Andreas Gursky and the Contemporary Sublime

Article excerpt

The German photographer Andreas Gursky takes pictures of enormous spacesstock exchanges, skyscrapers, mountain peaks-in which crowds of people look tiny and relentless, making their presence felt in the world, like a minute, leisurely colony of ants. Also like ants, these people appear to spend little time examining their own encroachment-architectural, technological, and personal-on the natural world. In their determined, oblivious way, the people in his photographs make clear that there is no longer any nature uncharted by man. In place of nature we find the invasive landmarks of a global economy. Taken as a whole, Gursky's work constitutes a map of the postmodern civilized world.

The vision is not a comforting one. Many of Gursky's pictures, though beautiful, intensely colorful, and wonderfully composed, leave the viewer with an uneasy feeling. Whether because of the spread of architectures or the bustling crowds they show, or because of the equalizing aesthetic treatment given to all subjects, from the Dolomite Mountains to a car show in France, the pictures are both awe-inspiring and disturbing.

What is the nature of this reaction? In 1756, the Irish writer Edmund Burke published "A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful," a work that influenced aestheticians and other philosophers, most notably Kant. In this treatise Burke set out the first modern definition of the sublime: "Whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime. That is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling."' This terrible emotion could be produced by the grandeur of nature, but it could also be caused by a work of art. If the latter, because the artwork is a representation rather than a direct experience, the sublime could be mitigated. Once moderated, the sublime could transform itself-not into pleasure, exactly, but into "a sort of delightful horror, a sort of tranquility tinged ' with terror" ( 114).

The ultimate source of the terror evoked by the sublime is the Divine, in relation to which human beings are inconsequential:

[W]hilst we contemplate so vast an object, under the arm, as it were, of almighty power, and invested upon every side with omnipresence, we shrink into the minuteness of our own nature, and are, in a manner, annihilated before him. And though a consideration of his other attributes may relieve, in some measure, our apprehensions; yet no conviction of the justice with which it is exercised, nor the mercy with which it is tempered, can wholly remove the terror that naturally arises from a force which nothing can withstand. If we rejoice, we rejoice with trembling: and even whilst we are receiving benefits, we cannot but shudder at a power which can confer benefits of such mighty importance (60-61).

These days, at least in the Western world, such fear and trembling in the face of God are no longer generalized. In place of God, we have a sprawling network of technology, government, business, and communications. These forces of globalization have become our religion. This is not to say that we necessarily subscribe wholeheartedly to a belief in the goodness of the network, yet the network works mysteriously, transecting the world, even as it impinges on our daily lives in specific ways. There are certainly important benefits to be gained from globalization few would argue, for example, against exporting the medical care of developed countries to emerging nations. But even the benefits can be puzzling: when we buy an inexpensive cellular phone at a local superstore, there is an entire complex of global factors (economic variables, international trade, technological developments) that bear on the transaction and that we may never consider, or even grasp.

These factors are like the Divine in that they are beyond the understanding of the vast majority of people whose lives they affect. …