Silent Waves: A Contemporary Vision of the Sublime

Donald Doe
The beautiful in nature is connected with the form of the object,
which consists in having [definite] boundaries. The sublime,
on the other hand, is to be found in a formless object, so far as
in it or by occasion of it boundlessness is represented, and yet
in its totality is also present to thought.

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, 1790

Stand then upon the summit of the mountain, and gaze over
the long rows of hills. Observe the passage of streams and all
the magnificence that opens up before your eyes; and what
feeling grips you? It is a silent devotion within you. You lose
yourself in boundless spaces, your whole being experiences a
silent cleansing and clarification, your I vanishes, you are
nothing, God is everything.

Carl Gustav Carus, Nine Letters on Landscape Painting,
(Second Letter), 1815-1824

I begin this look at the new photography by Douglas Busch on a gray day of very early spring. In this zone of the upper Midwest, winters are long and quite cold (In this mild winter,December temperatures dropped to a low of -23 degrees Celsius, -9 Fahrenheit); thus, warmer days with lawns greening and tulips and hyacinths beginning to emerge are causes for a sense of relief and quiet celebration. And, of course, this time of new life is as old as the annual rhythm of seasons; as both vitally new and old, it offers an apt metaphor for Busch’s latest work.

These images are very new in the photographer’s career. The technology he has chosen to use is quite new. Most important, the resonance and mood here is very new in Busch’s life as an artist. At the same time it is also true that Silent Waves have important ties to the artist’s earlier photographic series. Further, these pictures of the Pacific Ocean gleaming in California light reflect upon the tradition of the sublime, a tradition that illuminates the quiet poetry that sings here, as it does for much of American landscape and seascape art in any medium.

The original treatise, On the Sublime, is attributed to Longinus and was written in Hellenistic Greece, but it was widely read in 18th century England.[i] Longinus’s treatise was on rhetoric and, significantly, often illustrated by references to the power of nature. His basic contention was that emotionally laden speech, rather than a logical argument, was most persuasive and overwhelmed (mere) reason. A sublime speech, he asserted, “scatters everything before it like a lightning bolt.”

In England, the transformative power of nature was central to the 1681 publication, The Sacred Theory of the Earth, by a Cambridge University Platonist named Thomas Burnet. Though now altogether obscure outside the field of Scottish philosophy, in its day it was anything but esoteric and influenced many writers and theologians.

Burnet was inspired by his experiences on his youthful tour through the Alps. His views were not at all standard. More than three centuries ago, before the rise of geology as a science, mountains were widely and traditionally believed to be the ruins of Eden. Mountains were rarely thought of as scenic; Jonathan Swift, famously, regarded mountain ranges as great sores on the earth’s surface. Burnet thus was being quite original when he found Alpine cliffs and crags extraordinary. He declared:

The greatest objects of Nature are, methinks, the most pleasing to behold;
and next to the great Concave of the Heavens . . . there is nothing I look
upon with more pleasure than the wide Sea and the Mountains of the Earth.
There is something great and stately in the Air of these things that inspires
the mind . . . we do naturally upon such occasions think of God and his
greatness and whatsoever hath but the shadow and appearance of INFINITE, . . . fill . . . the mind . . . and cast it into a pleasing kind of stupor and

As part of the Grand Tour more or less required of the British literati, such figures as Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, John Dennis, and Joseph Addison also ventured on Alpine treks and found occasion to speculate on the sublime. Addison, in his Pleasures of the Imagination, was the first to draw a clear distinction—echoed by Kant—between the two aesthetic categories of the beautiful and the sublime.

At about mid-century, Edmund Burke took up exactly that distinction in his systematic A Philosophical Enquiry Into The Origin Of Our Ideas Of The Sublime And Beautiful. Primarily, what set Burke’s treatment apart from all that preceded him was the fact that that he defined the two categories as mutually exclusive. A beautiful object was described in terms we would call feminine: small, graceful, delicate, and so forth. His notion of the sublime was definitive and its central theme, famously, is this:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger,
that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about
terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source
of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which
the mind is capable of feeling.[iii]

Burke’s notion of what caused this sense of danger was shaped in part by Addison, and came primarily from the risk catalogue first suggested by Burnet.

