Student Journal

The Domestic Sublime


This dissertation explores the notion of what I call the domestic sublime. The impetus of this investigation is the artwork of Tara Donovan and Liza Lou.  These artists create artwork that evokes a sublimity rooted in domesticity. ‘Domesticity’ commonly refers to any labor, activity or material related to, in or around the home.  The additional moniker of domestic to the sublime reflects the combination of constant, unending repetition of materials and labor. These materials, such as toothpicks, beads and Styrofoam cups are banal and seemingly infinite in our capitalist market. What could possibly be sublime about an aesthetic expression that utilizes millions of toothpicks, beads, or stacks of plastic cups? They are sublime because of the laden excess and presentation of infinity manifested in the process, materials and form. Immanuel Kant writes that the sublime “by its presence provokes, a representation of limitlessness.” [1] The “limitlessness” in the case of the domestic sublime resides in the presentation of excess labor, materials and potential.

         Because I am proposing the possibility of a sublime that is rooted in domesticity, it is necessary to trace the history and contextualize these ideas within the discourse of the sublime and the domestic. In terms of the sublime, it is imperative to trace the concept from its origins, but with the intention of showing its evolution from a transcendental experience to a tangible, material manifestation of the sublime in contemporary discourse. Key figures in this argument range Immanuel Kant, Jacques Derrida to Slavoj Žižek. The more contemporary philosophers have updated and expanded on the notion of the sublime to include representation and materiality.

The domestic has numerous social, historical and philosophical contexts, but in order to focus on the area that specifically targets artwork, I will concentrate on domesticity that is rooted in what Christopher Reed defines “as specifically modern phenomenon, a product of the confluence of capitalist economics, breakthroughs in technology, and Enlightenment notions of individuality.” [2] This definition includes the investigation of discourses that are imperative to what I will argue is a contemporary domesticity; that which is dependent on efficiency, technology, individual homes, labor politics and capitalism.

The Sublime

From its inception with the 1st Century Greeks, the notion of the sublime has emphasized awe and magnitude that initiates a paradox of both pleasure and terror/pain. Contributors to the theory of the sublime include Longinus, writing in the medieval period, and later, during the Enlightenment, Burke and Kant. In all of these articulations there is a strong subject/object distinction that allows for a metaphysical/transcendent approach to the sublime. The sublime that I will illustrate blurs the subject/object distinction and frees itself from the Enlightenment ideals of transcendence. Many of the numerous 20th Century and contemporary theorists and philosophers who have added to the evolving discourse on the sublime believe that the theory/word is over-used and exhausted. However, I will argue with (and situate) these theories in order to demonstrate the idiosyncrasies of the domestic sublime. While Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida facilitate the blurring of the subject/object distinction by explaining that the presentation and the unpresentable have an infinite dependence on one another, others, such as Žižek, explicate a need to define the sublime in its aesthetic representation as a manifestation of lack and inadequacy à la Jacques Lacan. Other key players in the contemporary discourse on the sublime that will be utilized in this project include Fredric Jameson, Barbara Claire Freeman, Julia Kristeva and James Elkins. Each uses the foundational work of the early philosophers, especially that of Kant, to forge their own perspective. Drawing upon these theories, I will argue the domestic sublime can be partially understood in relation to them, but that it also has its own voice and trajectory.

The Sublime: Kant

According to Kant, the beautiful and the sublime are both aesthetic feelings that are part of the judgment of taste. It is important for Kant, to delineate that the judgment of taste can only occur when the subject is disinterested. This disinterestedness allows that subject to free oneself from the emotive or visceral reactions one may have to an aesthetic object in both nature and industry. The feeling that the subject gets is either pleasure or displeasure. If it is pleasure, then the aesthetic object is beautiful. If it is displeasure, then the object is not considered beautiful. If the object or scenario (such as a thunderstorm) is both fearful and yet at a safe distance and there is no harm that can be done to the subject, there can be a pleasure coupled with the initial displeasure; Kant refers to this as the sublime. The displeasure must be accompanied by pleasure to be sublimeotherwise it is simply beautiful.

The beautiful is represented by quality and the sublime is represented by quantity. “For the beautiful is directly attended with a feeling of the furtherance of life, and is thus compatible with charms and a playful imagination.” [3] Beauty is described as pleasure that can be associated with harmony and order. Beauty has finality of form that is essential to the parameters of an aesthetic object.

