Did the Sublime Die with Bach?

It’s an overstatement to call two articles on the same subject a “rash,” but it was still interesting to read two articles on a similar topic within 24 hours of each other. Rod Dreher on church architecture and aesthetics. Heather MacDonald on classical music. The articles focus on different things, but both left me wondering about the same question: is today’s culture incapable of producing “high” art?

Two initial clarifications: first, my question is not intended to imply a lack of quality in today’s art; second, it is not directed in the stereotypical conservative direction that suggests the world hasn’t produced a worthwhile artist since about 1750. Rather, I am wondering whether today’s Western culture can produce new art that specifically seeks, and achieves, the sublime.

“Sublime.” C. S. Lewis used it to describe something objectively beautiful, beyond the feeble reach of individual tastes. Over a century earlier, Burke had explained further that the sublime is actually, in a sense, painful for the mortal, for it calls us beyond where mortals can go. Something sublime elicits words like “vast” and “magnificent.” An encounter with the sublime—with that which evokes the divine, such as Luther’s lightning storm—brings with it at least a small sense of the awe and fear that must come with encountering the divine itself.

As one might imagine, we shouldn’t want everything to be sublime. The sublime does not necessarily teach us about love, about mercy, about home. We still need what Burke called “beauty” for that—things that are more relational, more intimate, perhaps even (as Lewis suggested) more subjective in how each human might rank their value. A call for the sublime doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy a novel, watch a movie, or listen to Coldplay.

What it does is beg for a context for all of the above. Artistic greatness, noted aesthetic philosopher Matthew Arnold, “is a spiritual condition worthy to excite love, interest, and admiration.” Rather than allowing fads and preferences to dictate how we seek higher things, the introduction of the sublime does the opposite. It puts our priorities straight. It inspires us to seek the eternal by carrying us outside ourselves. Unlike subjective art that demands us to “bring something of ourselves” to it, the sublime must be encountered on its own terms.

And why should we want this? Only someone who has never seen a magnificent sunset, or the Rocky Mountains, would ask such a question. Why should we want something that inspires us and makes us think there might be something beyond ourselves, a reason for living beyond tomorrow? Because life without the sublime—so beautifully and frighteningly captured in the movie The Lives of Others—is mundane and not worth living.

MacDonald and Dreher both reference the decline of high art and the rejection of the past in the 19th and 20th centuries. But neither traces this decline to the rejection of the sublime, as the director of The Lives of Others seems to, and the director of WALL-E unquestionably does.

MacDonald celebrates the revival of classical and baroque (a.k.a. “high”) music in the late 20th century, but she admits that “the tidal wave of creation that generated the masterpieces we so magnificently perform is spent; we’re left to scavenge the marvels that it cast up.” In other words, while the forms still exist if we’re willing to study history, there are no more Beethovens who can build on Mozart and Bach. Subsequent composers broke the chain of development. Likewise, Dreher wonders (with philosopher William Barrett) if our culture is incapable of developing “high” architecture, because perhaps we’ve simply moved on. Frank Gehry’s buildings, for example, might be different from the modernism he rejects, but they are just as without a sense of the sublime.

It was a rejection of the notion of the sublime that led these artists to reject the past. And, I think, it is the development of an alternative tradition, in rejection of the sublime, that faces artists today. Anyone who wishes to achieve a sense of the sublime—in a building’s architecture, in worship music, in most painting and sculpture—is forced to regurgitate artistic forms from hundreds of years ago.

The question is really this: given that we long since abandoned the tradition that had been based on the sublime, can we pick it up again as though we’d never dropped it? Or must those who seek the sublime in art forms—and political forms—be permanently relegated to the status of quirky reactionaries who prefer old stuff?

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