Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (detail)

Postmodernism and the Sublime

Instructor: Morgan Meis
Bethlehem Building
1450 McKinstry Street
Detroit, MI 48209

The sublime: it’s a concept we use to describe something so grand and magnificent as to inspire feelings of awe, even to the point of being overwhelmed. The intellectual struggle between Modernism and Postmodernism has often been fought on the battlefield of the sublime. Modernism has often been wary of the sublime and therefore seeks to contain it and to locate its boundaries. Postmodernism does just the opposite—it sets the concept loose to wreak its havoc where it may. What instigates the Postmodern embrace of the sublime? Why were modernists more wary? And, what does a “setting loose” of the sublime mean for art, aesthetic judgment, and art’s relation to society as a whole?

In this class, we’ll briefly explore the genealogy of the sublime, first from its appearance in Loginus’ ancient tract “On The Sublime” and early treatment by Edmund Burke, then to its central place in Immanuel Kant’s critical philosophy, which set the stage for the reappearance of the sublime in Postmodernism. For Kant, the sublime has the power to not only unite all the parts of his critical system—reason, morality, and aesthetic judgment—but also, potentially, to destroy the system completely. Postmodernists seized on this ambivalence. To see this transformation at work, we’ll read passages from the works of Jean-François Lyotard (Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, The Postmodern Condition), Jacques Derrida (The Truth in Painting) and Julia Kristeva (Powers of Horror). We’ll also look to the work of a number of writers and visual artists who explicitly or implicitly take up the issue of the sublime, including Caspar David Friedrich, Barnett Newman, Julie Mehretu, Marguerite Duras, and Cindy Sherman. As we proceed, we’ll keep the following questions constantly in mind: “What is the sublime?” “What is Postmodernism?” and “Why does it matter?”

Course Schedule

Tuesday, 6:30-9:30pm
June 04 — June 25, 2019
4 weeks


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