Immanuel Kant identified two flavors of what he called the “sublime,” the mathematical sublime and the dynamic sublime.  The mathematical sublime is the feeling you get when you survey the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the seashore and realize that you couldn’t possibly count them - that you couldn’t possibly really conceive of a number so large.  The dynamic sublime is the feeling you get when you look out over the ocean or into a thunderstorm and realize that the sum total of the power of the waves, the wind, the lightning exceeds any quantity of power that your brain can meaningfully grasp. ——————————————————- Ladies and gentlemen, I present 10 examples of the sublime in art.

  1. (above) Ryoji Ikeda’s The Transfinite, a huge immersive sound and video installation at the Park Avenue Armory, NYC, in 2011.
  2. Yayoi Kusama’s Fireflies on the Water, 2002, in which her signature mirrors (plus some water) expand space indefinitely.
  3. The loudness and timbre so absolutely overwhelm pitch in the surprising latter half of Sleigh Bells' Infinity Guitars (2010) that the recording seems to feature an incalculable quantity of sound which rushes out of the speakers like an unstoppable wave.  Note: do not watch the video, as it completely misunderstands this most crucial aspect of the music.  Instead, enjoy these children, who clearly get it.
  4. Powers of Ten (Ray and Charles Eames, 1977) and any good Mandelbrot zoom.
  5. Depictions of mists, storms, oceans, and waves in classic paintings by Friedrich, Turner, Aivazovsky, and Hokusai (to name only a few).
  6. The sublime can also be experienced through nearly-absolute absence, wherein the viewer struggles to comprehend the experience of emptiness or nothingness on a seemingly incalculable scale.  Here I’m thinking particularly of James Turrell’s Pleiades dark installation (1983) at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh (which cannot be meaningfully described and simply must be experienced, full stop.).  Work like this naturally reminds me of the “cosmic cinema” (as Gene Youngblood called it) of Jordan Belson), and the sublime effect of the offstage choir’s surprise singing, which suggests a space beyond space in Neptune: the Mystic, the last movement of Gustav Holst’s The Planets (1916).
  7. The Oblivion roller coaster at Alton Towers, UK (designed by John Wardley and opened in 1998), which, after a terrifying pause, gives the rider the impression of dropping straighter than straight down into a whole blacker than black, shrouded by mist and incalculably deep.
  8. The overwhelming musical forces called for in Berlioz’s Requiem (1837): 4 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 English horns, 4 clarinets, 8 bassoons, 12 horns, 4 cornets, 4 tubas, 50 violins, 20 violas, 20 cellos, 18 basses, 8 pairs of timpani, bass drum, 10 pairs of cymbals, 4 gongs, plus 4 more brass choirs each with 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, and 2 tubas, and a choir of 80 sopranos, 60 tenors, and 70 basses.  He adds in the score, “If space permits, the chorus may be doubled or tripled and the orchestra proportionally increased.”  Though the sonic effect is most striking during the loudest parts of the Dies Irae, Terence Malick knew better than anyone that the thresholds of peace at the end of the Agnus Dei make just about the best entry-into-heaven music ever written (unless we count the endless oceanic chord at the end of The Beatles’ A Day in the Life (1967)). 8b. Gustav Mahler displays similar megalomania to Berlioz’s with regards to performing forces in his Symphony of a Thousand (1906), which in part inspired my film The Mission of Art is to Reverse the Flow of Entropy (Tohline, 2011).  While we’re talking about music, I might as well also mention the very unconventional percussion section necessary to simulate a volcanic eruption in Jon Leif’s Hekla (1964).
  9. Though Kant doesn’t mention it, I believe that extreme duration can play a role in the sublime, whether we’re discussing Morton Feldman’s 6-hour String Quartet #2 (1983), The Flaming Lips’ 6-hour Found a Star on the Ground (2011), Andy Warhol’s 485-minute Empire (1964), Martin Arnold’s 12-hour Jean Marie Renée (2002) (and this list), the Nine Beet Stretch (2002) (which transforms Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony into a 24-hour utopia of sound), Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho (1993), Satie’s proto-minimalist/proto-conceptual extreme-duration piano piece Vexations (1893, unpublished until 1949), or, of course, this performance of John Cage’s ASLSP (1987), which is set to last 639 years…
  10. The aberrations and dilations of time in cinema: the extreme slow-motion in Werner Herzog’s The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner (1974), the extreme fast-motion in Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1983), and the reverse motion that produces numinous flight at the end of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946). Bonus: this artful treatment of infinity. Did I really not mention Mark Rothko or Edwin Abbott’s Flatland?  Wow, 10 wasn’t enough at all.
Neil Bruder @neilbruder