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the return of the sublime:
the romantic impulse
by max podstolski

In “Chasing sublimity: nature, self and art” (*spark-online issue 11) I was writing - at least partially - from a supra-rational viewpoint, to reflect “breaking through to the other side” of the irrational. While rationality is of course an indispensable tool, it tends to straitjacket creativity. Art, like beauty, has no essence: it cannot be defined or explained in purely rational terms. If anything, art-making and art-recognition are fundamentally irrational processes, based on intuition, or “what feels right”.

There is a continuous battle raging between rational and irrational, order and chaos, creation and destruction, Classical and Romantic. Not only is the visible evidence of this battle enshrined in the whole of art history, but these polarities are just as evident in the present, and will continue to slug it out in the future. The battle is as intrinsic to the artistic psyche as it is to the human.

A simplified art history chronicles a succession of art movements, each “advancing” on the achievements of its predecessors and inseparable from its historical context. The language and terminology of a movement evokes the art that belonged to it, as the word “sublime” evokes Romantic art from the 18th to 19th centuries. Yet the Romantic impulse--the urge to freedom, rebelliousness, individualism, irrationality, spontaneity, primitivism, nature-worship, and so on--is as relevant today as it ever was. The Romantic impulse did not, indeed could not, die out with the Romantic movement per se, but has continued to resurface in impressionism, symbolism, expressionism, dada, surrealism, abstract expressionism, the CoBrA movement, etc.--wherever artists have rebelled against the reigning orthodoxies of academic or official art.

Artists are impelled to rebel because the establishment is always a form of tyranny which curtails artistic freedom. Even when it appears on the surface that “anything goes”, as with postmodernism, there is the tacit assumption that an artist must adopt the trappings of PoMo theory-speak to be taken seriously by the artworld establishment. If not to do so is to risk being ignored and marginalised by the pecking order, then why not quote a French philosopher or two in your next exhibition catalogue? Could be a smart move, career-wise.

Artists should not make art to fit in with prevailing academic theories. Academic discourse about art should follow artistic creation, not lead it. In the postmodern artworld, however, theoretical and philosophical texts have become more important than the artworks themselves, to the extent that artworks are seen first and foremost as kinds of texts rather than aesthetic objects.

Some artists are rediscovering the Romantic, irrational impulse and exploring it in the contemporary context. Of course it has never really gone away, just been overshadowed by the relentless march of art history. The following letter, in response to museum curator Angus Trumble, was published in Art Monthly Australia's September issue:
Nothing fails like success
It is neither surprising nor deplorably retro that some Australian artists and critics now like to talk about “the sublime”. Your correspondent Angus Trumble (August 2000) states that it's “in reaction to the dense, sometimes incomprehensible language that surrounds, indeed from time to time constitutes, a lot of text-based contemporary art.” That's putting it mildly: the best such art can aspire to is illustration of obfuscating post-structuralist theory, the contemporary equivalent of vintage fin-de-siècle Bouguereau. This is what's termed “subversive” work by its official scribes, because it heroically taunts the old straw men of modernism, the patriarchy, or the past academy as opposed to the present one. How much longer can those same dead horses be flogged before someone realises it's not that subversive an enterprise anymore?
The growth industry of literary and cultural theory flows from the ubiquitous tentacles of academicism, from which modernist artists attempted to liberate art once and for all, unsuccessfully of course. Modernist art was initially reviled, then assimilated by the academy; it became academic art, despite recalcitrant resistance; then it was digested, chewed up, turned on its head, and spat out in the regurgitated stuff of text-based postmodernism. Nothing fails like success! The institutional inversion of artistic value, from the aesthetic to the textual, was apparently necessary to signal the changing of the guard or “garde”: the elitist concept of an avant-garde minority was pronounced unpardonably passé and replaced with a pluralistic one, akin to a permanently-ongoing cultural revolution. An unassailable combination of Warhol and Mao. The newest devouring the not-so-new in Bacchanalian frenzy. To the point of throwing the metaphorical baby (aesthetic value or interest) out with the bathwater.
Be that as it may, Angus Trumble sees all this latest sublime talk as nothing more than “turning towards the archaic language of Romanticism”, not much help for curators in public art museums such as himself “whose job it is to draft cogent labels and wall texts to accompany displays of new art”. (Just as artists should think of the gargantuan problems they cause library cataloguers before tampering with the traditional fine arts categories of painting, sculpture, printmaking, and so on . . . right?) An entirely pragmatic consideration, indeed, but artists have to follow their own paths, irrespective of curatorial convenience. And hasn't the linear development theory of art history been well and truly abandoned? It's as valid to speak of the sublime in the contemporary context as it is to create art in any way one chooses.
There is very good reason for artists with an ounce of integrity to be concerned with “highly emotive concepts” such as the sublime. For a start, why shouldn't they be passionate about their art? Isn't irony equally past its use by date, if not more so, having been done to death in recent years? As the saying goes, there is nothing new under the sun. The flipside of the coin is that there's nothing old. The pendulum of artistic fashion swings where it will, but artists should take inspiration from wherever they find it.
The sublime is to do with the aesthetics of personal experience, which is prior to someone else's ideas of how that experience should be interpreted, described or expressed. For an artist to be concerned with the sublime implies (a) an acknowledgement of authentic personal experience, and (b) an attempt to individually mediate that experience in some artistic form. The sublime is not just “out there”, e.g. in a landscape or painting, but “in here”, in the sense of Jackson Pollock's identification with nature. The sublime does not have to be represented in any particular manner, Romanticist, abstract expressionist, or otherwise: what matters is the expression or communication of individual authenticity in one's art form, whether one speaks of sublimity or not. A far cry from the self-contradictory “death of the author” (we all know who that's attributed to).
There is a place for the irrational, the non-rational, even the anti-rational, in everyone's life, despite the fact that society must be run along fundamentally rational lines. A celebration of the irrational is a celebration of humanity as a whole and the individual in particular: the joie de vivre that makes our existence here so wonderfully, so beautifully worthwhile.

Copyright © 2000 Max Podstolski. All Rights Reserved.

Max Podstolski a New Zealand based painter and writer, was the first author accepted for publication in *spark-online.

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