I guess I should be embarrassed to admit that I did not learn a working definition of the term “sublime” until junior year in college. I suppose the dictionary version is something akin to “beauty beyond description.” I take that somewhat literally and think of it as something so moving it would honestly be useless trying to describe through words: an intensity of beauty so profound as to be a transcendent, quasi-religious experience; wheels within wheels, vibrating within one and throughout the ether that unites us. Tears would be histrionic and superfluous. The joy is all subsuming.
I say working definition because, again, the Sublime is something one must experience.
Junior year I stood in front of a Rothko.
Now, to preface this, I was a painting major at Yale creating narrative works with a mind towards commercial art and illustration. To put it mildly, the art department and I did not exactly see eye to eye. My teachers encouraged me to move towards some sort kitsch or avant-garde — to abandon my instincts or to treat them as ridiculous or ironic — and I continued to ignore them and accept C’s. This back-story is simply to explain that the Abstract Expressionism of Mark Rothko should have been the type of work I would be happy to name-drop derisively during a critique of one my classmates transparent attempts to just spill their souls on the canvas, man. Let it all out in a cathartic ecstasy, you know. They can’t even remember creating it, for real, they were in such a fervor of artistic emesis. I only had respect for those artists for whom the act of creation was obviously a struggle, a clear struggle. That ran a gamut, from Rembrandt to Richter as well as Dore to Darrow, but self-satisfied ironic or abstract post-modernists were largely excluded. To be honest, I didn’t get it. This holds true for some to this day.
But standing in front of a Rothko, one finds all arguments of aesthetics inconsequential. I’ll post a useless image here just to reiterate my definition of sublime:
Seriously? Yeah, again it’s a real-life experience, not a series of pixels on a blog. What can I say? They are bigger than you are? That this size allows them to envelop your periphery and function as doorways? That the chromatic relationships are in perfect harmony? The brushwork… The inevitable bisecting razor of the horizon line…
This is fluff. Go to a museum. Ask the security guard where the Rothko’s are. Stand in front of one.
This is how an atheist communes with God. I am sorry the internet is not very accepting of this sort of thing, but I am not meaning these words to sound even slightly tongue-in-cheek or hyperbolic. I am serious as death. I felt things opening inside me. Things falling away. Thrilled to be alive and not-quite alive at the same time.
And dumbfounded that another human being could create such an experience.
Since I found that working definition, I started using the word constantly. I am sure my praising of works perhaps went a little over the top in those days. I mean, Fight Club‘s pretty frickin’ great, but…
These days I reserve the word for those experiences in art that reorganize my entire being at once. Sort of pick me up and shuffle me. Take me out of myself and back, aware that something is now profoundly different in the pathways of my thoughts, the way I will interpret and see my world.
When my fiancée and I read Song of Myself together one summer evening in our sun room, windows open, warm breeze, bottle of wine, (all of that welcome, but unnecessary), that was sublime. The poem was so overwhelming to me, so all-encompassing, that I, a non-smoker, forced us to pause halfway through our reading of it so we could go down to the gas station and get cigarettes. I needed that stereotypically post-coital drag. I was that tingly and buzzing. (It was one glass, all you cynical haters.)
Some sublime experiences are repeatable, assuming they are reserved for moments of necessity: beauty emergencies. These occur mostly in the musical milieu, given its experiential nature. The chiming, interlocking guitars that begin at the three minute eight second mark of Interpol’s “P.D.A.” are sublime. Nothing else matters with a pair of good headphones over your ears and that transcendent dissonance to gorgeous harmony up and over and away and back again bouncing inside your soul. I now try to save the end of that song for drives into work on days I know will be especially trying, when I need to be reminded that we humans can sometimes escape the strangling clutches of this mortal coil.
Chris Forgues, known as C.F., sets out to illustrate this sublime experience and ends up creating one:
Now, I’m not going to even bother trying to put into words what occurs in that gorgeous visual cacophony towards the end. All I will attempt is to point out that here Forgues found a way to brilliantly bind the energetic doodly assemblages of the rest of the Kramers krowd to narrative purposes. And with what results! With this piece, Forgues legitimately pushes the form forward in a deliberately boundary-stretching album and, more impressively, beats out Sammy Harkham’s early-favorite (its around page 100) and astounding “Poor Sailor” as the most vital work of Kramers Ergot 4. I should add that all readers who have not simply must buy a copy of the whole volume, both because my pal Sean T. Collins is absolutely right in saying that one cannot overestimate its importance to the future of comics (see his Dark Side of the Moon comparison in the link in the sidebar) and because I have chopped off the beginning and end in deference to what I’m sure are Forgues wishes of selling more books. I cannot in good conscience put up an entire work, even if it is a short story. This consideration has meant that the brilliant explanation that Forgues himself provides for the above has been excised. The brilliance you see here, or all its glory, is actually diminished by its lack of punchline. I assure you, the humor and absurdity that follows in the original does not detract from, but rather heightens, the profundity.
Forgues found a way to inject jet fuel into a then somewhat stagnant art form by doing what the Fauves and Picasso did before him, looking to the unabashed creative chutzpah of children’s art. This sequence begins innocuously, and its placement in the center of a volume housing other more straightforward stories employing this art school faux-naivete makes the reader completely awestruck by the turn it takes. The artistic chops that come in the climax should not catch the careful viewer completely unawares. Forgues tips his hand ever so slightly with his one “background” in the second page of this selection. That blue “wall” should strike anyone who has ever attempted to rein in the beast that is watercolors as far more accomplished than the untrained kid-with-crayon-box look he is attempting. It is the first hint that Forgues is not simply aiming for surreal, juvenile, ironic or nostalgic. And when this pays off, we the reader are rewarded with that indescribable, ineffable, unknowable experience our stand-in protagonist (the beautifully named Quiet Grace) is given. C.F. makes us want to believe that any child, given the typical skills and tools associated with the age, could create a spiritual epiphany his or her parents would hang by a magnet to the fridge.
I suppose it was no accident that one year both Chris Ware and the Fort Thunder Kids, a collective from Providence with which Forgues has been associated, had their own rooms at the Whitney Biennial. Thanks to gentlemen like those guys, I still have no regrets about choosing this corner of the Art world to explore. And yes, sorry Yale, that is Art with a capital A. We’ve touched the sublime.