Edmund Burke's Bitumen Traces The Sublime

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“Bitumen” traces the sublime from its 18th century inception to more contemporary representations. First postulated by Edmund Burke, the sublime was traditionally described as a feeling of astonishment and terror when faced with a vast and incomprehensible object, which ultimately referred to God via nature. Noticeably influenced by Burke’s theories, Romantic art from the early 19th century frequently sought to depict the sublime. Paintings such as Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog and J.M.W Turner’s Slave Ship, which appear in “Bitumen”, are apposite to many of Burke’s tenets. They conjure the sublime by presenting an awesome and terrible nature which figures largely in their works.

A contemporaneous version of the sublime that “Bitumen” addresses by way of
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In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, examining the shift from painting to an age of rapid reproduction of images and their increasing politicization, Walter Benjamin suggested that “The painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web” (Benjamin XI). Benjamin’s idea is a helpful starting point for discussing some of the issues related to distance between artist and subject,, and the reader or viewer and artwork, in the two works.

Benjamin’s statement bears verity in relation to “Bitumen”. For the speaker of “Bitumen”, the painters such as Friedrich and Turner work at a remove from reality, but this is precisely what the speaker identifies as problematic. The “natural distance” afforded to the painter separates them from the political implications of the depicted event as well as future action. For Romantic paintings, this distancing also involves the injunction of sublime nature before political realities. For example, “Bitumen” asserts
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