The Beautiful vs. Sublime, Instagram Edition

Fun musings on the trend of Instagram photos of sunsets:

The genre has turned into a commonplace—a grab at easy beauty. My friend, an amateur photographer, likened shooting sunset pictures to “eating Lucky Charms for breakfast.” “What do you mean,” I pressed, speaking as someone who faults Lucky Charms only insofar as they aren’t Fruit Loops. She elaborated: “They’re sweet and anodyne. The effect is like a sugar rush that disappears.” Buried in her objection is the hoary philosophical distinction between the beautiful and the sublime, between prettiness that doesn’t challenge us and sights that fill us with awe and terror.

Romantic writers expressed a preference for sublimity over attractiveness in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Edmund Burke wrote, “For sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small: beauty should be smooth and polished; the great, rugged and negligent … beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and gloomy: beauty should be light and delicate; the great ought to be solid, and even massive.” The experience of watching a sunset usually counts as sublime. The scene unfolds on a grand scale, loud with color and radiance; you get a shivery feeling of time passing as you sip your G&T; death draws just a bit nearer. Sunset pictures, though, reduce and tame that sublimity. Instead of your mortality rising to meet you, you see pretty colors, locked in a small and tidy moment. It’s as if putting sunsets on film magically relegates them to the same cloying aesthetic category as wildflowers and blonde children—other people’s.

3 comments on “The Beautiful vs. Sublime, Instagram Edition
  • First, let me say that adults who eat Lucky Charms or Fruit Loops are a plague on the earth and should be executed.

    So goodbye, Katy Waldman, even though you write well and have the good sense to drink gin and tonics while you watch the sun set.

    Aside from liking flourescent-colored synthetic chemical-laden cereal, poor Katy also commits the unpardonable sin of quoting an idiot, Robert Caplin, approvingly: “Photography means recording beautiful light.”

    Now that’s the way to tighten the noose around your neck.

    Not only is this homegrown bit of wisdom utterly nonsensical, but large numbers of people believing it would explain why there are so pictures of sunsets on Instagram.

    With Katy’s crimes against nature out of the way, let’s address Edmund Burke.

    The most illuminating thing about Burke’s conception of the sublime is his associating it with the emotions of terror and pain as inherently pleasurable– an indication of his possessing a sadomasochistic nature.

    That would certainly shed new light on his public antipathy to the “obscure and vulgar vices” of that fruit-loop Rousseau, well-known for his self-confessed predilection to that kind of sexual play.

  • the outstanding ought to be dark and gloomy: elegance should be light and delicate; the outstanding ought to be powerful, and even huge you see pretty colors, kept in a little and fresh time. It’s as if putting california florida sunsets on film incredibly relegates them to the same cloying visible category as crazy blossoms and golden-haired children

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