On the Beautiful and the Sublime

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Area: Art, Language Arts and Literature
Grade Level: High School & Beyond
Topics: Aesthetics, Beauty, Philosophy of art, Sublime
Estimated Time Necessary: One 60 minute class period

Lesson Plan

To understand how the Beautiful and the Sublime Differ
The lesson looks at some sources about the Beautiful and the Sublime. The goal is to then figure out what significance this distinction carries.

On the Beautiful and the Sublime…Aesthetics as Subjective Experience

One of the longstanding questions that’s been debated in the field of aesthetics involves the nature of Beauty; one question in this area asks us where Beauty lies, in the object or in our eyes.  Taking this further, if Beauty is in us rather than in the world, what kind of thing is it?  One strand of thought involves understanding beauty as a form of subjective experience.  Beginning with Longinus, and continuing through Burke and Kant and on into the 20th Century, some have suggested that aesthetic experience can be divided into two types — the experience of the Beautiful and the Sublime. One key place these two differ is in the effect on the experiencer –> generally it is thought that the Beautiful is consonant and the Sublime is dissonant, that the Beautiful reaffirms our reason, that the Sublime, however, puts us in touch with the fact that we are in some ways at odds with nature, but that ultimately, this dissonance can be resolved through our expression of human freedom outside of the laws of nature.

Below are links to a brief video on the Sublime and pictures illustrating the Beautiful and the Sublime.


The Beautiful:

GEORGES SEURAT: “Une baignade à Asnières (Bathers at Asnieres)”, 1883/84 – oil on canvas, 201-300 cm. – London, National gallery

VINCENT VAN GOGH: “Sunflowers (vase with fifteen sunflowers)”, 1888 – oil on canvas – London, National Gallery of Art

MARY CASSATT: “Summertime”, 1894 – oil on canvas, 100.7-81.3 cm. – Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago

The Sublime:

Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, 1868, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1817, Kunsthalle Hamburg

Joseph Mallord William Turner Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth exhibited 1842 Tate Gallery

The text below introduces some of the writings of Longinus, Burke and Kant.

  1. “Longinus,” On the Sublime (1st or 3rd century AD)

Longinus promotes an “elevation of style” and an essence of “simplicity”: “the Sublime  refers to a style of writing that elevates itself above the ordinary”… five sources of the Sublime: “great thoughts, strong emotions, certain figures of thought and speech, noble diction, and dignified word arrangement”.

The effects of the Sublime are: loss of rationality, an alienation leading to identification with the creative process of the artist and a deep emotion mixed in pleasure and exaltation. “A writer’s goal is not so much to express empty feelings, but to arouse emotion in his audience…the Sublime leads the listeners not to persuasion, but to ecstasy: for what is wonderful always goes together with a sense of dismay, and prevails over what is only convincing or delightful, since persuasion, as a rule, is within everyone’s grasp: whereas, the Sublime, giving to speech an invincible power and [an invincible] strength, rises above every listener”

  1. Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757)

The Beautiful, according to Burke, is what is well-formed and aesthetically pleasing, whereas the Sublime is what has the power to compel and destroy us.  Burke writes about the physiological effects of the Sublime, in particular the dual emotional quality of fear and attraction. Burke described the sensation attributed to the sublime as a “negative pain” which he called delight, and which is distinct from positive pleasure. Delight is taken to result from the removal of pain (by confronting the sublime object) and is more intense than positive pleasure.

  1. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement (1790)

Kant claims there are four kinds of Judgments: the Agreeable, the Good, the Beautiful and the Sublime.  Kant claims that the first is subjective, the second universal and the other two lie between as subjective universals. The Sublime is “nature considered in an aesthetic judgment as might that has no dominion over us”, and an object can create a fearfulness “without being afraid of it”…it causes fear but isn’t ACTUALLY threatening.

“The Sublime must always be large; the beautiful may be small. The Sublime must be simple; the Beautiful may be decorated and adorned. A very great height is sublime as well as a very great depth; but the latter is accompanied by the sense of terror, the former by admiration. Hence the one may be terrible sublime, the other noble….A long duration is sublime. If it concerns past time it is noble; if anticipated as a determinable future, it has something terrifying. …

Among the peoples of our continent, in my opinion, the Italians and the French are distinguished by their sense of the Beautiful, while the Germans, the English and the Spaniards by their sense of the Sublime. Holland may be taken for the country where this finer taste becomes rather unnoticeable. The beautiful itself is either enchanting or touching, or radiating or enticing. The first kind has something of the Sublime, and the mind, when feeling it is deeply stirred or enthusiastic, but when feeling the second is appropriate to the French. “




Discussion Questions

  • Explain the Beautiful and the Sublime.
  • What is the significance of these categories?
  • Does aesthetic experience matter? Why?
  • In looking at the six pictures, identify the aspects that lead you to think that each is either sublime or beautiful.
  • What does each make you feel?
  • Is it possible to be wrong about your experience of a work of art?
  • How does Ugliness relate to these two categories?
This lesson plan was contributed by: Stephen Miller, Oakwood Friends School, Marist College.