Sunday, 3 March 2013


Longinus says that great artists see that "nature judged man to be no lowly or ignoble creature when she brought us into this life and into the whole universe as into a great celebration, to be spectators of her whole performance and most ambitious actors. She implanted at once into our souls an invincible love for all that is great and more divine than ourselves. That is why the whole universe gives insufficient scope to man's power of contemplation and reflection, but his thoughts often pass beyond the boundaries of the surrounding world."Longinus's thought here would not seem to stress the limitations on human powers, so much as their own transcendent nature. And this, too, is a constant theme of sublime discourse; for it is perfectly clear that to claim to see into the limitations of human powers of knowledge and description is somehow to transcend those limitations.'2 

Such limitations relate to art as it can be considered liminal. It can often push man to his limits, artist, non-artist and audience, at the brink of their sanity, when human becomes almost anti-human. Art tries to capture alterity, an otherness, a representation that exceeds representation; this is why some forms of art could be regarded as being sublime. However, when one finally reaches ones limits, an artist or audience member may be able to access something that enables them to create or experience the sublime in its purest form. When the mind takes complete control over the body, when we are simply passive to the dominance of the work, when we no longer possess the ability to judge or to be judged, we work or we experience without boundaries.

Kant believed the sublime differed from beauty; it was something more, something better. When discussing the beautiful and the sublime, he noted that the sublime ‘is to be found in a formless object’, and is without boundaries whereas beauty ‘is connected with the form of the object’ and thus possesses ‘boundaries’. One might regard the work of Mark Rothko as being without boundaries, as though the artist, predicting the end of his life, manages to portray the sublime in a way that makes us conscious of our own finitude or mortality. We experience the sublime when our imagination fails to comprehend the vastness of the infinite and we become aware of the ideas of reason and their representation of the boundless totality of the universe. ‘No painter has ever progressed directly from his drawings as a child to the work of his maturity. Artists do not stem from their childhood, but from their conflict with the achievements of their predecessors; not from their own formless world, but from their struggle with the forms which others have imposed on life.’3

1. Sircello, Guy, How Is a Theory of the Sublime Possible? The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 51, No. 4 (Autumn, 1993), pp. 541 - 550.  Available at: (Accessed 23th December 2012) Longinus, op. cit., p. 47.
2. Sircello, Guy, How Is a Theory of the Sublime Possible? The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 51, No. 4 (Autumn, 1993), pp. 541 - 550.  Available at: (Accessed 23th December 2012) 543.
3. Malraux, André, The Voices of Silence (United States of America: Princeton University Press, 1978) 281.