The Contemporary Abyss
Read Simon Morley’s essay ‘Staring into the Contemporary Abyss’ published on the Tate website:LP&E, p.50
This should provide you with a good overview of the sublime as a theme within visual culture.
Next, choose any body of work that you feel explores the sublime. It may be a photographic project, a work of literature, cinema, or any other medium.
In your learning log, write at least 300 words describing how you believe the work you’ve selected relates to the sublime. Use Morley’s text to support your argument.
[Link last accessed: 30/09/2020]
[24Oct21] It is an interesting coincidence that I turned up Barnett Newman’s paper on the sublime in the Part 1 exercise on the Tate archive. Morley describes it as “an important short text”, though notes, “[in] the event, however, the idea of the sublime didn’t take hold at that time”, this despite the fact that I found Newman’s conclusions engaging.
Morley suggests that 1940s art ignored the sublime as “residually theological” while pursuing a pared-down “minimal visual language in order to establish its purity” . By the 1970s, a combination of conceptual artists and French philosophers reinvigorated the concept, resulting in 5 strands of activity,
These are in relation to the problem of the unpresentable in art, and to the experiences of transcendence, terror, the uncanny and altered states of consciousness. There are also two main contexts for such discussions: nature and technology. What links such various perspectives, I think, is a desire to define a moment when social and psychological codes and structures no longer bind us, where we reach a sort of borderline at which rational thought comes to an end and we suddenly encounter something wholly and perturbingly other.Simon Morley, Staring into the Contemporary Abyss
In Morley’s view, there are two general responses to the five strands of the sublime:
1. on the positive side, one can be elevated from existing reality to a new “unmediated awareness of life.”; or
2. negatively, a reinforced sense of inadequacy when confronted with a potentially new reality “that so blatantly exceeds us”.
I would suggest that these two responses are too extreme and unnecessarily binary.
Morley goes on to explore some examples of displays and events in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall and then pieces elsewhere (the descriptions are paraphrases of Morley’s text)
- Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project 2003 – luminous man-made sun
- Anish Kapoor’s huge maroon trumpet, Marsyas 2002 – a more affirmative sublime post-religious state of emotional transcendence
- Miroslaw Balka’s dark container, How It Is , 2009 – the ‘terrific’ sublime of dark, uncertain spaces
- Douglas Gordon, Pretty much every word written, spoken, heard, overheard from 1989… 2010 – an unsettling negative-sublime
- James Turrell’s lighting effects that propel the spectator into a state of sensory confusion more ecstatic than unsettling
- Gerhard Richter’s paintings like blurred photographs explore the ambiguity between the two media
- Luc Tuyman’s deliberately drab paintings derived from photographs engages the disappointed sublime, like Samuel Beckett’s “devotion to the nobility of failure” – thwarted transcendence
- a diversion to Albert Speer’s Cathedrals of Light, constructed for the Nuremberg rallies, linking to North Korea’s modern “orchestrated mass public displays”, photographed by Gursky, a reminder the the political use of the sublime should be acknowledged
- The “pseudo-sublimity” of modern advertising
- Philippe Parreno’s virtual reality experiments perhaps signal the future of the artistic exploration of the sublime.
Morley states at the top of the piece that, “in relation to the philosophy of art means something completely different from in ordinary usage, where sublime denotes the wonderful or perfect”. I believe that this is elitist, inaccurate, and patronising of ordinary users: the common perception of the sublime is more like profound, with space for mysterious, disturbing and unsettling, that takes us back to Freud and Jung in Part 1 – Freud equates the sublime to “the uncanny”, things that are simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar (Das Unheimliche, Alexander et al, 2019 p.45) and Jung attributes the sublime to awesome nature and also to “numerical proliferation, when the mind undergoes a ‘momentary checking of the vital powers’ in the face of overwhelming multiplicity” (Ellman 1994).
A statue of Diane Arbus has recently been placed in Central Park (see Blog). The accompanying plaque contains an Arbus quote,
“If you scrutinize reality closely enough, if in some way you really, really get to it, it becomes fantastic.”
It is not elegantly expressed, but the point is easily comprehended. That fantastic might be a sublime.
