Barnett Newman, Vir Heroicus Sublimus, 1950-51. Oil on canvas, 7′ 11″ x 17′ 9″
[… on Barnett Newman in the beginning here]
“What Newman aspired to instill through such paintings as Vir Heroicus Sublimis is wonder and awe at ourselves as here. I cannot help but think that the concept Newman required was that of Heidegger’s central notion, Dasein — of being-there, aware of being there.
“But there is another way of thinking about this that I find magnificently expressed in an answer given by the great Russian novelist, Vladimir Nabokov, when an interviewer asked him if he was surprised by anything in life. Nabokov responded:
‘The marvel of consciousness — That sudden window swinging open on a sunlit
landscape amid the night of non-being.’
“I find this passage sublime, and it is a matter of chagrin to me that until fairly recent times, no philosopher has spoke of consciousness with this kind of wonder and awe. Certainly Kant did not. … Meanwhile, I note that Nabokov cannot forebear speaking of something beautiful as the object of consciousness — a landscape, sunny, and seen through a window frame. If consciousness disclosed only unrelieved disgustingness, we would wonder why we had such an an endowment… The world of sheer disgustingness would not be one we would wish to be conscious of for very long, nor for the matter live a life that would lose its point without sunlight. If I point to a painting of a sunlit landscape and pronounce it sublime, someone might correct me and say I am confusing the beautiful and the sublime. I would cite Nabokov and reply that the beautiful is the sublime “amid the night of non-being.” Kant brings these considerations into play in the formulation we noted above: “The sublime is that, the mere ability to think which shows a faculty of mind surpassing every standard of sense.” I might even, if feeling impish, add: It is sublime because it is in the mind of the beholder. Beauty is an option for art and not a necessary condition. But it is not an option for life. it is a necessary condition for life as we would want to live it.”
Danto, Arthur. The Abuse of Beauty. Open Court Publishing Company: Chicago, Illinois; 2003. pgs. 159-160.