16 Dec 2008

Barnett Newman's "The Sublime is Now," partial summary

by Corry Shores
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Barnett Newman
"The Sublime is Now"

European art has struggled with the Greek postulate of beauty that confusedly identified the Absolute with the absolutisms of creations, resulting in a continual "moral struggle between notions of beauty and the desire for sublimity" (17b).

Longinus was bound to his Platonic notion of beauty and value, hence he tied the feeling of exaltation to the perfect statement, that is, to objective rhetoric. Kant continues this confusion with his theory of transcendent perception, which holds the phenomenon to be more than the phenomenon. In Hegel's theory of beauty, the sublime lies at the bottom of a hierarchy of beauties set in formal relationships to reality. Although, Edmund Burke insisted on distinguishing the Absolute with the absolutism of perfect creations in a way that hints of surrealism.

This philosophical struggle manifests as well in the history of the plastic arts. So today we see Greek art's exaltation of the perfect form as an idealization of sensibility, and so also think that in the Gothic or baroque, "the sublime consists of a desire to destroy form, where form can be formless" (171d).

The struggle between beauty and the sublime reaches its climax in the Renaissance and further in the "reaction against the Renaissance that is known as modern art" (172a). Renaissance artists revived Greek ideals of beauty by casting Christ legends "in terms of absolute beauty as against the original Gothic ecstasy over the legend's evocation of the Absolute" (172a). Despite Michelangelo's efforts to attain the sublimity of pure forms and grandeur, "painting continued on its merry quest for a voluptuous art until in modern times the impressionists, disgusted with its inadequacy, began the movement to destroy the established rhetoric of beauty by the impressionist insistence on a surface of ugly strokes" (172c).

So modern art's impulse was to destroy beauty, but because it did not compensate for the loss of the Renaissance's sublime message, modern art was able only to transfer values rather than devise new ways of experiencing life. For example, the cubists, "by their dada gestures of substituting a sheet of newspaper and sandpaper for both the velvet surfaces of the Renaissance and the impressionists, made a similar transfer of values instead of creating a new vision, and succeeded only in elevating the sheet of paper" (172cd). The rhetoric of exaltation was so strong in European art that modern arts' elements of sublimity manifest "in its effort and energy to escape the pattern rather than in the realization of a new experience" (172d).

The failure of European art to achieve the sublime is due to this blind desire to exist inside the reality of sensation (the objective world, whether distorted or pure) and to build an art within a framework of pure plasticity (the Greek ideal of beauty, whether that plasticity be a romantic active surface or a classic stable one). In other words, modern art, caught without a sublime content, was incapable of creating a new sublime image and, unable to move away from the Renaissance image of figures and objects except by distortion or by denying it completely for an empty world of geometric formalisms a pure rhetoric of abstract mathematical relationships became enmeshed in a struggle over the nature of beauty: whether beauty was in nature or could be found without nature. (173c)

American artists deny that art is concerned with beauty. Newman asks, if we now live in a time without a mythos of the sublime and when we refuse to exalt pure relations or live in the abstract, how then can we create sublime art?

We want to hold on to the exalted and our absolute emotions, although we want to let go of the "obsolete props of an outmoded and antiquated legend" (173d). Instead, we create images with a self evident reality but without the "props and crutches" that evoke outmoded sublime and beautiful images; and, we do so without being burdened by the traditions of Western European painting.

Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or "life," we are making [them] out of ourselves, out of our own feelings. The image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation, real and concrete, that can be understood by anyone who will look at it without the nostalgic glasses of history. (173d)

Newman, Barnett. Selected Writings. Ed. John P. O'Neil. Berkeley: University of California Press.

1 comment:

  1. Very thoughtful one there. So very deep.

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