In contrast to his concepts of the beautiful, the Kantian sublime is represented by quantity and magnitude.  The first feeling one has when presented with the sublime is that of  one’s comprehension being overwhelmed. The limits and boundaries of the sublime are not contained within our language or knowledge system. This feeling is one of displeasure, as the mind cannot immediately digest its enormity. Kant explains “the feeling of the sublime involves as its characteristic feature a mental movement combined with the estimate of the object, whereas taste in respect of the beautiful presupposes that the mind is in restful contemplation, and preserves it in this state.” [4]

Sublime is “absolutely great” because of its magnitude. [5] In order for a judgment of the sublime to occur, the mind must first become aware that there is no immediate danger and then discover the sublimity of the object, which in turn transforms the feeling of displeasure into pleasure. The judgment of the sublime, while pleasing, also resists bodily or sensory emotions. For Kant, the sublime can only occur in nature. The judgment of beauty always pleases and allows the imagination to understand the finality of form. While beauty and sublime both cause pleasure in the mind, the route they take to achieve that pleasure differs because the mental experience has different levels of magnitude in proportion with one’s imagination. The difference between the two, according to Kant, is that “The beautiful prepares us to love something, even nature, apart from any interest: the sublime to esteem something highly even in opposition to our (sensible) interest.” [6]The necessity for a mind/body separation in Kant’s concept of the sublime reinforces the binary tendencies in Western philosophy through the Modernist period.

An important distinction that Kant makes is that there are two types of sublime, the mathematical and the dynamic. The mathematical sublime overwhelms the imagination with spatial or temporal concepts. [7] An example of this is the concept of infinity. We can understand the theory of infinity but when we try to imagine measuring it, “the experience is too great for the imagination to ‘take it all in’ at once.” [8] The dynamic sublime explores the physical forces of nature:

bold, overhanging and, as it were, threatening rocks, thunderclouds piling up in the sky and moving about accompanied by lightening and thunderclaps, volcanoes with all their destructive power, hurricanes with all the devastation they leave behind, the boundless ocean heaved up, the high waterfall of mighty river and so on. Compared to the might of any of these, our ability to resist becomes a significant trifle. [9]

Kant takes into account both the horror and the pleasure of the sublime and the beautiful. But as his emphasis on nature as the source of sublime experience suggests, Kant’s model requires a certain distance from the object to achieve the potential transcendent pleasures of the sublime. This distance leads to a subject/object separation that allows the subject to be a passive spectator. This passivity is problematic for many contemporary philosophers, who posit a link between the beautiful and the sublime as well as a link between the subject and the object. If there is absolute separation between the subject and object, there is a lack of responsibility, historicity, and context. Derrida, Lyotard, Žižek, Freeman and Jameson have all grappled with  – and updated – these ideas, revising the language of the sublime to include multiplicities that are explicit in the experience of both the sublime and the beautiful. They are not in disagreement with Kant; rather, they are expanding on the initial foundation of the judgment of taste that he established.

The Sublime: Derrida

Kant’s theory of the judgments of the beautiful and the sublime appear independent of one another because the routes that the subject takes to pleasure differ. However, in both the sublime and the beautiful, pleasure is derived from forming a judgment of taste, so long as it is disinterested and free of concept. For Derrida, there is no distinction or border between the ergon (work) and the parergon (accessory). In his essay Parergon, he posits that all parerga infiltrate the ergon and become part of the work. There cannot be any separation between the two.

What constitutes them as parerga is not simply their exteriority as a surplus, it is the internal structural link which rivets them to the lack in the interior of the ergon. And this lack would be constitutive of the very unity of the ergon. Without this lack, the ergon would have no need of a parergon. The ergon’s lack is the lack of a parergon. [10]

In this passage, Derrida clearly delineates the blurring of categories between the ergon and the parergon. He states that the ergon cannot exist without the parergon because without the parergon, the ergon is always deficient. Applying the model of the beautiful as the ergon and sublime as the parergon, in Derridean terms, eliminates the subject/object division because they are fully integrated or permanently linked.

Throughout the essay, Parergon, Derrida calls into questions the simplification of the borders or boundaries of the art object. He deconstructs the definitions and limits imposed on aesthetic discourse, in particular by the theories of Kant. Derrida then re-examines the role of the beautiful and the sublime in this context. “What happens when one entitles a “work of art”? What is thetopos of the title? Does it take place (and where?) in relation to the work? On the edge? Over the edge? On the internal border?”[11] The essay title itself calls the reader’s attention to the parergon or supplemental attributes using the example of a work of art. Derrida posits that perhaps everything, even the parergon, is essential to the experience of the work of art. If so, then it is impossible, in Kantian terms, for an individual to view a work of art as an autonomous art object in a disinterested state because of the importance and infiltration of the parergon:

One can hardly speak of an opposition between the beautiful and the sublime. An opposition could only arise between two determinate objects, having their contours, their edges, their finitude…The sublime is to be found, for its part, in an ‘object without form’ and the ‘without-limit’ is ‘represented’ in it or on the occasion of it, and yet give the totality of the without-limit to be thought. [12]

The sublime offers us a way to how the unrepresentable might be represented or experienced. Derrida suggests that this is only possible through the soldering of the ergon/beautiful to the parergon/sublime. What is the result on the beautiful and the sublime of superimposing the Derridean ergon/parergon structure onto them? The opposing dialectic model is dissolved, and the potential for the sublime to be thought of as integral to the beautiful (and vice versa) as opposed to a counter-concept is introduced.

