Exercise 1.6: The Contemporary Abyss

What is the “sublime”? Lucie-Smith (2003 p208) defines it as “connected with ideas of a limitlessness, extraordinariness, grandeur and sometimes terror”; Chilvers (2009 p609) considers it to be “associated with ideas of awe and vastness”. It is at this point (circa 18th century) that Morley (2010) starts his essay and continues to describe the sublime, and its changing definition. He then goes on to question just how relevant the original definitions are today.

He states that, due to a renewed interest in the sublime, “we now have a rather confusing number of uses of the word”. He believes that the contemporary definition of the sublime would be “mostly about immanent transcendence; that is, it is about a transformative experience, understood as occurring within the here and now”.

Towards the end of the essay, considering this new definition of the sublime, he says “it is not so much the desert, the stormy sea or the mountain range that serve as subject matter for a contemporary sublimity as the mind-boggling power of science and the infinite spaces created by digitalisation”.

This is reflected in an article by Smith (2003) who considers the writing of Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe who believes that “the sublime cannot exist in nature today, he claims that the sublime can only inhabit, or be expressed by, technology – as technology is limitless and yet to be apprehended”.

It seems to me that a contemporary view of the sublime has moved away from a traditional awe and vastness depicted in landscape painting and is now more concerned with the power of science and technology to create an “immanent transcendence”.


In terms of choosing a work that explores the changing nature of the sublime I’ve selected Sky Garden by Richard Rauschenberg from his Stoned Moon series. I think that this image not only meets the original criteria of sublime but that it is also consistent with the changing nature proposed by Morley.

The print is about technological achievement, the moon landings, but is more than just this. It incorporates elements of nature, technology, science and achievement. It is about an immense moment in human achievement, man’s voyage to the moon.

Coppel et al (2017 p72) quotes Rauschenberg’s words of 16 July 1969 when he witnessed the launch of the rocket that would put a man on the moon “POWER OVER POWER JOY PAIN ECSTASY, THERE WAS NO INSIDE, NO OUT. THEN BODILY TRANSCENDING A STATE OF ENERGY. APOLLO 11 WAS AIRBORNE”.

The words clearly convey the sense of the sublime that Rauschenberg witnessed at take-off. But does his print convey that sense? I would argue that it does for several reasons.

  • It was ground breaking work, at the time it was the largest hand-pulled lithograph ever made.
  • Rauschenberg combines the technical elements of the rockets design and construction with observations of the natural surroundings of Cape Kennedy at the time (trees, birds, et cetera)
  • the colours create a sense of reaching from the red-brown earth to the blue skies
  • faces emerge from the print, of technicians at Cape Kennedy, confirming the human achievement displayed
  • Coppell et al (2017 page 73) describe how “a bright white diagram of a Saturn V rocket is screen-printed over an explosive red blast of human faces, machine parts and brushwork”.


This series of 33 lithographs, of which Sky Garden is one, is called “Stoned Moon”,  Coppel et al (2017 p73) describe this as a title that is meant to evoke delirium.

I saw a copy of Sky Garden in the British Museum exhibition, the American Dream, Pop to the Present. It is a huge print, that draws you in, demanding you examine it carefully for all its constituent elements. One that, to me, meets both the traditional and the contemporary definitions of the sublime.

The image is subject to copyright restrictions, a copy can be seen here Sky Garden but, as with many artworks, it really needs to be seen full scale!





CHILVERS, I., 2009. The Oxford dictionary of art and artists. 4th edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

COPPEL, S., DAUNT, C., TALLMAN, S., SELIGMAN, I., RAMKALAWON, J. and BRITISH MUSEUM, 2017. The American dream: pop to the present. London: Thames & Hudson, in collaboration with the British Museum.

LUCIE-SMITH, E., 2003. The Thames and Hudson dictionary of art terms. New edn. London: Thames & Hudson.

MORLEY, S., 2010 Staring into the contemporary abyss. http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/staring-contemporary-abyss Accessed [19/07/2017].

SMITH, L., 2003: Beautiful, Sublime [Homepage of University of Chicago], [Online]. Available: http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/beautifulsublime.htm  Accessed [19/07/2017].