Great heights and great depths, vast space, roaring cataracts, avalanches, and stormy seas were all included; added to that were ruins and other testimonies to ancient civilizations that created awareness of vast stretches not of space but of time.

Burke was typical of his day in saying that viewing the immensity or power of nature directly or through art, the viewer (or reader) would be reminded, inevitably, of the power of God. This was generally assumed to be an automatic association because it was generally believed that the content of human consciousness derived from the process of association. Thus, seeing spectacular scenery axiomatically meant the mind would associate with it the idea of the vista’s creator. Hence, as with Burnet, Burke’s vision of the sublime was fundamentally and profoundly religious.

Inevitably, perhaps, Burke’s ideas were attacked and defended on both aesthetic and theological grounds. Toward the end of the century, that debate produced a remarkable resolution forged by Dugald Stewart, one of the great minds of his time. His memory was prodigious. Holding the Chair of Mathematics while very young, then the Chair of Moral Philosophy, both at the University of Edinburgh, he wrote his summary treatise, On the Sublime, quickly while in the country, far from any library.

After a long introductory exploration of the notion of the sublime itself, he asked, why would anyone link an antique ruin, a view of the sea, and a mountain peak? His answer turned the whole notion of association on its head, asserting that linkages do not come from a process inherent to human intelligence, but rather from a property of language he called “transitive.” His revolutionary argument about language and meaning is identical to that developed more than a century later by Ludwig Wittgenstein.

He offered a model: let us take a group of objects, A through E, in which A shares something with B, B something else with C, and so forth. Thus A and E, for example, an old stone wall and the sea, might seem to have nothing in common at all, but become linked through language. It is language that can generate linkages between very different sorts of objects. Stewart did not reject the religious theme in Burke’s (and other’s) theories, but he did insist that there is no essential property in an ocean and an old wall which forces them to be grouped together; rather, the notion of the sublime has been extended through language from A to B to C, and so forth, giving to all objects in the series the property of sublimity.[iv]

In the case of Doug Busch, as we shall see, the sublime is not in any sense specifically religious, but is increasingly, over the span of his career to date, quietly meditative. It is the meditative quality that echoes the contemplative reflection described by Carl Gustav Carus as quoted at the beginning of this introduction. It sums up a view of nature that endures in America to this moment. [v]

Unmistakably, Carus’s view of nature is resonates with a famous statement by the American Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Standing on the bare ground, –my head bathed in the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God.”[vi]

This deistic vision of an infinite universe suffused with the presence of its creator, which formed a major current in 19th century American theological thinking, may be the central reason why most New World artists were not particularly taken with Burke’s absolute division between the two aesthetic categories of the sublime and the beautiful. In fact, in the glowing and tranquil pictures of New Hampshire’s White Mountains and the Catskills—by such artists as Asher B. Durand, Frederic Edwin Church, Jasper Francis Cropsey, and Sanford Robinson Gifford—there is little that evokes a sense of the terrible and much that qualifies as beautiful.

Of course, theory was not the lone influence on artists. The storm-wracked and mountainous landscapes (usually staffed with banditti and other dangerous types) of the Italian artist Salvatore Rosa were of great importance, at least to Thomas Cole (1801-1848), the true founder of the American landscape tradition. In fact, his version of the sublime can be considered the A in the A to B to C, (etc.) versions of sublimity found in paintings of a country that, not rarely, thought of itself as the New Eden.

It should be said clearly that the “series” is not a simple chronological sequence, but as that may be, starting points could be assigned to Cole’s Mountain Sunrise, Catskill, of 1826 or his Landscape with Tree Trunks, painted two years later. In both, Cole was deeply indebted to Rosa. The latter, for example, presents a newly wind-shattered tree and the broken trunk of one rotting away—both testimony to the power of nature—on a foreground bank of a mountain pool opening to a rocky middle ground and a distant, craggy peak. To the left, the sky is luminous; to the right is a swirl of gray to nearly black storm clouds that drop to the ground and seem like smoke from a raging fire one cannot see.

