy of our faculty for estimating the magnitude of the things in the sensible world [viz., imagination] awakens the feeling of a super sensible faculty in us”[2]. The mathematically sublime is, thus, not connected to an overwhelming power, for example a tsunami, but to what is extremely or excessively beyond our capacity for imagination. Essentially, the empirical function of the sublime is to uncover philosophical judgment as the context in which the ‘critical enterprise functions or as the “manner” in which critical thought situates its own a-priori conditions.[3]

The passions, understood in Burke’s way, suggested at once that society, as such answered to natural instincts, and that it comprised elements of continuity and improvement alike. Burke then proceeded to show that self-preservation and its cognates suggested the complex idea of the sublime, and not least the idea of a God who was both active and terrible. Beauty, on the other hand, comprised a very different set of simple ideas, which originated in pleasure. Sublime and beauty, therefore sprang from very different origins. The sublime for Burke is related to both awe and terror and these two forms of the sublime are showcased in the art of the period through the power of nature upon the subject. The perhaps most definitive painting of the sublime and the Romantic period itself, the famous Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich encapsulates the ‘insensate nature’ focus of the period in relation to the sublimity of nature, and the power nature has wrought upon the subject of man. The image is evocative as the ‘Wanderer’ stands upon a precipice overlooking a sea of clouds. The subject is in awe, astonished, and therefore this is ‘sublime’. Nature is the primary source of the sublime during this period and the Burkean question of the sublime, whether it eliminates our sense of self or heightens our sense of identity is an underlying concept of the art and the discourse on the subject during this period. The effects of the sublime and its transcendental motifs are central to the philosophical focus of the time as evidenced by many of the artistic works.

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Wanderer above the sea fog by Casper David Friedrich

Post burke and Kant inspired a new age during 1800, Romanticism. In contrast to the industrial revolution the romantics use the ideas from the Enlightenment to revive nature in art. They done this by using human emotion to create visual art, literature and music. The romantics attempted to create an authentic experience with the artist placing emphasis on emotions such as fear terror and curiosity to provoke the aesthetical lives of sublimity. Lyotard’s view of the sublime differs from Burke’s who maintains that the foundation of the sublime is terror and that pain dominates pleasure. Lyotard however believes that within the sublime exists a movement of ‘pain to pleasure’.

Vir Heroicus Sublimis by Barnet Baruch Newman

Barnet Baruch Newman was an American abstract artist during the Abstract Impressionism movement in early mid-20th century. His most popular work is known as the Vir Heroicus sublimis, painted circa 1950 to 51. Newman was concerned with time not manipulation of space. by time he does not mean so in the historical sense but with a focus on now. This now was unnameable as his friend and commentator Thomas behest wrote similarly to ‘Makom’. Makom is a Hebrew word given to God in the Torah as God is meant to have no definitive name. It is also known in art as a place or time that has almost a ghostly presence to it in which we wonder unsure or its actual purpose. This can be seen to go hand in hand with the concept of the sublime. The sublime as we already have discussed is the incomprehensible. Newman manages to convey this in his rather large painting the Vir Heroicus sublimis. Unlike Casper David Frederick, Newman did not focus on the sublime in forms of nature but instead by the placement of 5 lines on a red black background. The strategic placements of the lines invoke an experience of arguably fear and terror. When you focus on one of the lines the red background surrounds your peripheral vision making the viewer engulfed in a sea of red visually. The colour of his red canvas has connotations of images of fear, terror in some cases death, which leads the viewer to have some subconscious experience with the sublime. When Looking at Newman’s painting one cannot help but think back to Kant’s definition on the sublime. The sublime is not beauty. The sublime is not found within the physicality of the painting, such as the precision of the brush strokes and the accuracy of the colours used. It is not an endless sea or standing upon a high cliff. As for Kant, it is the rationale that comes upon perceiving it. The simplicity of beauty cannot stimulate the mind in such way of that of the sublime. Perceptual experience of the sublime leaves a limited (ungraspable) feeling within us. Bart Vandenabeele describes this moment as the “horizon”. In this moment it is not a feeling of transcendence but the fact that in this moment we are capable of rationalising what we are not capable of imagining. Using the well-known example of the ocean; when we look out towards it, we are presented with what seem to be an endless ocean. There is a certain magnificence about the ocean. Unlike that of a pond or a lake, there is an endless consistency to the ocean as there seems to be no limit to how far you can go. The thought that nearly automatically comes to mind is “how big is it?” When we try to imagine just how grand the ocean is, we are hit with feeling of what we can’t physically imagine but can try to rationalise. This is how the experience of the sublime is created. Vandenabeele supports this by stating “the sublime is, hence, not an experience of the absolute that would exist outside the power of imagination but the absolute nature of the unsurpassable limits of our imaginative power to comprehend”.[4] As much as we would like to believe we could imagine this endless ocean, we cannot. Instead what we are left with is this abysmal feeling of rationalising the unknown.

