My Research on Damien Hirst and the Sublime - main page

Luke White

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About this site / using this site.

This site is intended to do two things:

1. to serve as a 'resource', making available to others some of the information, and links to information that I have uncovered in my research on the sublime, and on Damien Hirst, for others who are interested in the topics.

2. to serve to give those who are interested in my research access to the 'work in progress' of some of my writing as it goes along - hopefully some of you can give me some feedback on it...(!) Since the work posted here is only work in draft stage, please could anyone who wishes to cite anything I say on the site contact me first.

Click on the links above, according to whether you want to access the resources, or access some drafts of my writings. The 'resource' is aimed at a somewhat more broad audience.

A brief outline of my project -
Damien Hirst and the Legacy of the Sublime in Contemporary Art and Culture.

Nowadays, we tend to use the term 'sublime' rather vaguely to say that something is excellent in some way or another. However, in discussions of art and of the experience of nature during the eighteenth century it was a term that had a series of much more particular meanings; in fact, the specific technical meanings that it took on were central to the way that people understood art during this time, and it was one of the most commonly used terms in the discussion of art and of aesthetic experience. As such a central term, there were, of course, many competing definitions and uses of the term, which I cannot go into in this brief introduction . In a nutshell, however, it centrally implied an experience of being overwhelmed by art or nature, of being thrown into a kind of ecstasy of awe, wonder or terror. As the century wore on, it became increasingly associated with the paradoxical pleasure of the terrible and horrible, and increasingly understood as separate and even opposite to the beautiful: whereas the beautiful was pleasing to behold because it was small, pretty, soft, harmonious, and delicate, the sublime was pleasing in that it was majestic, grand, awesome, craggy, formless (monstrous even, for some writers) or terrible. Thus if a flower was pretty, what was sublime was a ravenous wild beast, a giant alpine crevasse, or the stormy ocean.

(click for more on the history of the sublime)

This notion of the 'sublime' allowed or instituted new kinds of cultural practice - it set new goals for art, and for those who might want to appreciate art or nature. No longer did they seek merely the beautiful, but also pursued sublimity. The development of the notion of the sublime involved the development of a whole new sensibility. As well as paintings and poems about grand scenes of wild nature, the cataclysms of history, and about supernatural events, this sensibility was involved in the re-landscaping of the countryside, in architectural spectacle, in the development of tourism. And of course, this sensibility was increasingly exploited by commercial forms of culture: by urban 'shows', panoramas and dioramas, and of course by the Gothic novel. In fact, in spite of the general association of the term with the noble ends of high art, the desire for the 'sublime', as an artistic or emotional force which will overpower us beyond the bounds of reason, might seem particularly suited to the goals of commercialised and commodified culture...

My own project, however, starts from the present day. It might be observed that the kinds of images and rhetorics of the sublime have been resurfacing with a new urgency in recent years, both in 'high art' and in commercial sectors of culture. It might, perhaps, be seen to be operating in the penchant for disaster movies, (most recently, something like The Day After Tomorrow), in big-budget special-effects/action blockbusters and in sci-fi films. It is also to the fore in nature and science documentaries, which so often focus on large predators (sharks seem to be the favourite), on threats to life on earth from outer space, or on deadly forms of freak weather condition. News reportage also focuses on the terrible, and in fact politics and warfare themselves seem increasingly calculated to function through the aesthetic effects of sublimity, whether this be in the World Trade Centre bombings, which glued viewers across the globe, as if in a trance, to the repeated images of the un(re)presentable that were played and replayed on their TV screens, or whether this be in the "shock and awe" that is the explicit goal of military campaigns, run themselves very much as representations of the unthinkable military and technological might of a superpower, rather than as purely functional 'military' campaigns against another military force.

In my current research I'm attempting to unravel, (at least in part), something about what this repetition of the sublime might mean. Why might our culture be drawing on the sublime in this way? What might be differences between the current uses of the sublime and those of the eighteenth century?

I'm taking, as my central 'case' in this investigation, the contemporary artist Damien Hirst. Hirst is a figure who fascinates me in his precarious balance between high art and commercial culture, between the worlds of art and of the media. Hirst has had a phenomenal success, rising meteorically to fame and fortune through the 1990s. Hirst's work has become iconic within our culture, picked up repeatedly by cartoonists, advertisers and satirists. I'm picking him up as my case study not because I am particularly enamoured with his work, but because it does seem to be so very symptomatic of the time in which it was produced. My work is not an apologia for Hirst (nor for that matter, an attack on him), but uses him as an object through which to do the work of cultural analysis.

It's my contention that his success, and the resonance his work has had throughout popular culture (even if he often seems more ridiculous than sublime) depends exactly on the insistence with which he draws on the iconography and rhetoric of eighteenth-century, Romantic and Gothic sublimity, and on the rise of this general sensibility in contemporary culture. In order to make sense of Hirst, then, I have engaged on a kind of genealogy of what can only perhaps be expressed through an anachronism such as 'the Hirstean sublime'.

As my research has progressed, what has become central to my project is to trace a series of commercialised versions of the sublime back into its earliest history to attempt to make sense of Hirst's return to this. It has also been to understand the close links between the development of ideas of the sublime and the development of commodified culture and of capitalism itself - the links between the aesthetics of the sublime and the conditions of 'modern' life and subjecthood.

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