Figure 1 . Tara Donovan, Untitled (Plastic Cups), 2006, plastic cups, installation dimensions variable, approximately 4' x 54'5 x 49'8, Exhibited at PaceWildenstein, NYC, NY, Photographer: Larry Qualls.

         Such an integration of the sublime and the beautiful is evident in Tara Donovan’s artwork. For example, Donovan’s pieceUntitled (Plastic Cups), 2006 (Fig. 1), forms a sea of plastic drinking cups that are meticulously arranged on a grid format that measures 50 feet by 54 feet. The cups are stacked on top of one another and undulate in height, creating waves or mounds. While the piece is minimal, the repetitive plastic cups engage the viewer on an everyday, domestic level. Utilitarian and ubiquitous, plastic cups have connotations that refer to both the act of drinking and the place where these activities take place. The domestic further resonates throughout this piece through the use of the repeated labor and everyday material. While Donovan’s work is often considered minimal in form, the aesthetic impact on the subject, both of beauty and sublime, is intense because of the presence and importance of the parergon.

         The beautiful and the sublime each present characteristics that allow us to discuss the concepts in terms of the ergon and the parergon. The beautiful can be thought of as the ergon, which in this case – the formal attributes of the piece, the piles of plastic cups lying on the ground. While the characteristics of the parerga contain the formal, sensible attributes, it is clear that the beautiful, or formal/sensible/representable are not the only aspects involved in the subject’s experience of the work. Donovan’s use of form, materials and process provide parerga that are intertwined and essential to the piece and the experience. The ergon provides the foundation for the work, but the parerga (the domestic) complete the experience for the viewer because of the sublimity imbued in these attributes.

Through the centuries since Kant’s key text appeared, our understanding of the sublime has taken new forms. While the sublime’s origination in nature, mathematics and spirituality are the basis of an initial aesthetic inquiry, numerous nuances have arisen in contemporary art – including the domestic sublime. The domestic sublime is an experience of the supersenible that is linked to ideas of time, labor and materials. In the case of Donovan’s piece, Untitled (Plastic Cups), the domestic sublime of both materials and energy overwhelms the subject.

The blurring of the subject/object divide is essential to my argument because the labor, materials and process of artists such as Tara Donovan and Liza Lou have to be “riveted” to the final art object in order to propose the domestic sublime. The other aspect of Derrida’s (and others such as Lyotard and Jameson) theory that is pivotal in the lineage of the discourse of the sublime, is the shift from a transcendental notion of the sublime to a more material, tangible and embodied one. This shift also aids in the blurring of the subject/object division because the idea that there are separate entities dissolves when the contemplation of the object is collapsed into the bodily, visceral labor experienced by the subject.

The Sublime: Lyotard

Similar to Derrida, Lyotard tackles the problematic nature of Kant’s universal subjectivity especially as it pertains to the sublime. Lyotard also redirects the use of the word reflective, in terms of reflective thoughts and judgments, in order to broaden the arena of the sublime and shatter the transcendence of the disinterested subject. The primary concern of the reflective judgment is its ability, within the subject, to be heuristic and is essential to critical thought. Lyotard states, “With reflection, thinking seems to have at its disposal the critical weapon itself. For in critical philosophy the very possibility of philosophy bears the name of reflection.” [13]

Lyotard emphasizes the importance of the term reflective in Kant’s text because it is the foundation for the feeling of the sublime. He uses the term “feeling” because the sublime is “felt” only through the subject’s reflective thought. While the sublime is sparked by either a dynamic or mathematical presentation, the feeling is created in the mind through reflection because it cannot be resolved in a representation or conceptual manner – it is an aporia. Unlike the beautiful, the sublime has no object that can be deemed sublime; rather, it is an event that occurs based on the subject’s interaction with a presentation that evokes reflection and thus, the feeling of the sublime. “What awakens the ‘intellectual feeling’, the sublime, is not nature, which is an artist in forms and the work of forms, but rather magnitude, force, quantity in its purest state, a ‘presence’ that exceeds what imaginative thought can grasp at once in a form - what it can form (Lyotard’s emphasis).” [14]When Kant describes the sublime he only refers to nature and its force or magnitude, but Lyotard’s emphasis on the critical importance of reflective thought, allows for the use of the sublime in other fields outside of nature, such as literature art and the domestic.

