Ex. 6: The contemporary abyss

I’ve found it difficult to grapple with the concept of ‘the sublime’ within the art world as the more I read into the subject, the more I disagree with its very existence. It’s not that I haven’t experienced what is referred to as ‘sublime’- as someone who exists mostly at home, the rare adventure to the top of a building site for an unseen view can truly take my breath away. However, the feeling in that moment is mine alone- it cannot be captured by a medium other than my brain. To say that an artwork -be it painted, photographed or otherwise- can evoke the exact feeling of discovery or wonderment that the artist encountered in the moment just isn’t true. For me, at least.

Media can ellicit emotion. A news report from a war-torn country can evoke emotional responses, for example. But a television or radio broadcast cannot capture all that makes that scene a reality; the smells, the feeling, the air- all of those contextual elements that are so important for the full picture. The representation is never the reality.

Still, I tried to think of a medium that evokes feelings in me that could in some way change my mind on the subject. I chose an album, namely ‘Final Straw’ by Snow Patrol. In my teenage years as I struggled terribly with existential crisis after crisis, I found the dulled, melancholic tones of the lead singer to strike a chord with me. The lyrics spoke to my world view and the depth of the sounds gave me the impression that I wasn’t the only one to feel that way. However, the songs weren’t written by someone with my perspective, nor does a listener require mental illness or sadness to enjoy or connect with the music. This is where I struggle greatly with ‘the sublime’ – however the original artist felt at that exact time cannot be represented by sound, sight or touch. Instead, that feeling is in the human brain and is a complex mixture of the five senses and awful lot of specific context.

Simon Morley sums this up for me when he says, “Perhaps, […] sublime is just an empty word, one to which we can simply attach whatever meaning we need.”1 I would argue that what the sublime really is is the personal emotional response to experiencing something overwhelming. In one of the rare moments I experience true wonder at the beauty of an unusual scene, I can capture that beauty in a photograph, but I cannot capture the feelings I have in taking it.



1 Tate. 2010. Staring into the contemporary abyss. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/staring-contemporary-abyss. [Accessed 15 May 2016].


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