Would Edmund Burke Have Approved of Artists Blending the Sublime and the Beautiful?

For Edmund Burke (1729-1797), in his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), our strongest emotions are associated with danger, pain, and fear (most particularly the fear of death, the “king of terrors”), not with everyday enjoyments. Therefore, Burke offers the following advice to artists, “whose business it is to affect the passions”: don’t forget that the source of the sublime is pain; the beautiful, pleasure:

[S]ublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small; beauty should be smooth, and polished; the great, rugged and negligent; beauty should shun the right line, yet deviate from it insensibly; the great in many cases loves the right line, and when it deviates, it makes a strong deviation; beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and gloomy; beauty should be light and delicate; the great ought to be solid, and even massive. They are indeed ideas of a very different nature, one being founded on pain, the other on pleasure; and however they may vary afterwards from the direct nature of their causes, yet these causes keep up an eternal distinction between them, a distinction never to be forgotten […] (460)

Is Burke then arguing that the artist should avoid the admixture of the sublime and the beautiful in art? No. Though the sublime and beautiful are obviously most essentially represented “when each stands uniform and distinguished,” Burke nevertheless writes the following:

[I]n the infinite variety of natural combinations we must expect to find the qualities of things the most remote imaginable from each other united in the same object. We must expect also to find combinations of the same kind in the works of art. (460)

In other words, just as you frequently find such things as black and white blended and in combinations—and shadow and light in tonal degrees–so you tend to find the sublime and the beautiful mixing as well (460).

Put another way–and in a way that Burke would probably have endorsed–animal life is surface (instinctual), human life, depth (infinitely imaginative, even to the imagining of infinity itself). Unlike animal life, human life is emotionally and intellectually complicated, conflicted, interesting, subtle. It suggests a similarly complicated, conflicted, interesting, and subtle representation in art, both as to what is incomprehensible and comprehensible, and what is sublime and beautiful.

A good example is the work of Israeli artist Ori Gersht (b. 1967). Gersht says that one of the things he tends to aim for in his art is the foregrounding of beauty against a background of violence. In the below video, he depicts a traditional still life, then, in slow motion, drops the bird that appears in it. It is a gorgeous disruption of beauty’s calm, turning it into a sublime confusion in which we struggle to make sense of both our attraction and repulsion.

One of the things that strikes me about the video is that the water–symbolic of a receptive consciousness; a mirror to nature–is also a devouring monster.

Immanuel Kant likens our experience of the sublime–most especially the monstrous sublime–in its shifting back and forth between nature’s magnitude and the mind’s infinitude, as akin to an agitation or “vibration, i.e., to a rapidly alternating repulsion from and attraction to one and the same object.” Ori Gersht’s art seems to be self-consciously playing with Kant’s notion of the sublime experience, and is resonant with Burke’s notion that the sublime and the beautiful admit of degrees, shadings, and admixtures.


Selections from Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) can be located in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (Second Edition, 2010), beginning on page 454. Where I quote Burke above, it is from there.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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