The unpresentable, and various forms of abstraction

Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950)

Project: to articulate and express the sublime feeling via experimental short film. Abstract here.

One element of the sublime, especially in contemporary understanding, is the idea that it is “unpresentable.” The sublime exceeds human understanding, and defies any attempts to represent it in any medium; it’s inconceivable and therefore impossible to depict or describe.

This goes back to Immanuel Kant, who explained the experience of the sublime as an encounter with our own limitations — the realization that an experience is wholly outside your ability to understand it. “We are made aware, Kant observed, that sometimes we cannot present to ourselves an account of an experience that is in any way coherent. We cannot encompass it by thinking, and so it remains indiscernable or unnameable, undecidable, indeterminate and unpresentable.” 1

Probably the best-known expression of this idea is an ancient one:

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.
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