by Amy Scott
“The word ‘nature’ is a notorious semantic and metaphysical trap.” —Leo Marx¹
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of Amy Scott’s essay”Twenty-First-Century Sublime” from our Fall 2014 issue.
Tension between the desire to experience nature in its unadulterated form and the urge to exploit it for material gain has long been at the center of landscape painting in the American West. This is especially true in California, where spectacular examples of both natural and built environments often exist in close temporal and geographic proximity. Here, you can begin your day on a remote stretch of the Pacific coast and within the hour be watching Chinese shipping containers unload in the Port of Los Angeles; you can take in the sunrise over suburban San Fernando Valley and the sunset in Yosemite National Park.
The connection between these places is as much about the conceptual as it is the geographical, however. Whereas nineteenth-century artists projected visions of the “Golden State” as a faraway place flush with natural resources, California’s landscape today is less exotic and more closely entwined with human industry. Yet far from rendering previous methods of depicting the landscape obsolete, contemporary artists are using historical practices and conventions to convey contemporary experience. The influence of the classic California landscape has not waned, but rather evolved.
Of the traditional methods for representing California’s natural environment, perhaps none has enjoyed more staying power than the sublime. This is due in part to the multivalent, flexible nature of the concept itself. The American sublime emerged in the late eighteenth century but underwent a significant transformation in response to the opening of western lands following the Civil War. What once represented a fear of the unknown became a more distinctly market-based interest in expansion. Shifting the mood of landscape art away from a solemn meditation on nature’s mystery to a more passive contemplation of its development potential, the New York–based painter Albert Bierstadt asked his audience not to fear the wilderness but to look hopefully toward a bicoastal future.²
Indeed, paintings such as On the Merced River rejected metaphysical interpretations of nature in favor of the rationalist logic of survey science (Bierstadt accompanied the Lander Survey to the Rocky Mountains in 1859) and thus encouraged a more tangible connection to the West as a place. This is reflected in Bierstadt’s work both in the easy visual access he provides to deep space as well as in his tightly painted foreground fauna, which caused critics to marvel.
As Bierstadt’s career suggests, the sublime is not a fixed concept but one that draws upon contemporary ideas of nature to respond to external changes—including developments in technology—that shape the ways in which we imagine both the natural and the built environment in relation to ourselves. An aesthetic formula designed to elicit an emotional response to an apparently natural vision, the sublime has been reconfigured in the postmodern era as a means of naturalizing the presence of technology within the contemporary landscape. Consider, for example, the aesthetic proximity between Bierstadt’s version of Yosemite and Michael Light’s large-scale photographs of San Pedro. The former is a preindustrial ideal, the latter a fully realized commercial setting dominated by the machinery of international shipping. Both evoke an ambitious sense of scale drawn from singular vantage points: Bierstadt’s oft-used magisterial view and Light’s aerial perspective; both use receding diagonals to create a sense of deep space and visual command; both are cleared of human presence, reinforcing the independent nature of the systems at work within them. Painted shortly after the close of the Civil War, Bierstadt’s On the Merced River anticipates California’s future as the gateway to Pan-Pacific commerce. Light’s San Pedro fully consummates that vision by the shipping containers stretching endlessly toward the horizon.
The technological continuum between Bierstadt’s Yosemite and Light’s San Pedro, between the Romantic era and today, is more than superficial. In Bierstadt’s painting, technology—though not visible—is implied throughout the composition. Survey science is there, in the carefully painted, highly detailed foreground topography. A sense of materialism and accumulation is there, too, in the vignette of natural wonders on display, especially the ample timber supplies represented by the forest. Although Bierstadt does not directly reference the coming industrial landscape, he nevertheless anticipates it. In its perfectly ordered scene of natural abundance, his On the Merced River speaks powerfully to nationalist expectations of postwar economic growth and progress.
Light’s San Pedro shares this sense of mastery over the natural world and a seemingly unshakeable faith in America as a geopolitical powerhouse. There is, however, a darker aspect to the fully realized technocratic state as depicted in Light’s work. In his San Pedro, one of several photographs of the Port of Los Angeles bound together in an oversize folio, a literal sea of commodities expands across the image, bleeding past its borders. Visually organized by its dense grid of intersecting lines, the photograph combines the realism of immense amounts of surface detail with the aerial, all-encompassing perspective of the map. Light requires not only a wide-angle lens but also a plane to produce these photographs (Light has had his pilot’s license since age sixteen)—images that elicit a sense of wonder in the face of a totalizing spectacle of technologic power, a “techno-euphoria,” as some scholars have called it.³
Light’s visual embrace of heavy industry is intended to be both awesome and beautiful. Yet for all the dynamics of order and control that pervade his technocratic landscapes, they also resonate with an element of “terror at the power and progress of industrialization,”4 in which the scales threaten to tip from order to the chaos of industry run amok.5
1 Leo Marx, “The Idea of Nature in America,” Daedulus 137:2 (Spring 2008): 9.
2 The “transcendental sublime” was coined by Earl Powell in his essay “Luminism and the American Sublime,” in John Wilmerding, ed., American Light: The Luminist Movement, 1850–1875 (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1980), 69–94. See also Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture: American Landscape Painting, 1825–1875 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1980, 1995, 2007).
3 See Rob Wilson, “Techno-Euphoria and the Discourse of the Sublime,” boundary 2 19:1 (Spring 1992): 208.
4 Ibid., 207.
5 For more on the idea of horror and the banal as related to Los Angeles, see Cécile Whiting, “The Sublime and the Banal in Postwar Photography of the American West,” American Art, 27:2 (Summer 2013): 51.