Industrial Sublime

I’m finding it hard to get clear the idea of just how beauty and sublime are contradictory. The course notes suggest that the concept of Sublime is a slippery term. Liz Wells (Wells,2009:351) writes of how Edmund Burke regarded discussion of the sublime ahead of beauty, as pain is a stronger emotional force than pleasure. Does this place too much emphasis on the pain aspect of the sublime?

J.A.P.Alexander (Alexander,2015:70) says Burke distinguished the sublime as a category almost in binary opposition to beauty. It does seem though that this identification of sublime as being in opposition to beauty no longer holds true. Alexander also discusses ‘Industrial Sublime’ as a relatively new branch of art, one that substitutes the mountains of 19th century sublime (such as Philip James De Loutherberg’s “Avalanche in the Alps”) with large scale man-made constructions. Mitch Epstein and Edward Burtynsky are both mentioned as exponents of industrial sublime, photographing large industrial sites. These locations do provide large scale scenery, to emphasise how much a particular location becomes dominated by industry. The framing used by both photographers does give rise to a feeling of smallness, as if to reinforce the idea that an individual is relatively powerless against the industrial world. Both focus strongly on power plants and oil fields, to make us appreciate how much we are locked into the mighty machines. We may not like the way these plants and machines dominate the environment but we cannot easily live without them.

Paul Strand has also been mentioned in this context. His many photographs of New York’s high-rise buildings probably had a similar effect to Epstein and Burtynsky’s work when they were first shown. However most seem more interested in the shapes, lines and patterns that the settings depicted, rather than any specific demonstration of awe or fear. They show the beauty inherent in these places. Now perhaps this is because we are now more used to these places; times has passed since these buildings were constructed and we are no longer so surprised and shocked by them. Is this not then also true of Epstein and Burtynsky ? In particular Edward Burtynsky also seems to be keen to show the beauty in the scenery, as well as the frightening scale and magnitude. In that sense beauty and sublime are not mutually incompatible; they can and do coexist.

 

References

Liz Wells(2009): Photography A Critical Introduction: Abingdon: Routledge

J.A.P Alexander(2015):Perspectives on Place:London Bloomsbury

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