sublime-6.jpgAn essay on the concept of the sublime in art, rehearsing the history of the postmodern sublime, and calling for a moratorium on its use.


John Ruskin's Vesuvius in Eruption (1841).


Andy Warhol's Vesuvius (1985).

Robert Scott Duncanson, Vesuvius and Pompeii (1870).

Joseph Wright of Derby's Eruption of Vesuvius (1774).

Against the Sublime

(2009, revised 2017)

This paper explores the uses of the sublime in recent art theory, philosophy, and literary criticism. I propose that the concept of the sublime, and the postmodern sublime in particular, are over-used tropes in critical writing. They sometimes serve a covert religious purpose, as a way of smuggling theological concepts into secular discourse; and they are stand-ins for notions of epistemological, linguistic, and psychological failures that do not require the specific discourse of the sublime.

The essay is 24 pp. and includes references to accounts by Thomas Weiskel, Neil Hertz, Jean-François Lyotard, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Terry Eagleton, Richard Rorty, Paul Crowther, Paul De Man, Peter De Bolla, and others. It is available here as a pdf. (The German translation is available as a download.)

Originally published as “Gegen das Erhabene” [“Against the Sublime”], in Das Erhabene in Wissenschaft und Kunst: Über Vernunft und Einbildungskraft, edited by Roald Hoffmann and Iain Boyd Whyte (Berlin: Surhkamp: 2010): 97–113; English edition: Beyond the Finite: The Sublime in Art and Science, edited by Roald Hoffmann and Iain Boyd Whyte (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 20–42.

This page has illustrations of one of the icons of the sublime, Mt. Vesuvius. 


Artifacts of the sublime: William Hamilton's illustration of stones from crater of Vesuvius, from Observations on the Volcanoes of the Two Sicilies, vol. 2, pl. 46.

 Albert Bierstadt, Mount Vesuvius at Midnight (1868).

 The sublime is a malleable, undefined concept in contemporary art. What is effectively not sublime?