Morley gives three separate summaries of the contemporary sublime:
a desire to define a moment when social and psychological codes and structures no longer bind us, where we reach a sort of borderline at which rational thought comes to an end and we suddenly encounter something wholly and perturbing other …Simon Morley, Staring into the Contemporary Abyss
the contemporary sublime is mostly about immanent transcendence; that is, it is about a transformative experience understood as occurring within the here and now. …
[and in describing Balka’s 2009 How It Is ] the power of the sublime experience to destabilise and unnerve
Although Morley seeks to reclaim (from C19th pictorialists and mid C20th abstractionists) and redefine the concept of sublime for modern artists and aesthetes, by spreading his examples so widely, he only really succeeds in establishing that sublime “means just what I choose it to mean” (Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, 1871) so long as I have credentials as an artist or critic. This is confirmed by his review of Balka’s 2009 How It Is where he concludes that one version of the contemporary sublime is its “power … to destabilise and unnerve”: that could apply equally well to Freud’s Das Unheimliche.
[27Oct] Sally Miller offers an interesting approach to the sublime in her 2020 Contemporary Photography and Theory. She defines the eighteenth century view of nature as “picturesque” (pp.44-45) and notes that it was thought that only refined minds (“a mind richly stored”, Richard Payne Knight, 1805) are capable of appreciating it. John Tagg (Grounds of Dispute, 1992) describes the cause as political, based on privilege of upbringing, rather than aesthetic. Miller concludes that the picturesque view is most used nowadays as a target by contemporary photographers “to articulate a tension between landscape as view and land as socially, politically and historically contested”.
On the sublime, Miller references Burke (danger) and Kant (pain, shock, awe), notes several variants but concludes that, “The visions of humanity marked out by the sublime are not by any means universal and have been used in the service of local national and corporate interests” (p.52). The examples she uses are Justin James King’s And still we gather with infinite momentum (2009) Thomas Albdorf’s General view (2017).
Later (pp.68-71), Miller discusses Joel Meyerowitz‘s Aftermath: World Trade Centre Archive (published as a book in 2006) and notes that, perhaps surprisingly, some writers (László Munteán and Liam Kennedy) regard this as an exploration of the sublime. By contrast Ned O’Gorman considers some uses of Meyerowitz’s project to be political propaganda to distract the public from US foreign policy and likens it to the ‘Shock and Awe’ footage shown in the Gulf War.
[5Nov] As stated in Brandt below — Morley (2010) casts his sublimity net so wide in examining recent art installations that he effectively renders the sublime a subjective notion (provided the perceiver meets an aesthetic quotient threshold similar to Payne Knight’s 1805 minds richly stored, referred to in Miller (2020)). Miller endorses sublime subjectivity, “the sublime [is] not by any means universal” (2020, p.52).
I rushed to my own concept of sublime in Part 1, Page 3 — I suggest that the sublime is the punctum of beauty – a personal trigger that elevates the experience to a higher threshold …
Fear, Unheimliche, awe, astonishment may be present but are not prerequisites.
[16Nov] I later added that Andrews (1999, p.140), quotes John Dennis writing in 1704 that,
the Sublime ‘commits a pleasing rape upon the very soul’Andrews, 1999, p.140
Two quotes from Paul Vanderbilt cited in Part 1, Page 3 might have the measure of the sublime —
In EW:100, Centennial Essays in Honour of Edward Weston (1986), Paul Vanderbilt, who writes the final essay, begins with a description of a book by Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy (1923).
Rudolf Otto actually lists the parts, “elements” he calls them, that make up not Holiness itself nor the word Holy, but the Idea of the Holy, namely Awe, Overpowering Majesty, Urgency, Otherness, Fascination, Sublimity and, in a special sense, Eroticism. His little book is well-known among philosophers of religion, but I feel sure that the precision With which he discusses the ingredients of an idea must have led others to apply his eloquent line of thought in other fields, just as it has led me to see in his method a way toward photographic clarification.Paul Vanderbilt on Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy (1923) in EW:100, Centennial Essays in Honour of Edward Weston, 1986, p.125.
“Awe, Overpowering Majesty, Urgency, Otherness, Fascination, Sublimity and, in a special sense, Eroticism.” There are substantial reads-across to definitions of the sublime over several centuries.
Later in his piece, Vanderbilt writes, “In photography, discovery and recognition together constitute a special form of creation, for something is brought into the consciousness that was not there before” (p.129). That could be a working definition for a more peaceful, better considered, less charismatic and less noisy formulation of the sublime than Morley’s.