Lyotard concretizes his theory in language. He uses the term differend to illustrate the struggle, conflict and perpetual evolution in the feeling of the sublime. Differend refers to a difference between two parties as well as a deferral because there is never a resolution between or amongst the players; they are in a constant state of negotiation. Lyotard seems to be using the word to describe the difference or incommunicability between reason and imagination. He writes, “Thisdifferend is to be found at the heart of sublime feeling: at the encounter of the two ‘absolutes’ equally ‘present’ to thought, the absolute whole when it conceives, the absolutely measured when it presents.” [15] The differend implies a constant struggle in the mind when there is a feeling of the sublime. The struggle, or conflict, however, can never be resolved because then it would cease to be infinite. In essence, the differend is much like two people attempting to communicate using different languages or modes of communication. While there is a general knowledge of the other, the inability for one system to conform to another system keeps them in a constant state of resistance and misunderstanding. It could be said that the imagination concerns itself with the infinite and reason concerts itself with form. “The differend does not signify that the two parties do not understand each other. It requires that each know the idiom of the other (form, Idea), although each cannot satisfy the demand of the other by means of its own idiom.” [16] The differend is what makes the feeling of the sublime so complex and difficult to articulate, according to Lyotard.

In his text The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, Lyotard further articulates his theory of the sublime with the addition of concrete aesthetic examples that present the unpresentable. Lyotard uses Barnett Newman’s paintings as an illustration for his concept of the sublime and differend in modern art. He specifically references Newman’s zip paintings as examples of a sublime event. For Lyotard, the sublime is not manifested, like Kant’s, in the transcendental but in the idea of the now. The now is what Lyotard believes to be sublime because the event of the present is intangible. As soon as one tries to pinpoint the present, it is always already part of the past and if one tries to understand the future as present it too, is not now. In contrast to Kant, the sublime event can be evoked from time and material but the subject must be part of the event to experience a sublime feeling. Lyotard’s reference to the zip down the middle of Newman’s paintings allows the subjects to be presented with an attempt at a representation of an event of the sublime. This instant where past and future meet is what Lyotard calls the “instant” which can also be thought of as the present. [17]

The same argument that Lyotard uses to assert that Newman’s work is sublime also applies to Tara Donovan’s installations. Donovan’s Haze (Fig. 2) contains the characteristics of Lyotard’s sublime presented as the event as a whole, without a zip or defining moment within the piece. The repetition of materials and form create a sublime event similar to Newman because the event is not solely tied to an instant but to the instant of realization of the excess materials used and labor expended. There are millions of straws used in this work and because of their repetition they can seem like an endless sea of material to the subject. While there is a limit to the amount of straws in the world, it is difficult to measure and comprehend because of the ubiquity and availability of this banal product. While one experiences a finite number in the presentation of the artwork, the inability to present the measure of all drinking straws is experienced by the subject. When Lyotard discusses the notion of the un-presentable he is not saying that visual means cannot express the sublime but that the material manifestation or representation evokes an event that is sublime. Phillip Shaw writes of Lyotard, “In the experience of the sublime, matter is invoked in a way ‘that is not finalized, not destined’. Sublime matter is that which resists the imposition of forms and concepts.” [18]

Fig. 2 Tara Donovan, Haze, 2003, stacked clear plastic drinking straws, installation dimensions variable, Exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, CA, Fall 2005.

The form of Haze gives one the feeling that it could be experienced in infinity because it is installed differently depending on the site. The waves and oscillations of the straws give the subject a snapshot of the potential of both the materials used (straws) and the form. Secondly, the installation embodies the immeasurable amount of energy expended. The straws are stacked individually on top of one another. The undulation of the straws is simply variable of the individual installing the work. Donovan states, “Certainly the idea of medium specificity is inherent in my work, but also the idea of abstraction and the sublime. It is often said that modernist painting is an infinite plane defined only by its frame. This is the same way I feel about my own work within the parameters of architectural space.” [19] The time and repetition of the movement presents the subject with the potential of infinity because it is impermanent in its installation and overwhelming in its grandeur. Instead of presenting one instant, as Newman does, Donovan presents unlimited instances that evoke the sublime event.

The Sublime: Jameson

Frederic Jameson addresses another shift of the sublime, that from nature to technology in his book, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. There, he proposes that in contemporary, post-modern society, nature has lost some of its awe and grandeur through technology. While nature may have been the seemingly infinite and dynamic force when Kant was alive, contemporary society deals with a different force and energy that potentially lies beyond our imagination or comprehension, technology. How far can technology infiltrate our lives and to what extent will that help or harm us? Jameson’s theory is entrenched in a Marxist critique of postmodernism that addresses both the appetite of capitalism for technology and the sublime infatuation with its potentiality. He states, “The other of our society is in that sense no longer Nature at all, as it was in precapitalist societies, but something else which we must now identify.” [20] That “something” is technology. But, it is not just technology as a subject for exploration but the unknown of technology, its limits and evolution. This idea is what he refers to as the “postmodern or technological sublime.” [21] This unknown is similar to the presented, unrepresentable in Lyotard’s work because there is a vast unknown with unlimited potential.

