The Feminine Sublime

“To investigate the feminine sublime is not to embark upon a search for an autonomous female voice, realm of experience or language, although these categories may be valuable as a dimension of the strategic interventions of feminist practice. What is specifically feminine about the feminine sublime is not an assertion of innate sexual difference, but a radical rearticulation of the role gender plays in producing the history of discourse on the sublime and the formulation of an alternative position with respect to excess and the possibilities of its figuration.” The introductory sentences to Barbara Claire Freeman’s short essay on ‘The Feminine Sublime’ 1995.

These two sentences provided me with the twin insights into both the sublime and another aspect of feminism that I hadn’t expected but which illuminated so much of what I have been thinking about for some time. My own search into the meaning of the sublime has been helped by both the research and by the conversations I continue to have with fellow students on a regular basis. These images here are what I have called ‘pretty pictures’; lacking in substance and perspective, the sole intent was to ‘capture’ a sense of the scape of the land that provided an awesome response; controlling the media – film emulsion through development and then printing,  exposure – via the zone system, composition etc etc and then sales via exhibitions and commissions. In the digital era a negative might take a week to prepare before printing. Most of the images were captured on film, the whole process now feels like an act of virile expressionism – I certainly had to be fit enough to carry the ‘kit’ up some of these slopes and compose/wait for the light to adhere to certain constraints. I am still questioning the purpose of it all.

The sublime is of course a construct, “the awful, the lofty and the splendid” as Kant (1) described the three types of sublimity, but these constructs, including that of The Creator are all gendered perspectives – the notion of a landscape photographer/artist/painter is Male – see http://www.stathatos.net/pages/conditional_presence.html, what place is there for a Female? Most if not all the texts on the sublime are from that singular viewpoint, Longinus, Burke, Kant &c. Contemporary Sublime seems also to offer that same ‘maleness’ the Dusseldorf school being pre-eminent in supplying text after text of the awestruck male, Struth, Epstein, Burtynsky et al all striving to implant that same emotive response to the sublime (some maybe just by the size of their imagery leave alone what it is they are imaging).

Motionless and sterile, these images were all created without a sense of purpose other than demonstration of craft, clearly set in the mould of ‘modernists’ whose credo was set two generations ago. It is the image of one who wanted to express the biggest and the best, a singularly gendered stance that rejects an ‘other’. Freeman doesn’t suggest an answer but a discourse, and like Berger (Ways of Seeing) a generation earlier, doesn’t offer an answer. Berger’s stance is of course correct – what self respecting feminist would accept a solution from the ‘other’? Freeman offers a typical feminist response; discourse and engagement rather than hegemony and brute force.

(1) Introductory essay by Simon Morley ‘The Sublime’ pub’ Whitechapel Gallery 2010

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