In my book Aesthetic Sustainability, Product Design and Sustainable Usage I present the aesthetic experience and the fundamental division between the beautiful and the sublime.
The historical division between the beautiful and the sublime indicates that an aesthetic experience is not necessarily linked to beauty alone, but can also be induced by the unpleasant, unbalanced, distorted, or even the hideous. This counterpoint to the beautiful aesthetic experience is defined by the sublime. The difference between the beautiful and the sublime concerns the difference between order and chaos, between symmetry and asymmetry, between predictability and unpredictability, between demarcation and boundlessness, between form and formlessness, between proportion and irregularity, and between the kind of aesthetic experience that nurtures one’s comfort zone and that which challenges or breaks it.
This photo was taken a couple of years ago on a secluded beach in Southern Thailand. About 5 seconds after the photo was taken, my family and I found ourselves stuck in a crazy thunderstorm with dense, heavy rain. We were far from civilisation and forced to seek shelter in a abandoned shed on the beach. The experience was intense and challenging, and we lost quite a few of our belongings. Yet to this day our eldest son refers to it as one of his “life stories”, which are important anecdotes in his life, and undoubtedly a positive label.
Hence, the sublime aesthetic experience pulls us away from familiarity and the well-known and “forces” us to be present.
As a part of the sublime experience our expectations and assumptions are challenged. To be challenged is often viewed as something negative; and of course, challenges can be hard, frustrating and demanding.
However, challenges are an important part of human development. Unchallenged, the human spirit stagnates. Human beings cannot improve or evolve without being challenged. Challenges force us to form, transform and re-form our assumptions about the world, and thereby expand our consciousness and horizon.
According to the German philosopher Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), experiencing only beauty and harmony fixes us to the concrete, perceptible reality. By clinging to the familiar, the safe and the immediately understandable, without seeking or daring to engage in challenges, leads to stagnation — and in turn, lack of freedom.
The sublime, as opposed to the beautiful, which Schiller connects to chaotic or unbounded experiences, can shock us and stir us from our slumber and thereby remind us of our full potential.
Experiencing, for example, immeasurable heights, asymmetry or boundlessness can lead to a confrontation with something that goes beyond our immediate sense perceptions, which is why such experiences can be liberating.
The particular value of the sublime is founded on its ability to challenge and provoke the human experience, shaking us out of the passivity related to that which is familiar and safe.