Version B of the American sublime might be called Grandeur. The archetypal artist is Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) and a prime example his large canvas from 1863, Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak. The viewer is stationed on a rocky ledge. Rays of sunlight pierce overhanging clouds illuminating a green meadow in the middle ground; a silvery river meanders through it, emptying into a mountain lake. The backdrop for this scene is “Lander’s Peak,” an enormous mountain nearly Himalayan in scale.

This, and many other views are filled with light that is nearly mystical. The often very large canvases depict a heroically scaled West more majestic than any view of the low and wooded Catskills of Thomas Cole. In such works, there is certainly an effort to portray a theatrically awesome vision of the American west, but there is no sense of an experience “analogous to terror.”

It is perhaps the quality of light that links Bierstadt to a number of artists working at the same time, primarily in New England. Prominent among this group, most often referred to as Luminists, are Martin Johnson Heade, the mature John Frederick Kensett, and Fitz Hugh Lane. A tranquil silence pervades Kensett and Lane’s paintings of the New England coast. Skies glow pink or subtle shades of blue. The sea is calm, often a glassy mirror for offshore rocks and shoreline bluffs.

This “C version” of the sublime is the one perhaps most firmly linked with Emerson’s Transcendentalism. Several Luminist works do depict serious weather—but, for example, Heade’s Approaching Thunder Storm of 1859 is a scene of a small bay of utterly black water, under a gray and black sky. But, in the foreground, the shore is sunlit and a spectator, a surrogate for the viewer, sits on an old plank in complete ease.

There is no threat here, no danger; the spectator (with his small white dog) is a tranquil witness, perhaps waiting for a thrilling storm in his beneficent universe.

In the model presented here, after Dugald Stewart, the photographic art of Doug Busch touches upon A, has exquisitely rendered versions of B—so different, however, they probably deserve another letter—and, in both the recent past and now, with Silent Waves, explores and expands upon C.
In 1987, the photographer happened across a view in the agricultural space of northern Illinois (it is a region of immense farms), set up one of his big cameras and shot an 8 inch by 20 inch negative—slightly more than 20 by 51 centimeters.

A line of hay bales rests against a fence. Beyond them is an array of barns and farm outbuildings with steel roofs. It is an ordinary bucolic scene—but framed by two silos are the ghostly shapes of steaming cooling towers belonging to a nuclear power plant. Nuclear Farm (Fig. 1) is an ironic take on the reputedly innocent and rural American Midwest, reminding us that the elemental forces of nature, with their implicit threat of Chernobyl, powerful beyond imagining by Burnet or Burke or Kant or Cole, are nestled everywhere.

It may be that the threat of radioactive disaster is about the only one capable of creating an experience “analogous to terror” for a contemporary viewer, but images celebrating natural grandeur are numerous in Busch’s career. There are for instance spectacular images taken in the Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley in Arizona. (Fig. 2) Less photographed places figure prominently: a foam-streaked ocean swirls and eddies in a rocky bay in Rock and Fog, taken at Pfeiffer Beach on the California coast; Little Rocky Glen, (Fig. 3) unveils an idyllic spot in Pennsylvania woodlands, where stratified shelves of rock embrace rapids, transformed to a silvery white sheet by the very long exposure times required by Busch’s large camera—in this case, the negative and contact print is 12 by 20 inches (about 30.5 x 51 cm).

These images fuse the sublime and the beautiful in what can be called typical American fashion. Busch also fuses the two in a remarkable series of images titled Vestiges, a project undertaken in 1998-99, that deals with the ruins of early medieval German castles, and the stone ruins—from roughly the same date—of the remarkable Pueblo Chacoan culture of the ancient Anasazi in Chaco Canyon in New Mexico and in Wupatki, Arizona. But Busch would entirely agree with Burke on one count: ruins, built of rock and now subsiding for centuries back into nature, are powerfully evocative.

