Though it’s impossible to discuss sublime today without historical references, I would like to use these to contradict the traditional denotations.
The term has its background in the ancient rhetorics, then – mainly through eighteenth-century Western-European philosophy it establishes itself firmly as an aesthetic concept, functioning along and in an opposition to other terms within the area like: beautiful, tragic, humorous, profane, ugly etc.
Yet, it’s probably worth to emphasize that, strangely enough, in E. Burke’s and I. Kant’s understanding the Sublime never fits into criteria of metaphysical or ontological phenomenon (or entity) – it simply exists in a beholder’s mind as a powerful yet transient, fleeting psychological and spiritual reaction, an emotion, feeling of sublime. From a historical point of view is interesting to see how the dialectics of the sublime, used by two great ontologists fits into the nature of the phenomenological school of thought, which is both specifically twentieth-century and opposed to metaphysics discipline. It seems that the concept under discussion never fully integrates into a traditional philosophical inquiry – being more Dionysian than Apollonian in its nature – the sublime is born from paradoxes, it’s based on these and – if it functions in any universal form (out of a beholder’s mind) – it probably takes the form of an ontological oxymoron, an enigma – as unnerving as it is alluring.
Looking forward to the modern and postmodern times one may be easily dazzled by its potential to embody and to convey the sublime to an intensity not possible ever before. After ‘growing out’ of the Great Romantics’ idealistic enthusiasm on the matter, in the ‘after-God” era when the sublime cannot be simply mistaken for a religious/mystical experience, facing the challenges of the shattered, discontinuous, idiolects and antitheses – based world, reaching scientific and technological heights difficult to imagine even few decades before – the humankind not longer chases but seems to meet on a regular basis that great oxymoron – the sublime.
It takes many forms and definitions – from the A. Hitchcock’s and C. Jung’s shadows then – G. Lucas’s astriferous epics, from Big Brother’s house grotesque and through the war/terrorism-rooted atrocities to Barrack’s Obama intense political charisma – Burke’s mind-expanding ‘negative pain’ and Kant’s ‘indefinite’ yet desired dread is as indisputably a part of the contemporary condition as Aristotle’s catharsis had to be for ancient Greeks.
Andreas Gursky’s photos, which embrace the traditional understanding of the sublime as the vast, terrifying, annihilating, formless, liminal etc. and the ultra-modern embodiment of it in digitally mastered photographs of a postmodern – globalized and impersonal universe.
His approach would be that of a shock-therapy and a direct, uncompromising attack – perhaps the best way of a defense against the audacity and the… ridicule of the contemporary sublime.
Both Gursky’s work gives a picture of a formidable, limitless, always deeply confusing, often ugly and grotesque, sometimes eerily attractive spectacle, some sort of Baudrillard’s hypo-reality , and the ancient Roman bloody games – the reality, we live in today.
In Chicago Board of Trade II (above) human beings are nothing more than annoyingly numerous, uniform, yet nicely coloured dots, the well-rehearsed pixels; while in 99 Cents (above, 2) the supermarket goods take their place – and guess what? – one can hardly notice any substantial difference…