Seeking Beauty and the Sublime

by: Maria Portia Olenka C. Placino

This specific topic has been troubling me. After pondering long and hard about it, I am stuck. I’ve read all of the reading assignment. I’ve thought, reflected and questioned myself. Yet, no answer came to me. What exactly is my concept of beauty? Until such time that I finally admitted to myself that I have none. Or perhaps I have lost it. Too long, I have been taught to look beyond the image, to look beyond beauty. I have examined contexts, theories, concepts, aesthetics and various perspectives. For a long time, the concept of beauty is something that was never considered. It was skirted, if not directly avoided. The concept of beauty is essentialist, universalist and very subjective. So, I simply never dealt with beauty. My pre-disposition demanded it; my university training ingrained it.

I realize now that though I have gained much in my years of study, I have also lost much. After re-reading and re-discovering classical writers and even some contemporary ones, I saw how enjoyable their philosophies are. It is unburdened by years of philosophical analysis, political correctness and fear. They have a stand, a very solid stance that they write about clearly. They know what they are saying and they are simply saying it. Nowadays, that kind of writing is rare. Though a lot of their ideas will be critiqued and questioned over the years, their writing endures as their perspective is strong. I will have to shape myself and my own ideas to be just as strong. As previously mentioned, I have lost my sense of beauty amidst theories and perspectives. It is about time I regain it.

Then I remember Juan Luna’s Picnic in Normandy. In my Art Criticism class last semester, we were asked to choose one work from the permanent collection of Vargas Museum to do a close reading and phenomenological approach on. Going back, I was once again struck at how beautiful this painting is. But I did not choose it because I thought I would have nothing to write about it. It was simply a beautiful painting to me, post-impressionist European painting of a place in Normandy, perhaps around the same place where Claude Monet painted his Impression: Sunrise. Juan Luna just happened to be a Filipino Ilustrado making a European painting. So, I chose a more political work, Mark Salvatus’ Secret Garden 2. Writing about him is always fun as his work is conceptual without being unreadable. Now, I return again, with the challenge of finding the beautiful and having this painting as an inspiration in this unprecedented approach.

That I find the painting beautiful is a given. The next question is why. Why do I find it beautiful? What are the parameters that my mind used in analyzing and judging it as beautiful? No theory, no context was considered, I just found the painting beautiful. Is it as Plotinus envisioned when he states that, “Thus the corporeal beauty arises by communion with divine reason” (Plotinus 49). Maybe I find it beautiful because my soul finds it beautiful in its communion with a divine reason? Is it because my soul is beautiful that I recognized the beauty of the painting? He further explains that a only a purified soul would recognize beauty, “Once purified, the soul become form and reason, completely incorporeal and intellectual, belonging to the divine, which is the source of beauty and all such things akin to it” (51). On the other hand, though Plotinus provides good writing and interesting insights, it is too much on the metaphysical plane, and I seek for beauty explained here in our existence.

I’ve established that I find Picnic in Normandy beautiful. I am still exploring why. I admitted this when I have, for this exercise, let go of my pre-conceived notions and judgements, and even the theories and concepts that have been ingrained in me. Perhaps David Hume has a point in his Standard of Taste when he says that, “It is well known, that in all questions, submitted to the understanding, prejudice is destructive of sound judgement, and perverts all operations of the intellectual faculties: It no less contrary to good taste; nor has it less influence to corrupt our sentiment of beauty” (Hume 494). Ironically, Hume also points out that not everyone can properly judge artworks as they may be lacking in their taste. He further states that, “Thus, though the principles of taste be universal, and nearly if not entirely the same in all men; yet few are qualified to give judgement on any work of art, or establish their own sentiment as the standard of beauty. The organs of internal sensation are seldom so perfect as to allow the general principles their full play, and produce a feeling correspondent to those principles their full play, and produce a feeling correspondent to those principles” (494). Yet, it is because I have left my pre-conceived notions strengthened by my education behind that I managed to find Juan Luna’s work beautiful. Or is it the other way around, maybe I’ve always considered it beautiful but my pre-conceived notions held me back from recognizing it?

Though art education at some point or another may have become convoluted after hundreds of years of theoretical and philosophical studies, it is always good to remember Friedrich Von Schiller in his essay On the Aesthetic Education of Man where he stated that, “For whole centuries thinkers and artists will do their best to submerge truth and beauty in the depths of a degraded humanity; it is they themselves who are drowned there, while truth and beauty, with their own indestructible vitality struggle triumphantly to the surface” (Schiller 580). Beauty is believed to be something that will always pull us back from the degradation of humanity. I have reached the function of beauty, yet still having a difficult time with the vagueness of the concept. Yet I can tell when something is indeed beautiful. Is it a matter of personal opinion or is there a driving force behind it?

Pleasure. One of the most common driving forces behind beauty is pleasure. I know for sure that I felt pleasure as I take in Juan Luna’s Picnic in Normandy. I can neither quantify nor explain it, but it is pleasurable anyway. Better in the words of Plotinus again, “Such should be the experience of beauty, amazement, pleasant consternation, yearning, ardour and excitement mixed with pleasure” (Plotinus 50). It is almost like falling in love. Francis Hutcheson also gives a similar examination, “Our sense of beauty seems designed to give us positive pleasure, but not positive pain or disgust” (Hutcheson 97). Art, for most of the writers and philosophers who are concerned with beauty, is pleasurable. Indeed, if a concept is more on the beautiful and letting go of all other pre-dispositions, it is indeed, mostly pleasurable.