Vestiges’ images seem to have been taken in the full light of mid-day; their impact does not derive from deep shadows or contrived mystery. Instead, they are formally elegant; the photos of Chaco Canyon especially celebrating the stone architecture, apparently built by specialists for a priestly (and perhaps political) elite. These are views of precisely fitted stone creating extraordinarily crisp, geometric shapes that are at once compellingly mysterious and close to studies in abstraction. (Fig. 4)

Silent Waves continues, perhaps culminates Busch’s drive toward abstraction and is a sustained contemplation of nature that is not, like much of his proceeding work, formally complex. In his forward to the artist’s retrospective catalog, Richard W. Gassen notes that these images evoke the wholly abstract paintings of Mark Rothko, who was very interested in forging what art historian Robert Rosenblum called the Abstract Sublime in the middle of the 20th century. Gassen goes on to observe, regarding Silent Waves, “These are compositions which are borne by a great serenity and enormous power, favoring color and structure over detail.”[vii]

The book you hold in your hand confirms what Gassen so succinctly has to say. Busch’s mastery of both digital camera and computer software generates images that would surely cause a Luminist painter to be rapt. Small waves glitter silver on a gold ocean and that merges with a golden sky; a violet sea meets a violet sky faintly streaked with pink so subtly that the horizon meeting of water and air is nearly invisible; a sea of rather dark blue meets what seems an evening sky of exactly the same hue. The grids range from subtle to spectacular.

Generally the grids progress, from top to bottom, from the open sea to sandy beach. In some, blues predominate, becoming squares of foam-laced water retreating from the beach, in others a black ocean, breaking into streaks of foaming white surf, glistens in a golden light. The grid itself, fracturing the ocean into glimpses, reiterates the experience of standing on the beach and watching ocean waves curl slowly to shore, breaking into glorious visual moments that the viewer knows will vanish from memory as new sequences of rising water come ashore.

I end this essay on a warm and sunny day. The tulips are now a blaze of yellow, orange and pinks framed by a low and gauzy screen of purple grape hyacinths. It has become clear that Busch was astute in calling this luxuriously extensive series of images silent waves. Absent is the sound of waves breaking and coursing over sand and, after some high tides, causing small rocks to clatter one against another as the waves retreat. These works are a distilled visual experience. The grids could, theoretically, be extended forever.

Rocks, or any other pictorial device do not frame the many works titled Waves or Waves Fog or Beach Wave, the ocean, blue or gray or golden, extends to the very edge of the image. These are all pictures of endlessness, the vast sea we know and remember. Why it grips us is perhaps unknowable, but millions upon millions, again and again, seek to visit a coast.

Natives of this part of the American Midwest, living more than 2000 km from the beach in Maine that I call my native place, sometimes find the lure of the shore a little mystifying. Not rarely, the question has been, but what do you do on a beach? My only answer has been, be there. Looking at the photographs of Silent Waves is a kind of transport. I am there. The ocean changes ceaselessly, and I find that in these quiet images Busch reveals why, centuries ago, Thomas Burnet was very right when he declared, “there is nothing I look upon with more pleasure than the wide sea . . .”

[i] Fourteen editions of this work were published between 1710 and 1789; further, two translations appeared in a total of six editions.
[ii] Cited in M.H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism (New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1971), p.101. The passage is drawn from The Sacred Theory of the Earth, Book I, Chapter XI, pp. 188-9, in Collected Works.
[iii] Enquiry, James T. Boulton, ed. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958) Part I, p. vii.
[iv] Dugald Stewart, “On the Sublime,” in Philosophical Essays, Vol. 5 of The Collected Works, ed. Sir William Hamilton (Edinburgh: Thomas Constable and Co., 1855), p. 195-96.
[v] That attitude—and the art it helped generate—was central to creating the first National Park, Yellowstone, and led to the creation of the National Parks system, which today includes 53 parks embracing a total of over 220,000 sq. km. Additionally, National Shores, Grasslands, Forests, etc., are meant to conserve an additional
400,000 sq. km. The grand total is an area decidedly greater than all of France or the Ukraine, the two largest countries in Europe, and offers an irony, in that the United
States is, by far, the greatest contributor to global warming.
[vi] The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Centenary Edition, ed. Edward Waldo Emerson, (Boston, 1903-04), 1, Nature, p. 10.
[vii] Thomas Shirmbock & Tim B. Wride, Retrospektive: Douglas I. Busch, (Wilhelm-Hack Museum, Mannheim/Ludwigshafen: Edition Braus, 2005) p. 6.