The Transcendental Sublime in Contemporary Art

Essay 2013 6 Pages

Art - Miscellaneous


The ‘Transcendental Sublime’ and Contemporary Art.

In Robert Rosenblum’s book Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko, Rosenblum traces a continuing tradition in art from the 18th century to the 1960s, which centres upon the term ‘sublime’. In the past many artists (amongst them Caspar David Friedrich, Turner, Wassily Kandinsky, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman) and theorists (amongst them Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Francois Lyotard) have explored the transcendental nature of the sublime in art.

Today we live in an age that prides itself on the loss of illusion. Ideas of transcendence in art are often seen as sentimental and viewed with skepticism. The word sublime seems to be stripped down to “the shock of the new” (often centered on horror).

This essay explores how the transcendental sublime is situated in contemporary art. The ‘transcendental sublime’ will here refer to how looking at a work of art can enable one to be transported, going beyond the given limits to a place of accessing one’s spiritual side. Art that has used shock and terror to achieve a sense of the sublime will be excluded from this discussion.

It has been argued that society is completing the process by which it has established its own mode of thought, its own consciousness as referent. Bourgeois culture is increasingly simulating (in Baudrillard’s terminology) the crucial powers that were assigned to nature’s dominion- the power of thought, repeated in the computer; the ability to create life, accomplished chemically and mechanically; and the ability to create space itself in the binary circuit of computer animation devices.[1] Advertising’s appropriation of the vocabularies of nature is a triumph of the market over nature. Beer, detergent and make-up are now called ‘natural’. Cigarettes have been given such transcendental labels as ‘True’, ‘Light’ and ‘Now’.

Artists today are responding to the world they live in -the world of commerce, communication and computer systems.


[1] Peter Halley, “Nature and Culture, 1983,” in Nature: Documents of Contemporary Art, ed Jeffrey Kastner (London: Whitechapel Gallery, Cambridge, Massachusetts: the MIT Press, 2012), 101-102.


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transcendental nature contemporary art sublime spiritual conceptual art spirituality in art



Title: The Transcendental Sublime in Contemporary Art