The focus of this week's work was Edmund Burke's ideas about the Sublime (see his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Beautiful and the Sublime of 1757 - see reading 12 in set book for the course Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology ed. Cahn and Meskin). A complete online searchable text of Burke's Enquiry is available here.
Burke's account of our responses to beauty and the sublime focuses on the bodily and emotional responses to physical objects: in many ways a stark contrast with Plato's more cerebral approach that ultimately sees beauty as something lying beyond sensory perception and best appreciated by the intellect. Burke also gave aesthetics an interesting direction by giving clear expression to idea that beauty may not be the only quality in nature and art that moves us profoundly...
Burke maintained, quite plausibly that pain and pleasure aren't on the same spectrum. A reduction of pain does not automatically lead to an increase in pleasure (though, in his terminology, reduction of pain results in delight).
Pain is effective in our self-preservation; pleasure makes social interaction possible.
Pain has the power to move us more profoundly than pleasure. To back up this claim he points out that few would agree to a life of exquisite pleasures if they knew that this would end with brutal torture.
Burke described beauty as 'for the greater part, some quality in bodies, acting mechanically upon the human mind by the intervention of the senses' (p.119 of Cahn and Meskin eds). Beauty is a quality that tends to produce pleasure.
The sublime in contrast is always in some way linked with terror. Not complete terror, but rather with the potential for danger. Causes which under different circumstances might endanger us evoke the emotions of the sublime.
The key passage in which Burke contrasts the beautiful and the sublime is this (see p.120 of Cahn and Meskin eds.), from Section XXVll of the Enquiry [NB he uses 'the great' as a synonym for 'sublime' here at several points]:
Burke believed that the reason we frequently take delight in intrinsically painful situations - an apparent paradox [related to the Paradox of Tragedy - listen to a podcast on Paradox of Tragedy] is that this is nature's way of toning up our nervous systems. While this last point isn't particularly persuasive, his general account of the contrast between beauty and the sublime has been extremely influential.
In the Tate Modern gallery we looked at all the works in Room 6 Poetry and Dream: Joseph Beuys' huge work 'Lightning With Stag in Its Glare' and two paintings by Anselm Kiefer: 'Lilith' and 'Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom'. All had qualities of scale, roughness, terror, gloomy colouring and so on that make the notion of the sublime relevant to their appreciation. Mark Rothko's 'Seagram Murals', the focus of a previous week's class also displayed some of these qualities, and there may have been a direct connection here since Rothko had certainly read and admired Burke's book.