The shift of the sublime from nature to the potentiality of technology refers to the facet of the domestic sublime that emerges from the use of prosaic materials en masse. The quantity of straws or plastic cups used by Donovan alludes to an infinite supply and progression of ready-made, discardable, domestic products. While this idea of a potentially infinite supply of materials is similar for traditional materials such as paint or bronze, what differentiates it from those materials and thus adding to the domesticity of the sublime, is the combination of the repetition, reproduction, form, installation and origin of the product.  Additionally, these products are familiar in daily life and are not associated, historically, with art as opposed to paint or bronze. Aesthetically, as Jameson discusses, the technology at our hands has more to do with the reproduction of images than the production of images. This can be seen in the work of appropriation artists such as Sherry Levine, but is innate in Donovan’s work as well because her materials are simply technological reproductions repeated. Jameson writes:

Such machines are indeed machines of reproduction (the computer, etc.) rather than of production, and they make very different demands on our capacity for aesthetic representation than did the relatively mimetic idolatry of the older machinery of the futurist moment, of some older speed-and-energy sculpture. Here we have less to do with kinetic energy than with all kinds of new reproductive processes.” [22]

Fig. 3 Liza Lou, Continuous Mile, 2006 – 2008Glass beads, cotton, ¾ x ¾ x 63,360 inches (1.9 x 1.9 x 160934.4 cm), L & M Arts, NYC, NY, 2008.

Liza Lou’s piece Continuous Mile, (Fig. 3) illustrates the ideas of Jameson because the work presents the infinite potential of materialism. Lou uses glass beads to cover objects in order to reclaim and reassert the power of objects in space by embellishing and recontextualizing them. The employment of glass beads is arduous. In Continuous Mile, she covered a mile of rope with white glass beads. Additionally, the rope form is connected to give that mile a sense of boundlessness. Jameson’s technological sublime is induced by the combination of materials and the presentation of infinity through a mass-produced material such as beads. The repetition of the same material in combination with the quantity presented alludes to the industry of mass production and the global availability of capitalistic commodities.  The presentation of the unrepresentable, such as the global capitalistic market and the technology driving industrialization and the unrepresentable moments of life day in and day out, evoke a sublime that resonates in both Donovan and Lou’s artwork.

The Sublime: Freeman

Another influential text for this project is The Feminine Sublime, by Barbara Claire Freeman. Her feminist methodology proposes a new viewpoint on the theory of the sublime. She looks at the sublime from a perspective and applies it to an aesthetic example, that of 20th Century women’s fiction. She argues that a feminine sublime is not the opposite of the sublime, or masculine sublime, but an articulation of the sublime beyond the traditional, historical framework established by the patriarchal order. Freeman asserts that “What is specifically feminine about the feminine sublime is not an assertion of innate sexual difference, but a radical rearticulation of the role gender plays in producing the history of discourse on the sublime and the formulation of an alternative position with respect to excess and the possibilities of its figuration.” [23] Freeman does not attempt to find an autonomous female voice through the sublime; rather, she attempts to find an “alternative position.” [24]   This position assesses the role of the sublime in terms of excess, disgust and horror in women’s literature.

Her formulation hearkens back to Edmond Burke, who describes the sublime as an experience bordering on terror but productive of delight, one that “derives all its sublimity from the terror with which it is generally accompanied.” [25]  She explains this sublime as feminine because of its role as an “other” in patriarchal systems. Because of the lineage of the sublime, specifically with Burke, is gendered and the sublime is likened to the masculine, she revisits this notion and repositions it to assert a new shift, or evolution, in the discourse of the sublime. She states, “Unlike the masculinist sublime that seeks to master, appropriate, or colonize the other, I propose that the politics of the feminine sublime involves taking up a position of respect in response to an incalculable otherness.” [26] Freeman’s feminine sublime contains a responsibility, or ethics, inherent in the artistic expression. She supports her argument for a feminine sublime using examples from literature by women authors including Mary Shelley and Toni Morrison. These examples contain a sublime that does not conquer the other but positions itself in a state of responsibility. This particular understanding of the sublime is useful because it points out what has been left out of the discourse and, like the ideas offered by Derrida, Lyotard and Jameson, allows us to revisit the history of the sublime.

The Sublime: Psychoanalysis - Freud, Lacan and Žižek

Contemporary philosopher Slavoj Žižek comes to the topic of the sublime through the lens of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Lacan. Drawing on the inability for the symbolic order to reside in the real, Žižek creates a thread between the Lacanian lack and the sublime. Žižek argues in his text The Sublime Object of Ideology that certain sublime objects or representations within language and culture take on a symbolic order that cannot realize itself.  He focuses on the use of identity and leadership by political ideologies to illustrate his theories. When discussing figureheads or other groups of people, Žižek posits that the power of the sublime is the misrepresentation of the subjects “relation with the unattainable master signifier or Other.” If the subject is never able to attain a master signifier, there is a lack, or perpetual misunderstanding, that is deemed the sublime. Taking a nod from Hegel, Žižek articulates the sublime object as something that cannot be attained or understood because there is not a signifier like it in the Real. Hegel’s sublime, in contrast to Kant, manifests itself in the representation (or inability to represent) of god. Žižek’s updated notion of Lacanian psychoanalysis puts a new twist on the concept of the sublime, not just in terms of aesthetics, but also in cultural and political discourse. His ability to span several disciplines using the sublime as the foundational touchstone makes his theories an integral part of the discussion on the domestic sublime in addition to using the methodology of the German Idealists (Hegel and Kant) and Psychoanalysis (Lacan via Freud).

