Contemporary Art and the Sublime Essay

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Contemporary Art and the Sublime More than six decades after the publication of Barnet Newman’s 1948 article ‘The Sublime is Now’, artists are still trying to give the sublime a contemporary treatment. The sheer range of their attempts makes it harder than ever to offer a narrow definition. The artist and writer Julian Bell offers here his own critical reflections on the contemporary sublime, surveying recent art and considering his own practice. The sublime is a term that has been heavily employed in art writing over the past twenty years. Too heavily, it may be. References to it have come from so many angles that it is in danger of losing any coherent meaning. We have been offered everything from ‘the techno-sublime’1 and ‘the eco-sublime’2 to ‘the Gothic sublime’3 and ‘the suburban sublime’4: anything from volcanoes and vitrines to still lifes and soft toys may be sniffed at for sublimity.5 How did we arrive at this state of affairs? From our current perspective, we can track the term’s usage winding stream-wise across the landscape of cultural history. On the far mountainsides there is the glint of the Pseudo-Longinus, circa first-century treatise, our earliest reference point. Then we catch sight of two well-known waterfalls, Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry of 1757 and Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment of 1790. It is easy to trace the swelling river of references to the sublime that rolls on down from these two, but as the constructions of modernism rise up in the later nineteenth century, the river’s course gets increasingly obscured. Suddenly in 1948 it swings into view again, traversed by the bridge of Barnett Newman’s rhetoric. But here in the foreground, as of the 2010s, we seem to stand amidst a delta. Channels of discourse about the sublime meander all around us, but which is the main flow, which the subsidiary, which the navigation canal or

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