During class the concept of beauty and the sublime came up, which stimulated thought and discussion even after class, and was kept alive with the help of a glass of wine. In the transcript below Stefania and Thomas touch upon the idea of beauty and the sublime represented in contemporary American Cinema which serves as a stepping stone to different thoughts on this philosophical subject.

Stefania- I was watching the movie American Beauty[1] the other day and it made me think about this subject we had in class. It portrays the longing for a beautiful life, that of the American Dream. The whole message of the movie lies within the title. One-way to take it is that things that appear to be beauty in America often are not. For instance Angela, the perfect American blonde girl, young, cute, thin and a cheerleader is actually cold and cruel. Beauty as a convention of the American Dream is an illusion.

Thomas – It is interesting that you connect beauty with the illusion of the perfect life. It reminds me of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project and Parisian life in the 19th century. The American Dream has its roots in 19th century Paris. Reflecting, a new world was developed by Baron Haussmann introduced Arcades and Boulevards, which evoked the beginning of the middle class and consumer capitalism. Benjamin explains ‘commodity fetishism’ as a transformation of the subjectivity of economic value into a notion of objectification; items that people believe have intrinsic value. What I find interesting is that ‘the beauty of the perfect life’, or the desire to have one, is a big subject in movies and specifically in American blockbusters. On the contrary, there are movies in which the main character wants to leave this perfect life and return to the natural. Think for instance of Jonah, who will be 25 in the Year 2000, and more recently Into the Wild.

‘Commodity Fetishism’, in American Beauty.

‘Commodity Fetishism’, in American Beauty.

S.S.- Yeah exactly! Good call! That’s a very effective contrast to the values presented in American Beauty. The movie Into the wild[2] makes me think about something that concerns a spiritual research into the nature, or more precisely a lust for a ‘Sublime’ experience. Chris, the main character of the movie, tries to survive in the wilderness of Alaska and follow his utopian dream. This corresponds in fact to the main characters in American Beauty. They both try to follow a certain path in order to achieve their utopian dreams, but in the end they both fail. People always chase for something unreachable, which implies the famous saying, “the grass is always greener on the other side”…

Into the Wild’s main character Chris in a Sublime environment.

Into the Wild’s main character Chris in a Sublime environment.

T.J.- If I start thinking about it, both of the main characters actually die… Could we say this is a way of showing us that neither the beauty nor the sublime exists on earth, and as human beings we can only aspire to reach them? Both Plato and Kant saw, ‘the feeling for beauty is proximate to the religious frame of mind, arising from a humble sense of living with imperfections, while aspiring towards the highest unity with the transcendental.’[3] We can only find the real beauty or the sublime in the afterlife. In real life we can only experience them through art.

S.S.- Ok Thomas… If you are talking about Kant, he makes a distinction between the beauty and the sublime as well. Beautiful for us is what Kant calls ‘purposiveness without purpose’, something that is useful just in giving us pleasure. Each character we talked about has his/her own story, but what they all have in common is their endless attempt to be happy by accumulating material things, like a car, a good job, a nice house, and so on. By contrast, according to Kant, the sublime represents for us disorganization and it has to be found in a formless object. Chris lives in that formless object called Alaska, the wilderness he longed for so much and eventually kills him….   

T.J.- Stefania, life is a sad place… Although Plato and Kant believe that art and our life on earth will always remain a poor substitute of the real beauty, I believe I witnessed it when I was looking at contemporary artworks like The Weather Project by Olafur Eliasson at Tate Modern or Number 8 by Guido van der Werve. With works such as these I am fine with living in the shadow of afterlife…

Stefania Sorrentino & T. Stokman

[3] Roger Scruton, (2009), Beauty, Oxford Press, New York, pg. 175

[2] After graduating from Emory University, top student and athlete Christopher McCandless abandons his possessions, gives his entire $24,000 savings account to charity and hitchhikes to Alaska to live in the wilderness. Along the way, Christopher encounters a series of characters that shape his life. (Sean Penn, 2007)

[1] Lester Burnham, a depressed suburban father in a mid-life crisis, decides to turn his hectic life around after developing an infatuation for his daughter’s attractive friend. (Sam Mendes, 1999)

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