It is important to understand that beauty is still anchored to an object. I find the Picnic in Normandy beautiful. The concept of beauty is still dependent on an object, an object which is beautiful. Often, there is confusion between beauty and the sublime, particularly when dealing with the effects of both. Though these two may intersect as something beautiful may also be subliminal, yet it is something different. Sublime is something else, in most cases, something more than beauty. Though an object may inspire the sublime, it is about the feeling that one gets which is beyond pleasure and beyond the senses. For Longinus, “Sublimity is the echo of a noble mind” (Longinus 141). Longinus looked into the viewer as someone capable of sublimity rather than at the object or the subject of the subliminal feeling. It is more about the person feeling and experiencing the sublime rather than the object that inspires it. This is the key difference of the two intersecting terms. Beauty is found on the object, while the sublime is found in the person experiencing it.

Sublime is something that I can understand more than I understand beauty. I don’t need to seek a particular art work for it. Whenever I walk around the university with the shade of the trees, the fluttering leaves and the passing butterflies, I feel the sublime. The stress of work and studies is cured by a walk along the university. There is the sublime in life despite of the time spread thin and a low income. It is almost unexplainable. Yet you feel the transcendence into something beyond. For Edmund Burke in his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the sublime and the Beautiful, he sees sublime as “…productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (Burke 549). This is what I mostly feel, which makes everything else in life worth it.

Feeling and experiencing the sublime is almost natural, but the discourse on the sublime is another matter. Again, it anchors so much on something beyond, almost on the metaphysical state that it is almost impossible to quantify. Guy Sircello in his article Is a Theory of the Sublime Possible? distinguishes a tripartite aspect on the issue of the sublime, “First, there are experiences of the sublime or, alternatively, sublime experiences. Second, there is what I call the sublime discourse. And third, there is talk about the sublime” (Sircello 541). Further, his assumptions are, “The first assumption is that only sublime experience properly motivates sublime discourse and therefore that only sublime experience is the proper and ultimate subject matter of talk about the sublime” and “My second assumption is that sublime experience can and does occur in a large variety of personal, cultural, social and historical contexts, all such contexts also inevitably involving experience that is not specifically sublime” (542). He formulated a theme on the sublime which he refers to as an “epistemological transcendence” (542). This epistemological transcendence is supposed to validate a sublime discourse that can somewhat be quantified without falling into the trap of universalism.

Despite Sircello’s attempt, there is still much left on the study of a theoretical discourse of the sublime. There is still a long way to go when it comes to the issue of the sublime because of the abstraction of the concept. He even outlined the concerns on the sublime and epistemological transcendence that needs to be explored, “(1) what it might mean, whether it is indeed presented in sublime experiences, (3) what, if so, there might be about such experience that could present and epistemological transcendence of that form, and finally, (4) whether epistemological transcendence as also interpreted is warrantable or believable are tasks—among many other tasks—at least for more talk about the sublime, if not for a theory of the sublime” (549). There is still a lot of work to be done, particularly on an issue hundreds of years old. Yet, the discussion never gets old.

Personally, the sublime makes more sense to me than beauty. I can wrap my head around it because I can feel it, I can experience it. There can never be any question on my experiences. Beauty is another matter. It is not dependent on me as a person; it is not as dependent on any audience. The concept of beauty is more or less anchored to the object that is considered as beautiful. Though now, I understand the value of beauty, especially one’s own concept of it. It is something that should never be lost or never be denied, despite the demands of academic rigour that expects something else. I have always thought that a philosophy which relies mainly on beauty is something inferior, because it relies so much on surface appearance. Upon closer examination, it is not so, it may not be something beyond other theories and perspectives in the arts, but it is not something beneath them. It is another perspective worthy of consideration. It is as useful in the academic rigour as any other theory, if not more challenging as it requires you to let go of all pre-conceived notions and just think and write. It may even be more difficult to express one’s own opinion independently without relying on other theories, and writing it without restrictions or fear. A challenge for contemporary writers is more on taking a stand in what they write with considerations of previous studies yet with independence unencumbered by pre-conceived notions and dispositions.

Works Cited

Burke, Edmund. “From “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful.” Leitch, Vincent. Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: Norton, 2001. 539-551.

Hume, David. “The Standard of Taste.” Leitch, Vincent. Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001. 486-499.

Hutcheson, Francis. “From “An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue”.” Townsend, Dabney. Aesthetics: Classic Readings from the Western Tradition. USA: Thomson Learning, 2001. 87-99.

Longinus. “On Sublimity.” Leitch, Vincent. Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001. 138-154.

Plotinus. “Ennead One: Sixth Tractate.” Townsend, Dabney. Aesthetics: Classic Readings from the Western Tradition. USA: Thomson Learning, 2001. 48-54.

Schiller, Friedrich Von. “From “On the Aesthetic Education of Man.” Leitch, Vincent. Norton Anthology of Aesthetics. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001. 573-582.

Sircello, Guy. “Is a Theory of the Sublime Possible?” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (1993): 541-550.



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