December 7, 2021: Savage Beauty: The Arctic Sublime

I took this photo one subzero morning on Duluth’s Brighton Beach. The ice thickly covering Lake Superior, over the winter of 2017–2018, had broken up and been pushed by the waves into large blocks. Then it refroze and was covered with snow. I went to the beach before a subzero February dawn to photograph the spectacular sight of the first rays hitting the ice.

It’s lovely to look at, but most sane people would not venture out there.

This is an example of what was once called, “The Arctic Sublime.” In 1757, Edmund Burke published a treatise called “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful.” The essay analyzed two important aesthetic experiences — the experience of the sublime and the experience of the beautiful.

In our day, we often use the term, “sublime,” to mean that which is really good — i.e., the food was sublime; the lady’s taste in fashion is sublime. But in the 18th century it had a very specific meaning — that which has the power to cause the fear of death.

The beautiful is that which has the power to induce love. It might not be surprising that, during an age when male voices predominated, the characteristics of things causing love were characteristics of attractive women and the attributes of their various parts — smallness, smoothness, delicacy, etc.

Thus, in an age when humans could not fly over mountains, mountains were towering obstacles — sublime, awe-inspiring, but not beautiful.

As the Classical era, which favored the beautiful, evolved into the Romantic era, which favored the passionate, the fearsome, and often the ghastly, there emerged the concept of the Arctic Sublime, because the North is certainly a place that can inspire awe and cause death.

To me, as a person born in the 20th century, what Burke describes in his section on beauty is more along the lines of the pretty — that which pleases us, is smooth and proportionate. If that’s true, then what do I consider beauty?

Beauty is pleasing and non-threatening, certainly, but for me, for something to be considered beautiful, it must strikes me as strange, as coming from a source outside of our world, or at least beyond ordinary reality. Otherwise, it’s merely pretty.

The above picture has been described by one viewer as “savage beauty.” Much of our art, much of what draws us today, may fall into that category.