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F Schiller on form and subject in art

September 22, 2008

This extract is from Friedrich Schiller’s essay On the Sublime (1801).

In a truly beautiful work of art, the subject should do nothing, the form everything; for it is through the form alone that the whole of man is reached, the subject only affects exceptional powers or faculties. The subject, were it ever so sublime and comprehensive, has a circumscribing effect upon the mind, and it is only of the form that true aesthetic freedom can be expected. The great secret of art consists in this, that the master wipes out the subject by the form; the more imposing, the more assuming, the more seductive the subject, the more it claims our attention by its prominence, or the more the beholder feels disposed to permit his attention to be absorbed by the subject: the greater the triumph of an art which subdues the subject and maintains her supremacy over the spectator. The spectator or listeners mind should remain perfectly free and unaffected; it should come out of the enchanting sphere of the artist as it left the hands of the maker, pure and perfect. The most frivolous subject should be treated in a manner which dispose us to pass from at once to the most sober earnestness; on the other hand, the most serious subject should be treated so as not to incapacitate us from exchanging it without an effort for the lightest play. Arts like tragedy, calculated to arouse powerful passional emotions, are no objection to this doctrine; for in the first place, they are not altogether free arts, since they are designed to attain a special end, the pathetic; and in the second place, no true critic will deny that works even of this class are the more perfect, the freer they leave the mind even in the highest tumult of passional excitement. There is a fine art of the passions; but a fine passionate art is a contradiction, for the inevitable effect of the beautiful is freedom from passions. No less contradictory is the conception of a fine didactic, or a fine moral art, for nothing conflicts more with the idea of beauty than the effort of giving to the mind a definite tendency.

Schiller, Friedrich, On the Sublime, Leipzig, 1801. A nineteenth-century translation.

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