Lyotard understands the Kantian sublime as a way to conform to the criteria that rationally analyse postmodernism with deconstruction. Lyotard gives an account of the immeasurable nature of the imagination and reason as a ‘differend’ and this is “to be found at the heart of sublime feeling: at the encounter of two equally present to thought, the absolute whole when it conceives, the absolutely measured when it presents”.[5] Our Imagination recognizes forms and measures whereas reason understands something without form of an immeasurable nature of something. There is a disconnection of imagination and reason and when the power of critical thought is utilised, we can reflectively judge something.

When exploring the sublime, we can use Burke’s and Kant’s very similar, but ultimately different definitions to assess a piece of art. If we choose to follow Burke’s definition, we are limited. Only mainly able to create the conditions for the sublime experience through nature and its power. Works such as Casper David Fredrick’s Wander above the sea fog encapsulates Burke’s view. His blend of conveying nature and the unknown from the eyes of an explorer, give us as viewers of the artwork, not the exact same experience but one which we can relate to. Similarly, Kant would agree with Burke in that our experience of the sublime is largely found within and through nature. However, Kant does not limit himself like Burke, as for Kant the experience is not conditioned by what it is provoked by. Rather the experience is found in our cognition and ability to try rationalising this moment. It is only when we try this do, we realise our imagination simply cannot ‘catch up’ to what are minds are capable of thinking of. This definition can be seen to go hand in hand with Barnet Baruch Newman work the Vir Heroicus sublimis, which does not rely on the image of nature to provoke the sublime. When using Kant’s definition, there is no doubt that through abstract Impressionism, Newman has been able to create what feels like an experience of the sublime. I do not believe that art can truly represent a real-life experience of a concept such the sublime. However, if they use Kant’s recall of the sublime, then I do believe that artworks can try to do so. But undeniably, the feeling it provokes cannot be matched with the experience of the in real life.


  • Lyotard, Jean- Francis, “Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?” in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 79.
  • Lyotard, Jean- Francis, Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), 6–7.
  • Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, trans. J. H. Bernard (London: Macmillan, 1914), 110.
  • Ginsborg, Hannah, “Kant’s Aesthetics and Teleology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.
  • Vandenabeele, Bart. “The Sublime in Art: Kant, the Mannerist, and the Matterist Sublime.” The Journal of Aesthetic Education 49, no. 3 (2015): 32–49. doi:10.5406/jaesteduc.49.3.0032.
  • Pillow, Kirk. 1994. “Form and Content In Kant’s Aesthetics: Locating Beauty And The Sublime In The Work Of Art”. Journal of The History Of Philosophy 32 (3): 443–459. doi:10.1353/hph.1994.0048.
  • Lyotard, Jean- Francis. “The Sublime and the Avant Garde.” Paragraph 6 (1985): 1–18.
  • Newman, Barnett. “The Sublime Is Now.” In Reading Abstract Expressionism: Context and Critique, edited by Landau Ellen G., 137–39. Yale University Press, 2005.

[1] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, trans. J. H. Bernard (London: Macmillan, 1914), 110

[2] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, trans. J. H. Bernard (London: Macmillan, 1914), 110

[3] J-F. Lyotard, Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, (1994), 6–7.

[4] Vandenabeele, Bart. The Sublime in Art: Kant, the Mannerist, and the Matterist Sublime.

[5] J-F. Lyotard, Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, (1994), 6–7.

Curator, writer and artist. Expanding the definition of what curating is and to showcase interesting topics discussed within the curating world.

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