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Thoughts on aesthetics (3): “the sublime”.

This post is the third in a series, sharing my thoughts and investigations on aesthetics. Click for links to Part 1 & Part 2.

Today’s post is going to be a final look at Anthony Gormley’s artwork “Another Place“, before we move on to other aspects of aesthetics, and other artists. I’m staying with this work for now though, since it points us towards a massively influential idea in “aesthetics”, that of “the sublime”. We saw in a previous post that Gormley spoke of his work as creating “a field”, and that the individual figures are in

“a relation with each other, and a relation with that limit, the edge, the horizon”.

Anthony Gormley: Sculpted Space Within and Without, 2012

It is this inclusion of the horizon (ie the vastness of the sea), which allows the viewer to make a connection with the idea of “the sublime”. In the The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, we find that “the sublime” is an idea that was formed (by the 18th Century philosopher Edmund Burke) in opposition to “the beautiful”:

” The beautiful is that which excites the desirable societal passion of love, the sublime that which excites the desirable self-preservative passion of astonishment … The objective foundations of beauty and sublimity turn out to be largely opposing: whereas the beautiful tends to the small, the smooth, the various, the delicate, the clear, and the bright, the sublime tends to the great, the uniform, the powerful, the obscure, and the somber.”

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Shelley, 2014: 2.2

“The sublime” refers, then, to a mixed emotion of pain and elation experienced in the presence of vastness; an emotional response to the apprehension of our smallness compared with the immensity of natural forces (provided that we are viewing them from a position of safety).

Once again, we perhaps need to return to Immanuel Kant, who was very influential in the development of “the sublime” as an idea, explicitly bringing it into his moral theory. As I understand it, Kant’s interpretation is that at this moment when we feel sublimity, faced with an overwhelm of our sensory and imaginative capacity to contain the vastness of what is outside of us; we are also reminded of our freedom, through our capacity for reason, to access a timeless and moral realm, and which is what allows us to transcend our bodily limitations.

I must admit that whilst I can follow Edmund Burke, Kant’s theory leaves me nonplussed, and I don’t know how to begin to do justice to it. Thankfully, Iris Murdoch has given a really wonderful discussion of it, and her views on its shortcomings, in her essay “The sublime and the good”. Let us, for now though, return to “Another Place”.

Gormley seems to be following Kant, and leaning on “the sublime” as part of a moral project. “Another Place” uses the vastness of the sea to invite its viewers to reflect on time. As a whole, the work can be understood to create a point of intersection of different conceptions of time. There is the “deep time” of the sea, and of the tides which unendingly cover the figures (“the sublime”); and there is human or bodily time, as indexed in the creation of the body-castings. [Mechanised (measurable) clock time is also visible in the “field” of the work, through its placing at the mouth of the Mersey River: a nexus of historical trans-Atlantic trade (including slave trading) and migration; but this aspect of “time” is arguably downplayed in the work, or at least is not emphasised.] Gormley is signalling to us that he wants the work to be a moral prompt – in his own words:

” to reassess our own position and our relation to those around us…. I feel that the space of art has become so precious as a place in which the discussion about our human future in relation to deep time can be felt, thought about and shared.”.

Gormley & Newman, 2012

Sources, & resources for further research and reading:

Shelley, J. (2014) 18__th Century British Aesthetics: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aesthetics-18th-british/#Bur

Gormley, A. (1997) Another Place [Sculpture / Installation]. Crosby Beach, Sephton Metropolitan Borough Council.

Gormley, A. (2012) Sculpted Space, within and without: http://ted.com/talks/antony_gormley_sculpted_space_within_and_without

Murdoch, I. (1997) Existentialists and Mystics : Writings on Philosophy and Literature. London : Penguin.

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