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Wonder and Terror in Art and Science

24/05/2013 16:49 BST | Updated 24/07/2013 10:12 BST

Having been asked to participate in a panel discussion at HowTheLightGetsIn 2013 entitled "Of Wonder and Terror" I have been reflecting on the use of the term 'sublime' in relation to my own work, and the roles of art and science in creating what might be termed 'a sublime experience'.

'Sublime' is a very misunderstood word and much overused in contemporary advertising. Today we hear about a "sublime taste of chocolate" or even "sublime holidays" as one French holiday home company describes their offerings. But even a cursory look at the philosophical underpinnings of the term reveals what hilarious misnomers these are, and much fun can be had spotting incorrect uses of the term as you go about your daily life.

The earliest reference to the sublime is ascribed to someone called 'Longinus' and dated around the first century CE, though no-one seems quite sure who exactly he was or when it was written. The text talks about great, lofty thought or language, which had the power to inspire awe or to persuade someone against one's will. And then from the late 17th century onwards numerous translations began to appear, which fascinated philosophers, particularly those interested in that branch of philosophy called aesthetics, which deals with art, beauty and taste. These translations powerfully inspired a very young Edmund Burke (who later went on to found Conservatism would you believe) to write his groundbreaking text "A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful". The text was published in 1757 when Burke was the ripe old age of 27 but he had started it 10 years earlier at the age of just 17. It's a young man's book clearly but the themes laid out in Burke's text reverberate through the arts through the centuries. Burke famously states: "The passion caused by the great and sublime...is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degrees of horror" (Burke, 1757, p. 57)

He linked the idea of horror, terror or being frozen to the spot, to the experience of feeling awe. He goes so far as providing a long and useful list of objects, which he felt possessed the power to inspire a sensation of the sublime, built on the effects of the emotions and founded on an analysis of terror. It appears that, like Wordsworth, Burke was attracted to "that beauty... that hath terror in it" (Wordsworth, 1888, Book 13).

One of the most important philosophers, Immanuel Kant was both fascinated and irritated by young Burke's text when he read it and it led him to write his "Critique of Judgement" where he considers the sublime as something that is not inherent in a particular 'sublime object' but in the mind of the person experiencing the sensation. So a person living in the shadow of a dark, looming mountain may become indifferent to its sublime qualities and get used to it being just something they see everyday.

So where do art and science figure in this discussion? It was suggested to me that though art used to be where we would go to experience a sense of the sublime we now turn to science and science imagery, to Brian Cox standing on a mountain saying "isn't it vast?" as a camera swirls around his head. But as an artist who works primarily with those terrifying and beautiful organisms known as bacteria I find myself in quite a unique position to ponder that question. My sense is that the sublime can be found, not in the analytical world of science which seeks to control, but in our relationship with the natural world and all the terrors and wonders that holds. And where does art stand in all this? It attempts a practical, visceral understanding of how aesthetic sensations may be created so that we might know ourselves a little better.

Anna Dumitriu will be speaking at this year's HowTheLightGetsIn, the world's largest philosophy and music festival held in association with the Huff Post UK. For more information, see www.howthelightgetsin.org