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Beauty and The Sublime: An Interview with Robert Priseman

Lucy Cox: What are the characteristics of a beautiful work of art? 

Robert Priseman: In his book Going Sane the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips[i] describes how there are many definitions of insanity, yet none exist for the state of sanity itself. Beauty is very similar because it remains undefined, yet also includes conditions we instinctively know and instantly recognise.

In an attempt to understand the subject a little deeper, in the summer of 2019, I listened to a series of talks by Fr. Martin Boland on beauty, truth and the divine at the Benedictine Monastery of Pluscarden Abbey.[ii] The Abbey, built in 1230, is shrouded by trees and lies deep in the glen of Black Burn to the far northeast of Scotland. It has a deep sense of tranquillity, enhanced by the Gregorian chants sung daily by the monks who live there, and, in many ways, is a perfect setting for a study on the beautiful.

Pluscarden Abbey. Image: Wikipedia.

Boland outlined a theory that beauty does not necessarily have a conclusive definition, describing how, due to its subjective nature, we might argue over the aesthetics and meanings. Beauty appears elusive; it lies somewhere beyond our reach because, fundamentally, its ideas seem to vary from person to person and culture to culture. In a similar vein to Adam Phillips, he argued whilst there appears to be no categorical answer to the question ‘what is beauty?’ we instinctively know what isn’t beautiful, as demonstrated by a photograph of the Cumbernauld shopping centre shown in one of Boland’s talks.

Centre Cumbernauld, Scotland. Photograph by Ed Webster. Image: Wikipedia.

To give the building its proper title, the Centre Cumbernauld, which opened in 1967 and became known as a ‘mega-structure’, is a post-war architectural development situated northeast of Glasgow. It has the appearance of an unattractive concrete bunker. In 2005 the Channel 4 programme Demolition announced that, following a national poll, the mega-structure had become ‘Britain’s most hated building.’[iii] The nation clearly reached a consensus. Concluding his talk, Boland read a quote by the English philosopher Roger Scruton who said, ‘I believe that there is a deep human need for beauty, and if you ignore that need in architecture, your buildings will not last, since people will never feel at home in them. Now, you might shrug this off and think that these changes in the world of art are without significance. But I would argue that what we look at, listen to and read affects us in the deepest part of our being.’

Sitting in the 800-year-old Abbey, it was easy to sense that Pluscarden possessed an element the shopping centre lacked: Pluscarden was loved, something denied to Cumbernauld in its conception, development, and continuing care. The lack of love presents an absence of beauty. 

Analysis of Beauty by William Hogarth, plate 2. Image: Royal Academy of Arts.

The English artist William Hogarth took a different view in his 1753 book The Analysis of Beauty. Hogarth argued that the shapes we find most beautiful are those most closely aligned with performing their function. The ‘serpentine line’,[iv] an elongated s-shaped curve found in nature, is a primary example. For Hogarth, the forms and muscle structure of racing horses perfectly express this curve. He believed that beauty manifests itself through shapes closely attached to function. Some two hundred years later, the automotive industry adopted a version of serpentine lines known as spline curves to help design cars’ external appearance. The term spline originated in East Anglia and referred to the thin wooden strips boat builders employed to help shape and form smooth flowing curves when designing a hull. Car manufacturers noticed that when they incorporated splines in their designs, it caused the light to reflect off the body in a fashion that made them appear superior in quality, which ultimately meant they could charge higher prices. Later, the pattern was mathematically formulated as ‘piecewise polynomial curves’ and is widely used today in computer-aided design. 

Boland and Scruton provide examples of man-made art, whilst Hogarth and the mathematics of polynomial curves emphasise beauty as it appears in nature, probably more closely related to ideas of the sublime.

LC: Can you elaborate a little more on this difference?

Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth by J.M.W. Turner, 1842. Image: Wikipedia.

RP: It seems we are looking at two distinct categories. First, the sublime, separate from, yet connected to beauty, and second, beauty itself. We often experience the sublime as a feeling of awe in the presence of nature. In literature, examples include authors the Brontë Sisters, Mary Shelley and Lord Byron, whilst in painting, J. M. W. Turner or Caspar David Friedrich with artworks such as Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, (c.1842), Chasseur in the Forest (1814) and Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818). In Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, a lonely man stands on top of a mountain in Saxony, wrapped in a dark green coat with a walking stick in his right hand. Ahead of him, in the distance, mountains appear shrouded in mist. He has the look of an individual lingering on the precipice of something far greater than any other person, and, by seeking out the natural world, appears to have stumbled upon the defining boundary of human existence. Nature can bring our individual lives into some greater reassuring context. 