Another psychoanalytic theory that is essential to the overall idea of the domestic sublime is Sigmund Freud’s uncanny. The uncanny is similar to the idea of the sublime because of its attraction/repulsion, but is different due to its ties with psychoanalytic theory. Psychoanalytic methodology deviates from the methodologies of the philosophers mentioned thus far in the sense that the subjects experience or event is rooted in the unconscious. The uncanny, for Freud, is an instance or experience where something can be quite familiar yet foreign at the same time. The duality of comprehension and confusion creates a feeling of both attraction and repulsion. In his essay, “The Uncanny” from 1919, Freud relies heavily on the etymology of the German word for uncanny, unheimlich. This etymology is essential to the idea of the domestic sublimes because its roots are in the word home. “The German word unheimlich is obviously the opposite of heimlich, heimisch, meaning ‘familiar,’ ‘native,’ ‘belonging to the home’…” [27] Therefore, unheimlich can be literally translated as un-homelike. Uncanny is therefore tied to the home and thus to the domestic (as discussed in the next section). This links the work of Donovan and Lou to the domestic sublime and particularly to the uncanny in psychoanalytic theory.

The Domestic

         The two-part moniker of the domestic sublime must be clearly demarcated as to its purpose, context and history.  The word domestic can have myriad levels of meaning especially in Feminism or Marxism. However, the basic definition of the word domestic is “1. of or pertaining to the home, the household, household affairs, or the family: domestic pleasures; 2.devoted to home life or household affairs.” [28] Before diving into the Marxist and Feminist perspectives on the domestic, it is important to chart what activities and attributes are aligned with the domestic, focusing on the materials or things that are used to maintain a household and the labor involved in that maintenance.

The Domestic: Contemporary Domesticity

The discardable and unending nature of the materials employed by Tara Donovan and Liza Lou evoke what can be described as contemporary domesticity. I am proposing that while the domesticity of the past focused on the home or work related to the home, the new, multi-gendered, mass-produced domesticity lends itself to further deconstruction. Instead of fixing what is broken, the new domestic laborer will buy new and replace the old in a sweeping act of replacement and updating. To fully maximize time and minimize effort within the home, china and crystal has been replaced with Chinet and Styrofoam cups. The mass-produced materials available at the local WalMart have shifted the role of the domestic, whatever we can find that cuts back on domestic labor and saves time, essential to the multi-tasking household of contemporary society. By using easily discarded, banal materials, Tara Donovan draws attention to the massive quantity of disposable materials available for everyday use within our everyday lives.

These cheap, prosaic materials are assembled to create large-scale, delicate installations. Throughout 20th Century art, form was deconstructed. With artwork such as that created by both Lou and Donovan, there is a new deconstruction: a deconstruction of traditional materials, which have been replaced by ones characterized by their perishability, impermanence and availability. [29] Styrofoam cups are meant to be single-use item; beads are meant to be strung together on a single, small-scale article that embellishes an already existing item or person. When we are presented with these materials en massein an art form, there is a link to the feeling of the infinite in the sublime because not only is the labor overwhelming but the materials are seemingly endless.

The Domestic: Relationship to Feminism

The word ‘domestic’ carries with it a long history within both feminism and labor theory. The path of the domestic throughout the history of feminism contextualizes a multi-gendered domesticity that no longer lays claim to the woman’s role in the household. Starting with second wave American and French Feminists, there is significant discourse on the domestic and how it relates to micro-politics, power relations and equality amongst genders. Additionally, it is imperative to contextualize the domestic as a North American, middle-class, 20th and 21st Century experience and not to generalize about all of domestic labor throughout the world. For example, in the text Feminism, Domesticity and Popular Culture, Stacy Gillis and Joan Hollows discuss the shifting nature of the domestic in North America and Europe after the industrial revolution as a movement to the interior of society as a supporting, unpaid laborer. The authors are quick to point out the context of this shift was more prevalent in middle class, white, suburban households.

Simone de Beauvoir, in her book The Second Sex, discusses transcendent and immanent labor. De Beauvoir bases her concept of labor on two types, transcendent and immanent. Her Marxist, feminist examination of labor exposes the ontological and ethical implications of the division of labor. These distinctions illustrate the oppression of those who perform immanent labor. [30] Immanent labor, such as housekeeping “particularly resembles ‘the torture of Sisyphus’: ‘Theclean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.” [31] This labor is not confined to the home but to any task that is repetitive and “produces nothing durable through which human beings move beyond ourselves but merely (1) perpetuates life or (2) maintains the status quo.” [32] In contrast, transcendent labor is work that enables human beings to achieve new goals, areas of research and enhance humanity. [33]

Using the earlier example of Donovan’s artwork Haze, which has already been considered in terms of materiality, we can now analyze the second facet of the domestic sublime in terms of labor expended and potential expended in future re-installations of the work. Not only are there millions of straws from an endless supply of technology produced and reproduced machines, but the only way to install the work is to physically stack the straws. The installation of Haze takes large amounts of time and effort, but what is specifically domestic about this effort/energy is its foundation as immanent labor. Many artworks take time and energy but the domestic sublimity entrenched in Donovan’s work is that of the immanent.