… choose any body of work that you feel explores the sublime. It may be a photographic project, a work of literature, cinema, or any other medium.LP&E, p.50
In your learning log, write at least 300 words describing how you believe the work you’ve selected relates to the sublime. Use Morley’s text to support your argument.
[3Nov] Morley (2010) casts his sublimity net so wide in examining recent art installations that he effectively renders the sublime a subjective notion (provided the perceiver meets an aesthetic quotient threshold similar to Payne Knight’s 1805 minds richly stored, referred to in Miller (2020)). Miller endorses sublime subjectivity, “the sublime [is] not by any means universal” (2020, p.52).
The aspect of Morley’s definitions I wish to pick up on for this essay is that applied to Balka’s How It Is (2009) “the power of the sublime experience to destabilise and unnerve” and that leads back to Freud’s Das Unheimliche, the uncanny, things that are simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar.
Nudes have been a common subject of art forms since prehistoric times (fig. B1). As described in an essay for C&N Assignment 1 (Blackburn, 2020a), in extant classical Greek statuary, male nudes depicting athleticism outnumber female nudes celebrating fertility (Sorabella, 2008) but this did not survive the classical era. The Council on Trent in 1563 forbade ‘lascivious portrayals of unashamed beauty’ and thereafter, ‘representations of the naked male all but disappeared’ (Cooper, 1995, p.8).
Typically, depictions of the female nude have emphasised contemporary and / or local notions of beauty and fertility. Western artists continued the standards of Greek and Roman statuary and murals following Praxiteles’ modest, naked Knidian Aphrodite, typically “profound admiration for the body … they may have sex appeal, yet they are never totally prurient in intent … seductive and appealing … they are meant to stir the mind as well as the passions” (Sorabella, 2008).
Consideration of photographs of more or less naked people is nowadays inevitably affected by the male gaze / female gaze and MeToo debates. While the former might be challenged to some extent in terms of logic † [link], it is indisputable that the experiences differed for men and women (and boys and girls) both as photographers and as the objects of photographs.
When I first posited comparing Brandt’s more unusual nudes to the standard configuration for this piece, I was not sure that they alone would sustain my case and I therefore suggested considering a wider selection of nudes. Research showed there are more than enough Brandts to justify the choice, but rather than let this notion go to waste, I will end with an Appendix of sublime, unnerving nudes by other photographers.
Brandt’s output of all subjects but especially of nudes became radically altered when he bought a second-hand police camera (the wide angle Kodak, fig. C1) with Zeiss Protar Lens in around 1945 (he owned it when his portrait was taken in that year by Laelia Goehr, fig. C2). This story is told here (Blackburn, 2020b), by the V&A (2016) and in detail by Greg Neville (2015).
In Michael Hiley’s introduction to Bill Brandt: Nudes 1945-1980 (1980, p.8) he suggests that Brandt had watched Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) several times in 1943 and, impressed by cinematographer Gregg Tolland’s use of wide angle lenses and low angle viewpoints, set out to find a camera and lens with which he could explore such effects.
In Trevor Bishai’s review of the Marlborough Gallery’s 2021 exhibition, Bill Brandt Perspective of Nudes (revisited), he states
Brandt’s use of a wide-angle lens is [a] striking feature of his innovative photographic practice. He initially intended to use this type of lens to photograph large and great ceilings, but later realized that it also distorts subjects up close, noting that he had “never planned that.” Although this was a new discovery for Brandt, it soon became almost his signature aesthetic, and is especially evident in his nudes. Placing the camera very close to his subjects, the wide angle enlarges the foreground to a great degree, making body parts look highly disproportionate.Bishai, EXHIBITION REVIEW: BILL BRANDT, PERSPECTIVE OF NUDES, 2021
In the book accompanying the Marlborough exhibition, Droth & Messier wrote,
The publication of Perspectives of Nudes in 1961- a collection of photographs produced in the 1940s and 1950s – marks the point at which Brandt’s stature as an art world figure came onto assured footing. The publication not only attracted press attention – including a multi-page feature in Life that juxtaposed his nudes with photographs of a carved stone figure by Aristide Maillol [fig. D1] – but also an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, hastily organized by Edward Steichen to coincide with the book.Droth & Messier, Bill Brandt Perspective of Nudes (revisited), 2021
And so at last, the context set, to Brandt’s nudes.