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich, 1818. Image: Wikipedia.

The English dramatist and critic John Dennis believed that the sublime could be considered an aesthetic quality simultaneously separate from and complementary to beauty. In the 1693 journal Miscellanies, Dennis recalled an emotional response he once felt whilst crossing the Alps. The majesty of the mountain landscape created a sense of terror, which also strangely elicited a ‘pleasure to the eye as music is to the ear.’[v] Similarly, in the 1756 treatise, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke also argued that the sublime and the beautiful are mutually exclusive, with either one able to produce pleasure.[vi]

Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer and John Dennis’ recollection demonstrate a sensation of awe in the presence of nature. Awe appears to have the ability to make us feel content because it diminishes our problems by placing them in a universal context. 

LC: Is truth connected to ideas of beauty and the sublime? 

RP: Truth seems to be as difficult a concept to define as beauty and the sublime; therefore I can only offer my personal and somewhat limited understanding and say that, until the 19th-century, the western world generally regarded truth as a prior known reality. In his 1781 book, Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant[vii] challenged this idea, which led to a shift in our understanding of interpretations based on subjectivism. At the dawn of the 21st-century, subjective truth, popularly expressed as ‘my truth’ or ‘speaking my truth’, centres upon how we each understand our individual lived experience. 

Regardless of whether truth is considered objective or subjective, and whether we can pin it down to something solidly known or not, I believe if we ask ourselves what is the opposite to truth, then we know it is to lie. Lying requires us to make a conscious decision to construct a falsehood. What we notice, then, is truth isn’t adhered to consciously. Truth is a default setting. And this, I believe, connects our ideas of truth, beauty and the sublime. These three concepts, not easily defined, are somehow elusive; we sense them at a core human level to be fundamentally important. They manifest as questions––the great mysteries of the universe––for which there are no answers: Why are we here? Why do we dream? What happens after death? Art and creativity occupy this realm, engaging with the parts of ourselves we don’t fully understand. 

LC: What conclusions might we draw from this?

RP: Sublime beauty resides outside of ourselves, primarily in the natural world; we’ve had no part in its creation. In contrast, handmade beauty emerges from inside ourselves and only exists because it is something we have personally brought into existence. In a sense, these two concepts represent objective beauty and subjective beauty.

When a work of art is made with love, like Derek Jarman’s garden in Dungeness, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, we recognise it instinctively. Loved objects, like a highly polished motorbike, a well-crafted novel or carefully tended to garden, attract us. Attractive handmade objects are appealing because we notice the amount of time it has taken to nurture them. A well-realised garden, free of weeds, includes carefully selected plants designed to complement one another and offers a varied display throughout the seasons. Similarly, a beautiful painting demonstrates sensitivity to the subject and a love of materials.

Luna Park by Julian Brown, 2019. Image: Brownsword Hepworth.

When an art object receives devoted attention during the process of making, it must be for a reason: that particular object is special to the maker who dedicated time and effort. Beauty inevitably emerges from varying forms of expression in different cultural traditions and periods; yet, a core tenant underpins all of them: they have all been loved into being. We become sensitive to beautiful things around us. Aesthetic appreciation enables people to engage intimately with places, people and objects. 

This appreciation does not mean that all creative works are beautiful. Indeed the 20th-century has seen a significant shift away from the concerns of beauty. An artwork born of the imagination can also express of hate or fear; it might represent the synthesis of something we wish to destroy or be a detached exercise in intellectualism. Only things that have been imagined and then loved into existence offer an expression of beauty. 

LC: Do you believe beauty represents the ‘aura’ of the authentic artwork as described by Walter Benjamin[viii] in his 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction?

RP: That is so interesting. Benjamin described how original works of art possess an ‘aura’ located within its ‘presence in time and space’ and ‘unique existence at the place where it happens to be.’ He argued that this ‘sphere of authenticity is out-side the technical’, which makes original artworks independent of copies. Moreover, through reproduction, something else is lost from the original by the change in context. Benjamin considered the removal of the original as a positive because traditional art forms, particularly painting and sculpture, had been produced exclusively for a ruling elite. He proposed that art, in the advent of mass production, could become democratised and made available to everyone. Although copies fail to possess the ‘aura’ of the original work of art, for Benjamin, it was a price worth paying.