         What is crucial about the division of labor by de Beauvoir is the notion that certain activities are ceaseless and mundane. This type of labor oppresses the person charged with these kinds of tasks because they prevent them from having the time or the resources to infiltrate the world of transcendent labor. While these divisions can be somewhat problematic (since they create not only a binary but also too clean of a division between types of labor) they are still relevant to consider as aspects of the domestic sublime. Through their use of large-scale, immanent-labor intensive installation of millions prosaic materials, Donovan’s and Lou’s work exudes the characteristics of the domestic sublime.

 While Donovan and Lou are not necessarily commenting on the Marxist, feminist, postmodern condition of labor and materials, the work nonetheless exposes and illustrates these concepts. Just as Kant outlined two types of sublime, the domestic sublime contains two specific types of boundlessness. The domestic sublime creates an experience of an artwork that navigates a balance between material and process. Just as Derrida, through his notion of the ergon/paragon, coupled the sublime and the beautiful, the domestic sublime couples material and labor. The materials involved that evoke the domestic sublime are oftentimes presented en masse to allude to infinite supplies and with repetitive actions to infuse a connection between immanent labor and the dynamic sublime. In both cases of labor and materials, there is a common thread of repetition. To repeat and reproduce infinitely connects the objects, viewers and technology. Donovan and Lou capture the ephemeral and tangible notions of repetition in their artwork.

The Domestic: Materials

It is necessary to explain the material differences of the work of Donovan and Lou to that of Duchamp or Warhol, two other artists whose work utilizes domestic materials and forms. One might ask how the use of ubiquitous materials in Donovan and Lou’s works are any different from Duchamp’s use of a urinal or Warhol’s Brillo Boxes?  While there is some similarity to the use of ready-mades or everyday materials amongst all these artists, the features that separate them are repetition and reproducibility. Initially, it may seem that as long as someone uses a product or object oftentimes associated with the home or the domestic, it can inherently be part of the domestic sublime. On the contrary, it is more complex than simply re-contextualizing a domestic object in a gallery setting. Both Warhol and Duchamp (among many others) positioned their work in a gallery setting to reflect popular culture and the integration of art and life but Donovan and Lou’s artwork goes beyond this. The plastic cups, beads, ropes, toothpicks, and straight pins are not simply placed in a gallery in their original but instead they create large-scale installations.  This challenges the viewer’s perception of the materials in the sense that they not exactly sure what they are looking at until they are closer and spend more time with the piece. This alone separates them from artists such as Warhol and Duchamp. But, this experience or difference is created by the repetition and reproduction of the materials. The labor involved that moves the art from a popular culture reference, as with Duchamp and Warhol, and transforms it into the domestic sublime.

The intrinsic domestic sublime in Tara Donovan’s work is evident in a myriad of her pieces. In Untitled (Plastic Cups)(Fig.1) the non-representable parerga intrinsic in the experience again lends itself to the domestic sublime. While there is a measurable quantity of cups in the piece presented to the viewer (ergon), the knowledge that there is a somewhat infinite supply of the cups augments the domestic sublimity (parerga). The repetitive labor (parerga) is tied to the domestic as well as the use of the domestic material usually associated with home-like activities.

De Beauvoir’s labor divisions connect with Marxist ideas of labor and commodities both in terms of types of labor and materials. In Marx’s text Das Kaptial, the formula for labor and its compensation is in direct relation to production time. Simply stated, the commodity produced is valued at the average time it takes the worker to produce it. Marx tried to turn the theory against the supporters of capitalism, advancing the formula in a direction that most classical economists hesitated to follow. Marx argued that the theory could explain the value of all commodities, including the commodity that workers sell to capitalists for a wage. Marx called this commodity labor power. He concludes that “use-value, or useful article, therefore, has value only because human labour in the abstract has been embodied or materialized in it.” [34] It is simple and straightforward but does not adhere to the free market of capitalism that elevates certain types of labor (like that of de Beauvoir’s transcendent labor) above others. The power of laborers in the factories and cities allowed for the formation of wages and unions but the unpaid labor happening in the home was not part of the Marxist equation because there was no commodity being produced, simply endless, repetitive work that sustained the dwellers of the home. This lack of wage compensation situated the persons working within the home as a lesser-valued worker within society.

