Transcendent Scenes of American Sublime Inspire Genuine Awe

Dear Reader: Perhaps, like myself, you have noticed that there is a tendency among critics and historians of art to become enamored of their own formulations. In response to certain developments in contemporary art, there is an understandable eagerness among the more intellectually ambitious of these writers to come up with a pithy phrase or catchy epithet that will conveniently label such developments for a bewildered public. It hardly seems to matter that, upon close examination, these formulations often turn out to be entirely bogus. Once they have been popularized by the media and canonized in the academy, they acquire a life of their own, and the public is obliged to wait for a later generation of critics and historians to set the record straight.

Thus, in response to the radical innovations of Post-Impressionist painting, Bloomsbury gave us the notion of “significant form,” which seemed to mean something at the time but was later found to be too facile a concept to explain the complexities of Cézanne or Matisse. Closer to home, the emergence of the Abstract Expressionist movement in the 1950′s brought us the notion of “action painting.” This was nicely designed to make it seem as if the paintings of Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning et al. were somehow akin to the Existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, then all the rage in intellectual circles. But “action painting,” too, was an utterly bogus idea, as virtually everyone in the art world now recognizes.

More recently, in response to Andy Warhol and his Factory, we were given still another catchpenny formulation-”the end of art”-which, insofar as it means anything at all, certainly doesn’t mean that artists have ceased to create works of art. What it’s said to mean is that art has now, post-Warhol, become a branch of philosophy-and thus, by implication, only professional philosophers are in a position to assess its accomplishment. This notion, too, now enjoys a kind of afterlife in the seminar rooms and on the margins of media coverage of the arts.

What brings all this to mind at the moment is the exhibition called American Sublime: Epic Landscapes of Our Nation, 1820-1880 , at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. I hasten to add that there is nothing bogus about this wonderful exhibition or its excellent catalog. In my experience, anyway, American Sublime is the best survey of its subject I have seen; indeed, it’s a model of what a historical exhibition of this kind ought to be. The selection of paintings observes a consistently high aesthetic standard, and the scrupulously conceived organization is designed to illuminate not only the artistic achievements of 19th-century American landscape painting but the specific historical, social and geographical imperatives that shaped its development.

As it happens, however, American Sublime opened at the Pennsylvania Academy just as another exhibition-the Barnett Newman retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art-was in its closing weeks. This coincidental overlap was bound to create some confusion in minds susceptible to bogus claims. For the late Barnett Newman (1905-1970), an abstract painter of modest accomplishment who was part of the New York School, famously claimed that his paintings also represented a version of the American Sublime. In 1948, he published an essay called “The Sublime Is Now” in the magazine Tiger’s Eye , and this, together with similar writings by Newman and others, led to the notion that certain Abstract Expressionist paintings (especially the work of Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still and Newman himself) were now to be seen as belonging to the same pictorial tradition as the 19th-century paintings of Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt et al.-the tradition of the American Sublime.

This fanciful formulation, which has absolutely no foundation in anything but facile rhetoric, proved nonetheless to be irresistible to certain art-world thinkers. The Museum of Modern Art even went so far as to mount an exhibition that was designed to prove the efficacy of the idea, but that only succeeded in establishing its absurdity. Yet there’s no idea so absurd that it can’t be made to serve some academic or journalistic function, and so the fiction that the paintings of Thomas Cole, say, and those of Barnett Newman were somehow joined in a common aesthetic or spiritual mission has acquired an intellectually respectable status in certain quarters of the art world.

It was hardly a surprise, then, that when I attended the press viewing of the American Sublime exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy, almost the first question I was asked was whether I believed in this preposterous fiction. My interlocutor, who is himself a scholar in the field of the 19th-century American Sublime, was greatly relieved to hear that I did not. But I’m afraid we’re doomed to see this fiction endure for another generation or so, if only in the classrooms where such fictions abound.

What does the concept of “the Sublime” mean, anyway? Andrew Wilton, in a catalog essay entitled “The Sublime in the Old World and the New,” provides an excellent historical summary of this very slippery idea. For a more succinct explanation, the one given in the 11th edition of The Encyclopedia Britannica (1911) can hardly be improved upon. It reads, in part, as follows: “Sublime … in aesthetics, a term applied to the quality of transcendent greatness, whether physical, moral, intellectual or artistic. It is especially used for a greatness with which nothing can be compared and which is beyond all possibility of calculation or measurement. Psychologically, the effect of the perception of the sublime is a feeling of awe or helplessness.”

Whether or not every painting in the American Sublime exhibition can be said to meet this standard of “transcendent greatness” is debatable, but it’s nonetheless amazing to see so many paintings at the Academy succeed in approaching such a standard. In the 10 galleries which the Philadelphia Museum of Art has devoted to the Newman retrospective, however, the feeling of helplessness we experience in the presence of such minimal aesthetic endeavor on such an extravagant scale has nothing to do with “awe,” never mind “transcendent greatness.” It’s a helplessness induced by sheer, unrelieved boredom-a boredom from which all the fanciful formulations of art-world rhetoric can offer no relief.

American Sublime: Epic Landscapes of Our Nation, 1820-1880 , remains on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts through Aug. 25. Barnett Newman closes at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on July 7.