Beautiful and Sublime

Tianyi Cheng

It is easy for us to treat sculpture as fine art. However, facing a “sculpture” in CAD (Computer-aided design) work, we found it is hard for us to appreciate it as deeply as admire a real sculpture (on site, not through pictures). Hegel gave us a central claim of genuine beauty, which is the freedom and richness of spirit or Idea. He claims that beauty is found only in works of art that are freely created to bring before our minds what it is to be free spirit (Houlgate, 2014). In this sense, if CAD designer and sculpturer use similarly lofty purpose to create their works, they can express similar spirit and arouse our similar emotion. But it seems that things don’t happen like that. In addition, Hegel regards music and poetry as “more perfect art” than sculpture. He views poetry as the “most unrestricted of the arts” (Aesthetics, 2: 626). Because music and poetry, unlike sculpture, are not highly dependent on the materials that they are inscribed on. Hegel thinks they reflect the richer spiritual freedom. Using this logic, CAD work can even be viewed as higher art than sculpture, because they are not restricted on certain screen and can be watched beyond space and time. Digital age makes this claim of aesthetic like a paradox.

A CAD "sculpture"

                     A CAD “sculpture”

A real sculpture

                  A real sculpture

We can’t give a convincing explanation of our aesthetic consciousness with merely focusing on the content that artists want to express. Things similar in form can be distinct in kind. Kant applies “subjective universal” judgments to aesthetic. There are “beautiful” and “sublime”. He judges something as “beautiful” by noticing one’s well-designed form that reflects a purpose. In this sense, if the CAD work and the sculpture look identical and are created with same conceptions, we can say these two works are similarly purposive, in other words, similarly beautiful. But we might still feel that the CAD work lacks something. Kant’s another judgment is “sublime”. In Critique of Judgment (1790), Kant applied the sublime aesthetic to nature. The natural sublime removed the original intent of the author or artist as a factor in judging the “aesthetic power” or value of the object (Kelly, 1998). Kant thinks the sublime aesthetic has an unintended effect on its audiences. I think this concept is similar to L Winner’s “unintentional side-effects” that are carried by medium (Winner, 1997). Also, Kant’s emphasis on the value of natural object is similar to what McLuhan wrote in 1955: “The new media are not bridges between man and nature; they are nature…” (Czitrom, 1985) I think audiences of the CAD work lose the feeling of “sublime” which is carried by certain natural object, or certain media. Neil Postman’s reinterpretation of McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” is that “embedded in every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to value one thing over another.” (Postman, 1993). When we watch sculptures, we not merely consciously interpret them (we act on them). At the same time, the special functionality of the medium (stone, metal, plaster or screen) also take effects (We are acted on by them).

What causes the loss of “sublime”? Both the “metal” and the “screen” need a historical perspective to investigate, which is too complicated to discuss here. It is possible that from the inscription to stone or metal, we get a sense of the history, or some human experiences that thay transformed to “amplify” certain feeling. Georg Simmel believes art creations are not exclusively from artists’ insights. It is, rather, something passive and secondary, and reflects a kind of blend of artistic individuality and a given alien entity (Salem, 2012). He comments that modern art “arouse blasé attitude and superficiality” (Frisby, 1994), not merely because of the content, but more importantly, the new pattern in which they are exhibited and spread. He claims that the way of artistic productions and consumptions make arts more like collective creations rather than unique masterpieces. He also states that in this context, general genres replace the characteristic style of great masters. Indeed, CAD works reflect what Gitelman said: “matters of consensus within a community of like-minded” (Gitelman, 2008). The pre-seted applications in CAD softwares do create what Simmel calls “typical stylization of images”, which he regards as the resource to empty cliches (Frisby, 1994). This “absent presence” influences aesthetics in an significant way.

Works Cited

Aesthetics. Lectures on Fine Art, trans. T.M. Knox, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975)

Chandler, D. (1995). Processes of mediation. Processes of Mediation. Np, nd Web.< http://www. aber. ac. uk/media/Documents/short/process. html.

Czitrom, D. (1985). Media and the American mind from Morse to McLuhan. México.

Frisby, D. (Ed.). (1994). Georg Simmel: critical assessments. Psychology Press.Gitelman, L. (2008). Always already new. Media, history and the data of culture.

Houlgate, Stephen. 2014. “Hegel’s Aesthetics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Kelly, Michael (ed). 1998. Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Volumes 1 and 4. NY: Oxford University Press. P326

Salem, A. (2012). Simmel on the Autonomy of Social Forms. Sociologija. Mintis ir veiksmas2(31), 1392-3358. P19