The irony, or perhaps the paradox, of all of the exploration into both the Marxist and materialist theory on labor and commodities is that traditionally, domestic labor was unpaid but both the work of Lou and Donovan turns the idea that these processes and materials were somehow banal and underappreciated upside down because in the end they are creating art objects that can be sold and consumed by society, unlike that of the domestic. This paradox is imperative to the Marxist, feminist and sublime reading of the work.

One last aesthetic illustration by Liza Lou might reconcile all the aspects discussed throughout this introduction.Kitchen, 1995 (Fig. 4) encapsulates all the idiosyncrasies of the domestic sublime through the materials, form, and process used in its construction Lou spent over four years creating Kitchen. Painstakingly, she covered every surface of the kitchen and all of its contents in tiny glass beads. In addition to taking over four years to complete, the artwork sparked carpal tunnel syndrome in her hands due to the repetition of the same fine motor skill in order to properly place each bead.

Fig. 4 Kitchen, 1991-1994, Mixed media, paper mache, wire, glass beads and glue, 168 square feet.

The work sparkles and encrusts a banal daily scene from many homes in North America. The imagery of the kitchen immediately alludes to domesticity because it is often the heart of the home as many events and meals commence in this area of the kitchen. By covering every item and surface in the room with beads she created a consistent repetition of pattern that augments the Sisyphean nature of both domestic work and the work that was required to create the piece.

The domestic labor that is referenced by the forms created and embellished with beads is augmented by the imagery of a contemporary kitchen because it reveals the technology that is integral to that space. The stove and refrigerator represent the technological advances and efficiencies available in the home. While Jameson suggests that the contemporary sublime is rooted in technology; we can apply this theory to the technology in the home. How far can technology take the home in terms of labor? Is there going to be some much time saved through new gadgets, so much so that it shifts the nature of domestic labor? Ruth Schwartz Cowan argues, in More Work For Mother, that in fact infiltration of technology and industry into the domestic, single-family home has actually created more work for the individual performing the labor because there is more expected with the addition of technological efficiencies. This again adds to the idea that the labor is unending – with the addition of technology, there is even more work to be done.


Fig. 1 Kitchen (Sink detail), 1991-1994, Mixed media, paper mache, wire, glass beads and glue, 168 square feet.

The sublime aspects of Kitchen are in the details. There is the labor invested in adhering individual beads to every surface of the kitchen as well as the detailed imagery of the work. The piece depicts a kitchen that appears to have been abandoned but recently in use. There is water running in the sink (Fig. 5), the oven is open and the table is in disarray. The moment captured by Lou suggests the perpetual nature of domestic labor and that even more surfaces could be encrusted with beads to compound the infinitetly expended energy, repetition of material and vast availability of beads. It is domestically sublime because of the presentation of the unrepresentable nature of energy, time and infinity and coupled with the repetition and form that calls upon the characteristics of the domestic.


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[1] Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement: (Oxford University Press, USA, 1978). 90.

[2] Christopher Reed, Not at Home: The Suppression of Domesticity in Modern Art and Architecture (Thames & Hudson, 1996), 7.

[3] Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, 1st ed. (England: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 91.

[4] Ibid. 94.

[5] Ibid. 93.

[6] Ibid. 91.

[7] Philip Shaw, The Sublime (The New Critical Idiom), (New York, NY: Routledge Press, 2005), 81.

[8] Ibid. 80.

[9] Ibid. 82.

[10] Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, trans., Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 59-60.

[11] Ibid. 24.

[12] Ibid. 127.

[13] Jean-François Lyotard, Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, 1st ed. (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), 31.

[14] Ibid. 53.

[15] Ibid. 123.

[16] Ibid. 152.

[17] Ibid. 152.

[18] Jean-François Lyotard, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, 1st ed. (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992).

[19] Nicholas Baume and Jen Mergel, “Second Nature,” Tara Donovan, Nicholas Baume, Tara Donovan, Jen Mergel and Lawrence Weschler (New York, NY: The Monacelli Press, 2008), 10.

[20] Frederic Jameson, “Postmoderinsm, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, 1991,” The Sublime, Documents of Contemporary Art, Simon Mortley, Simon, Ed. (London, England: Whitechapel Gallery, 2010), 143.

[21] Ibid. 145.

[22] Ibid. 144-145.

[23] Barbara Claire Freeman, The Feminine Sublime: Gender and Excess in Women’s Fiction (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995), 10.

[24] Ibid. 10.

[25] Ibid. 40.

[26] Ibid. 11.

[27] Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny (Penguin Classics, 2003), 4.


[29] These concepts were discussed and suggested by Denise Carvahlo, November 2009.

[30] Andrea Veltman, “The Sisyphean Torture of Housework: Simone de Beauvoir and the Inequitable Divsions of Domestic Work in Marriage,”Hypatia 19.3 (2004), 123.

[31] Ibid. 124.

[32] Ibid. 123.

[33] Ibid. 124.

[34] Karl Marx, Capital: Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy (New York, NY: Penguin Classics, 1992), 45.