On Friday, March 22, 2019, gallery artist members and visitors gathered at 56 Bogart St to discuss the ineffable, implacable concept of the sublime. The event was guided by artist members Candace Jensen, Philip Swan, and Samantha Jones, whose artworks held space in the gallery for the symbolic charge of the sublime. Perpetual Becoming was set to close at 6PM the following day, so this evening event was the last chance to try, as a group, to put words to the sublime.
The artists gathered sources of inspiration, such as quotations and parables on subjects ranging from physics to spirituality, to help break through the inherent challenges of discussing the sublime. Below are some of the artists' notes on developing the event and describing the sublime:
Candace Jensen: The content; the sublime, time as a medium, mystical experience (and validation thereof) all came directly from our conversations around Sam's work and methods in Perpetual Becoming— although, fortunately, they are all ideas and themes that I am immensely interested in.
I come from a less intellectual view on these things— as a Tantric, the realm of the sensual, the mystical and the irrational are all on equal footing with rationalist or philosophical views. This in fact is one of the currents of my own work, the way that visual art creates a bridge between the intuited and the intellectual, the magical and the scientifically studied.
Lastly, I wanted to comment on how important this Salon was to me as a way to create meaningful conversation and community around art and creativity that is, essentially, non-commodifiable. It wasn't about money or capital, it was about people validating people through their work, their words and their experiences of sublime and challenging-to-share moments. What a beautiful thing.
Philip Swan: I’m interested in bridging the perceived gap between art and science, the idea that creativity and reason are incompatible. I’ll provide two examples, one comparing the findings of neuroscience on the topic of cognitive disinhibition to the works of Romantic poets, and another comparing the philosophical definition of the sublime to the work of physicists studying entropy.
Neuroscientists have documented reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex during moments of creativity via brain imaging. The prefrontal cortex makes executive decisions in the brain, controlling impulses, planning for the future, etc. In moments of "cognitive disinhibition" the prefrontal cortex no longer suppresses spontaneous thoughts, the logical brain is let off its leash. This feeling of suppressing the prefrontal cortex was captured by William Wordsworth in his poem “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey:”
We are laid asleep In body, and become a living soul: While with an eye made quiet by the power Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, We see into the life of things.
Neuroscience has also found that creative people have more activity in the association cortices of their brain. The associative cortices kick in with activities like reading, where they tie a written word to both its sound and its meaning. Creative individuals seem to have an increased ability to make wider use of these associative cortices, associating words in ways that are less logical, more disorganized, similar to unconscious mental states such as when we dream.
-Makin, S. (2019). The Undiscovered Illness. Scientific American, 320(3), 36–41.
William Blake encapsulates this ability to freely associate in “Auguries of Innocence:”
To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.
In both the Blake and the Wordsworth quotes you get this sense of disassociation, losing contact with the self and with time and place, and this can certainly be one definition of the sublime.
Two philosophical contemporaries of Blake and Wordsworth were Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant, who both described the sublime as a sense of awe before the vastness and complexity of nature along with a fear of its force. In their view, what we are trying to perceive in a sublime moment exceeds our ability to perceive, such as looking up at a sky full of stars, or looking at the endless horizon of the ocean, or looking down into a deep chasm from high above. The sublime reflects the limits of our capacities for perception: we are overwhelmed by what we are looking at, and it humbles us and possibly frightens us.
While some have argued that the sublime undercuts the rationality of science because it calls into question our ability to comprehend the universe through our senses, there is actually no contradiction between the two.
Physicists, most famously Albert Einstein, have long challenged our perception of reality, especially our perception of time.
Einstein said that “the distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” In a certain sense, everyone here today is already dead, but is also being born, everything that has happened in your life is still happening and everything that will happen has already happened. You would need Einstein to explain this more fully, I have a hard time comprehending it which, again, is the sublime in a nutshell.
In a 2018 book entitled The Order of Time by physicist Carlo Rovelli, he explains it this way:
“There is no single time…time passes at different rhythms according to place and according to speed...The substratum that determines the duration of time is not an independent entity, different from others that make up the world; it is an aspect of a dynamic field. It jumps, fluctuates, materializes only by interacting, and is not to be found beneath a minimum scale.”
-Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time
In simpler language, the idea is that time and space are the same thing. The more you move through space the less you move through time, time slows down. For example, nothing moves faster than the speed of light, and light consists of photons. Because of this, light never grows old because it never stops moving: a photon that emerged from the Big Bang is the same age today as it was then, because it is moving as fast as it is possible to move, all of its motion is through space and not through time.
All of this gets back to the idea of the sublime, because our sense of time arises from the limits of our perception. We sense time through entropy, the state of things going from order to disorder. In the classic textbook definition, a sandcastle only comes about because someone has taken disordered sand and put it in the ordered form of a castle. We know from experience that eventually the sand will return to its disordered state as it dries out and the sandcastle crumbles: that is how we perceive the passage of time: things fall apart. As Carlo Rovelli puts it,
“We human beings are an effect of this great history of the increase of entropy, held together by the memory that is enabled by these traces.” -Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time
How does this relate to the sublime, to the idea that the sublime deals with the limits of our perception? The passage of time depends on the transfer of heat or energy, that is the technical definition of entropy. At the subatomic level there is no passage of heat, so there is no passage of time. Our sense of time passing is due to the fact that we cannot perceive things at a subatomic level. Since the subatomic world makes up the universe, time is therefore an illusion that comes about from the limitations of our perception as human beings. It thus takes a poet or a scientist to realize that we can see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palms of our hands and eternity in an hour, and we can be grateful for both.
The event featured on-theme refreshments such as subLime punch, key Lime pie, and delicious baked goods. Thank you to all who attended!