Monthly Archives: December 2009

The sublime and Giacomo Balla’s Abstract Speed – The Car Has Passed (1913)

Giacomo Balla (1871-1978) was an Italian artist and a key figure in the development of Futurism, an early 20th century art movement which centred around a rejection of the past and an embracement of what the Futurists saw as issues representative of the age in which they live, namely advances in technology, industry and science, and also the recognition of the importance of progress breaking free from the anchor of tradition. As Umberto Boccioni, another key figure in the foundation and development of the futurist movement, states in his ‘Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto’ (a manifesto of which Giacomo Balla was a signatory), ‘all subjects must be swept aside in order to express our whirling life of steel, of pride, of fever and of speed.’[1] It was necessary then for a new style of art to develop in which these ideas and issues could be adequately addressed. It is, however, the ultimate and inevitable failure to satisfyingly address these ideas that leads the work of artists such as Balla to enter the realm of the sublime.

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Four instances of the sublime in music

Possibly more than any other form of art, it is music that lends itself most often and most effectively to feelings of the sublime. This is perhaps because music, unlike visual art, and certainly unlike literature, is abstract in its very essence. If we accept the definition of ‘abstract’ as that which is ‘characterised by a lack of or freedom from representational qualities’[1] we can deduce that, despite one’s best efforts, it is potentially futile to ascribe a pure and absolute meaning to a piece of music, as no degree of description or representation can be attributed to the music without remaining external to the very music itself: no description can transcend the effect and essence of the music itself. As Nietzsche suggests in The Birth of Tragedy, ‘By no means is it possible for language adequately to render the cosmic symbolism of music,’[2] as it ‘symbolises a sphere which is above all appearance and before all phenomena…Language, as the organ and symbol of phenomena, cannot at all disclose the innermost essence of music.’[3] Therefore, language is an impotent tool in providing a full understanding of music, and so the meaning of a musical work must lie within the musical work itself, separate and free from a fully linguistic and logical comprehension.

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