Event details

Sublime: The pleasure of the overwhelming - 6. From the Sublime to the ridiculous - Friday series
Friday, 20 June 2014 10:30 AM - 12:30 PM
Program: Sublime: the pleasure of the overwhelming

Venue: Domain Theatre, Art Gallery of NSW

Lecturer: Damien Freeman


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Longinus warned that it is very easy to slip from the sublime to the ridiculous. In this lecture, we shall first consider the possibility that we can experience the sublime in Australia today, and then the claim that perhaps we have fallen from the sublime to the ridiculous.

National identity, the sublime and the Australian landscape today
The beauty and the terror of the wide brown land has long held an appeal for Australians. The appeal of the Australian landscape is best understood in terms of the sublime. We shall consider how the Australian sublime in nature has influenced Australian artists, such as Fred Williams and John Olsen, and how their experience of the sublime in nature has contributed to a distinctive experience of the sublime in Australian art. This Australian sublime has been influential in the emergence of a distinctive Australian national identity formed by Australians’ relationship to their land. Thus, we shall consider the special contribution that art and aesthetic experience has made to Australian national identity through the Australian sublime.

End of the sublime?
Can we still experience the sublime? Longinus warned that the experience of the sublime could very easily turn into an experience of bathos (‘from the sublime to the ridiculous’). Given that we can fly high above mountains, build skyscrapers and harness nuclear power to unleash unprecedented destruction, is it still possible to feel overwhelmed by the scale and power of nature? Do such developments change the way we feel about the natural world? Does it matter if we can no longer be overwhelmed or take pleasure in being overwhelmed?


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Sublime: the pleasure of the overwhelming

Lecture series with Damien Freeman
No philosophical idea has captured the imagination of artists more than the sublime.

The sublime is an enigmatic experience that involves our taking pleasure in being overwhelmed by sights, sounds, sensations or ideas that are larger, greater or more powerful than us, or otherwise threatening to us. In classical antiquity, and in British and European culture, the sublime has fascinated generations of artists and thinkers in different ways. The sublime has been connected with our experience of everything from nature and art to religion, science, and social and political life.

Often philosophers reflect on what artists do. But the sublime is the one major contribution that philosophers have made to art: artists have derived profound inspiration from reflecting on the philosophical concept of the sublime. The sublime emerged as a category of aesthetic appreciation of nature that was distinct from the beautiful and the picturesque. But it can also be distinguished from the tragic and the horrific, as a distinctive way in which aesthetic pleasure can be mingled with an unpleasant experience.

In this new course, we shall discover what the sublime is, and how philosophers and artists have grappled with the special aesthetic pleasure that we take in being overwhelmed by the sublime in art and nature.

Damien Freeman lectures on ethics and aesthetics at Pembroke College, Cambridge. He is a writer, lawyer and philosopher, who was educated at the University of Sydney and Magdalene College, Cambridge, and has written and edited numerous books and articles on art, aesthetics, biography and law, including Art’s emotions, Roddy’s folly, Mao’s toe and his forthcoming literary memoir, The aunt’s mirrors. He has discussed ethics, aesthetics and politics on various ABC Radio National programs. Together with Derek Matravers, he is editing a collection of essays entitled Figuring out figurative art: contemporary philosophers on contemporary paintings. He is currently writing a book based on his 2013 Art Gallery Society of NSW lecture series, Morality at the Gallery.