The book Bill Brandt: Nudes 1945-1980 (1980) contains 100 images. The method I used to select those shown is both simple and entirely subjective — I made a list of the photographs which I found immediately disturbing or bizarre and then scanned those listed. I did not include any images that involved or implied bondage – another personal choice. Some editing took place where there were several similar configurations. I did not analyse my choices, they are simply those which unnerved me.
In his introduction to Brandt’s book, Michael Hiley wrote,
When we look and Brandt’s nudes we can see that he has worked on unsafe subject matter, touching on raw nerve ends, trespassing into forbidden areas. It is not by chance that some of the photographs in this book are disturbing … Brandt’s nudes inhabit a world which seems to lie in parallel with our own, inaccessible and seen only fleetingly in visions.Michael Hiley, introduction to Bill Brandt: Nudes 1945-1980 (1980), p.7
The selection method for the images included in the Appendix is similar to that used for the Bill Brandt photographs — I tried to think of images I already knew that were unnerving and also looked through Bill Jay’s Views on Nudes (1971) and Paul Martineau’s The Nude in Photography (2014) for others.
I bought the Brandt book specifically for this essay; I bought the Martineau book to write the C&N Assignment 1 essay; I’ll buy any book by Bill Jay not already in my library that I see on sale for a reasonable price. Incidentally, the front cover of my edition the Jay is Brandt’s Plate 53 London 1952 (fig. F1), others have a Weston (one of the Nude on Dunes , Oceano, 1936 series – I today learned that there is more than one such image) on the cover.
The Jay contains three Brandt nudes; the Martineau contains one.
Note: image(s) have been added to the original page.
A final thought, Cindy Sherman could sustain this subject alone too.
† It was noted in I&P Part 3 (Blackburn 2020c) that,
While … identifications of inappropriate gazes are applied to legitimate and longstanding grievances, it is nevertheless the case that they tend to attribute widespread bad (or malformed) intentions, based on particular and partial interpretations of the past. While this may be an understandable reaction to prejudice and mistreatment, it is demonstrably illogical. Consider pairs of plausibly identical photographs taken by two photographers on opposite sides of these various divides. These could be:
an unclothed model photographed by a male and female student in a life portrait class;
photographs of the Taj Mahal or a Cuban street scene taken by a tourist and by a local resident.
If the male, colonial and tourist gazes are real, widespread and unavoidable, then it would not be possible for these pairs of photographs to coexist. In truth, accusations of the application of harmful gazes can only be attributed to a particular image once the identity and background of the photographer is known: until then, it is entirely in the subjective interpretation of the viewer. Once again, that is not to deny that great harm has been inflicted on many groups according to gender, race, ethnicity, location, social standing and many other attributes, it is merely to assert that this cannot necessarily be read into a photograph. There are exceptions to this, of course, for example images of violence, be that sexual, social, racial, political or of any other kind will likely evidence bad intent on some part, but while a pornographer is almost certainly manifesting a harmful male gaze, a journalist photographing an interracial conflict might well be seeking to end it through publicity.
A principal counter argument is that, anecdotally, in all likelihood there will be considerably more men photographing the naked and more tourists photographing at tourist sites, nevertheless, that does not establish the existence of negative gazes in each case and not justify a presumption of guilt.I&P Part 3
Writing in 1991, anthologised in 1995, A.D. Coleman said of gaze,
Postmodernism’s hostility to and fear of the faculty of sight is a matter of public record. “The gaze,” a purportedly ancient, secret technique of domination hitherto practiced only by men, has been widely identified and demonized as a modern version of the “evil eye.” The literature abounds with snide references to “scopophilia,” a pejorative neologism that translates as “the love of looking”; in this construct, the very act of seeing stands frequently accused of inherent, pathological voyeurism, with photography as its most pernicious instrument.A.D. Coleman, Critical Focus, 1995, p.97
So far as I’m aware, no one professing these convictions has had the courage to follow the pertinent Biblical injunction, “If thine eye offend thee, cast it out.” But small wonder that the art around which this theory circles offers so little that rewards visual attention; in a climate of such hysterical revulsion at optical experience, who would want to be caught giving or receiving pleasure via the retina?
LPE Exc 1.5 References
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