Category Archives: Art History

The sublime

In my Romanticism lecture, one idea we discuss at length is the notion of the sublime, which was ubiquitous in discussions of art in the 19th Century.

Here’s a nice cartoon on the subject from Existential Comics (you might notice the subtle reference to Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog’):


From the page:

The Sublime, in aesthetic theory, is something powerful and terrifying that arouses a strange feeling of pleasure in the subject. For example, when viewing a hurricane or vast desert wasteland you can be overwhelmed by their awesome force, but exulted at the same time. For Schopenhauer, this involved a kind of “turning away of the will”. The sheer awesome power of the object overwhelms our will and violently turns it away from ourselves, and we enter into a will-less state of pure contemplation of the object, which results in a strange exultation: the sublime. This is an unstable state, which is difficult to maintain, because any awareness of the particular danger that the object causes us, or reflection on ourselves in relation to the object, would destroy the affect. So we feel the sublime at witnessing the awesome power of a tornado, but if we become aware that the tornado is in fact heading towards us and is probably going to kill us, we will just feel regular old, non-sublimey terror. One of my older comics was a more serious take on this aesthetic theory.

If you are interested in more, this is a pretty good lecture of Schopenhauer’s Aesthetics, by Alex Neill. The Stanford Encyclopedia also has a good article on it.

The art is a reference to Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, which is commonly used to portray the sublime in art, and many of his other paintings had similar themes.

Here’s a more serious take on the same theme:


You’re probably thinking too much about Andy

Andy Warhol once said:

The Pop artists did images that anybody walking down Broadway could recognize in a split second — comics, picnic tables, men’s trousers, celebrities, shower curtains, refrigerators, Coke bottles — all the great modern things that the Abstract Expressionists tried so hard not to notice at all.

I have always thought that the best way to understand Andy’s work is to relate it most directly to its subject matter. That’s what he was interested in. He had very few unspoken motives. It’s remarkable how few critics actually take at face value what Andy himself said about his work, yet he’s remarkably lacking in guile.

Here is Richard Meyer on ‘The art-historical problem of Andy Warhol‘:

Rather than reinventing Warhol under the sign of this or that avant-garde artist, why not take his fascination with mass culture seriously? Why not look closely at the subjects and surfaces which Warhol actually worked — and worked over — rather than refer his art, yet again, to some earlier source within the history of modernism? Why not, for example, think seriously about Warhol’s roots as a commercial illustrator and graphic designer, about his expertise in the language of advertising and the solicitation of consumerist desire? Surely, Warhol’s commercial illustrations of the 1950s are no less relevant to his Pop art of the 1960s than are a set of Goya etchings or Schwitters collages. In positioning Warhol as a “classic modernist,” the retrospective not only suppresses his commercial expertise but also his identity as a queer artist. Questions of same-sex desire, effeminacy, and cross-dressing, not to mention the complex links between gay subculture and the mass media, deserve to be taken seriously within any full-scale retrospective of Warhol’s career. Such questions are all but ignored in the current show.