“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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
fails like success
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?
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.
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.
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
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
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.
© 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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