Abstract Painting by Ad Reinhardt, 1957. Image: White Hot Magazine.
Ad Reinhardt in his studio, mid-1960s. Image: Medium.

The ‘aura’ of a work of art remains intact only if the object intended to be reproducible, like a musical composition or a novel, but becomes absent in duplication if the design is a one-off. This theory has perhaps found its perfect expression in Ad Reinhardt’s Black paintings, where the naked eye can only see the subtle colour changes made by the artist between one slightly off-black square alongside another; in reproduction, these differences vanish. Examining a print of Reinhardt’s paintings is like looking at a photograph of a garden or a sunset instead of experiencing the real thing. The copy leaves the viewer with a memory of the original because reproductions make it difficult to connect with. This is not the case for a novel, for example, because every element of the structure remains intact. However, if we see an original manuscript by Jane Austen, we instinctively know we are in the presence of something special. 

Benjamin reveals that original works of art possess a unique quality or an ‘aura.’ This ‘aura’ may or may not be an expression of beauty, but I believe it is special because it contains the author’s emotional fingerprint. As viewers, our feelings connect to emotional fingerprints, similar to how we sense awe when standing in front of natural phenomena. 

LC: Given that we live in a digital age comfortable with social media and mass reproduction, do original works of art matter anymore?

RP: Yes, now more than ever. If we choose only to live with reproductions, we become disconnected from reality and live instead in a world of phantom images. 

In 2010 while visiting Boston, Massachusetts, I stopped by the Granary Burying Ground, next to the Park Street Church. The Ground, founded in 1660, is the resting place of several famous and historic figures, including silversmith Paul Revere, John Hancock, a prominent Patriot of the American Revolution, and Samuel Adams, one of the founding fathers of the America. The graves of some of the early pilgrims who had sailed to the US from England were nearby, which I found fascinating as they originated close to where I live in East Anglia. However, what really interested me was how many other cemetery visitors encountered the headstones without pausing and instead photographed them using their mobile phones. 

The visitors had possibly researched the location and seen online images of the graves beforehand. Why would they want take their own photographs when similar images already exist on the Internet? Is there a difference between the two? Perhaps, yes. Seeing images online prompted a desire to connect to the real thing. It was not the actual graves the visitors were recording, but instead an attempt to capture a memory of the feeling of the visit itself. 

When people walk on a beach, watch a sunset or go mountain hiking, they expect to experience something relating to their existence in the natural world. Deciding to read a book, watch a movie or visit an art gallery also comes with expectations: by connecting to the ‘aura’ of the original artwork, we experience the creator’s inner world and sense their emotional fingerprint. 

Following the publication of Walter Benjamin’s essay in the 20th-century, we have become increasingly separated from the ‘aura’ of the original, whilst witnessing its fingerprints become more and more detached from ideas of beauty. Maybe after two world wars and the Holocaust, Theodor W. Adorno’s famous line ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’[ix] illustrates that beauty became too painful for western society to engage with. Perhaps now, after seventy years, the time is right for us to reconnect with beauty in the arts.

Objective beauty has the reassuring effect of contextualising our lives within the universe whilst subjective beauty reminds us that people can and do love; we respond to love. And that is a beautiful thing.


[i] Adam Phillips, Going Sane (Penguin New Edition: London, 2006). 

[ii] Pluscarden Abbey, ‘2019 Pentecost Lectures: “Beauty will save the world” with Fr Martin Boland’, 5 March 2019.

[iii] Alan Hamilton and Sophie Kirkham, ‘Too ugly to live: the award winning town begging to be put out of its misery on TV’, The Times, 21 February 2005.

[iv] William Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty (London: Printed for the author, 1753), in Project Gutenberg.

[v] Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (London: 1958). 

[vi] John Dennis, ‘Miscellanies in Verse and Prose’ in Critical Works, ed., Edward Niles Hooker. (Baltimore: 1939).

[vii] Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason (Germany: Printed for the author, 1781), in Project Gutenberg.

[viii] Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Production, trans. by J.A. Underwood (London: Penguin, 2008).

[ix] Theodor W. Adorno, Prisms, trans. by Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1981).

robert_prisemanRobert Priseman, founder of Contemporary British Painting and co-founder the Priseman Seabrook art collection, is a British artist, collector, writer, curator and publisher who lives and works in Essex. Over 200 works by Priseman are held in art museum collections worldwide, including the V&A, Museum der Moderne Salzburg, Honolulu Museum of Art and the National Galleries of Scotland.

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