Monday, March 3, 2014

Christian Boltanski and Immanuel Kant’s aesthetic of the sublime

Christian Boltanski is an artist who deals with the human condition and the universal theme of death, but also explores the themes of truth/fiction, childhood, innocence and memory. He uses a blend of real and fabricated documents and a variety of expressive mediums such as painting, film, mail art and sculpture. Boltanski is well known for his quasi-religious installations which allude to various sources (such as public memorials, religious icons, the Jewish Holocaust, his own past) in which he combines photography, lighting and objects.
His work has a characteristic aura of mystery and uncertainty and often provokes contradictory feelings. An explanation for this may be Boltanski’s dual heritage: he has both Jewish and Catholic origins. In an interview (Christian Boltanski, 1994, p.96) he once declared:

A strange relation to the divine, the feeling of being simultaneously part of the “chosen” and the least of men, has driven me to affirm then contradict myself, to cry and laugh at myself…In Jewish culture, I’m drawn to the fact that one says one thing and its opposite at the same time, or the way of answering a question with another question and constantly mocking what one does…

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was an important philosopher and one of the first to integrate an aesthetic theory into a philosophical system. His investigation of the notion of the “sublime” is an important reference point in many fields of research (such as art, aesthetics, literature). The “sublime” is a complex term that has been used over the centuries and is usually related to ideas of vastness, magnitude and awe. The word has many applications and can refer to varied things such as a natural phenomenon, a thought or idea, a work of art, a state of mind. Kant identifies the sublime (The Critique of Judgement) as an aesthetic quality which refers to the indeterminate relationship (or “conflict”) between the faculties of imagination and reason.
Kant was influenced by the writings of aesthitician-politician Edmund Burke, who mainly connected the sublime to overwhelming and awe-inspiring natural events such as a storm or an earthquake. For Burke (A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of the Sublime and the Beautiful) the sublime is “whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger…Whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror.” Burke also believes that this “terror” is counterbalanced by a certain “polluted” pleasure, “a sort of delightful horror; a sort of tranquillity tinged with terror”.
In "The Critique of Judgement" Kant argues that the sublime is not a formal quality of a natural phenomenon, but rather a subjective conception which originates in the human mind (a “mode” of consciousness). For Kant the sublime can be formless and is a “presentation of an indeterminate concept of reason”. He describes the sublime (The Critique of Judgement) as that “which in the very possibility of its being thought gives evidence of the existence of a faculty of the mind surpassing every standard of sense.” To clarify his position, he draws a dividing line between the closely related notions of “beauty” and “sublimity”; he describes the experience of beauty as an experience of the form of an object in nature (and thereby an experience of limits), while sublimity is described as an overwhelming experience of formlessness or limitlessness that occurs in the mind.
Kant (The Critique of Judgement) describes the experience of the sublime as a simultaneous feeling of pleasure and displeasure (“negative pleasure”) -a kind of “disruptive” event where the mind is overwhelmed and strained at the edges of its conceptual capabilities. The sublime, he suggests, is of such greatness and magnitude that the faculty of imagination is unable to grasp and comprehend/ represent it. Thereby, when faced with a sublime event or concept, the human mind (sensory cognition) is deemed “inadequate” and the feeling of displeasure arises. Simultaneously, a feeling of pleasure awakens because rationality is vivified and affirmed: one’s ability to conceive of a sublime event as singular and whole (Kant describes this as a “super-added sense of totality”) indicates the superiority of human reason over nature.

                                             Boltanski, C. (1990) "Monument (Odessa)" [Installation detail]

Boltanski’s “monumental” installations (which consist of photographs arranged in geometric compositions, objects and lights) could be described as rather morbid as they allude to the innocent victims of the Holocaust. On the other hand, the beauty and symmetry of his installations can potentially induce an aesthetically “uplifting” experience. It seems as if Boltanski is trying to grapple with irreconcilable oppositions (such as death and innocence, horror and beauty) thereby suggesting that life has an “indeterminate” aspect. By questioning the meaning the viewer brings to his art, Boltanski challenges the human mind’s conceptual capabilities, its ability to discover “truth” and its “authority” to interpret and pass judgement. Furthermore, his work suggests that the human mind is unable to completely comprehend “reality” which is something undecideable and constantly in flux.
As mentioned, the paradoxical and ambiguous nature of Boltanski’s art strains the beholder’s perceptual and imaginative capacities to the utmost. The attempt to decipher the unsteady and ambivalent meanings which underlie his work, brings the viewer to the uncomfortable position where he/she must face his/her limits of understanding. Therefore, it could be said that Boltanski’s art creates a kind of “intensification” of one’s conceptual-imaginative capacity (an ambivalent enjoyment) and, subsequently, challenges the mind to discover its potentially infinite inventive capacity and sublime nature.


Boltanski, C. (1990) Christian Boltanski: Reconstitution. London: Whitechapel Art Gallery.
Burke, E. (1987) A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origins of the Sublime and the Beautiful. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Cassirer, H.W. (1970) A Commentary on Kant’s Critique of Judgement. Barnes &Noble Inc. and Methuen&Co. Ltd.
Gumpert, L. (1994) Christian Boltanski. Paris: Flammarrion.
Guyer, P. (ed.) (1992) The Cambridge Companion to Kant. Cambridge University Press.
Kant, I. (1978) The Critique of Judgement. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Semin, D., Garb, T. And Kuspit, D. (1997) Christian Boltanski. London: Phaidon.
Shaw P. (2009) The Sublime. London and New York: Routledge.


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