Q: What or who is Lyotard?
A: Jean Francois Lyotard was a French philosopher/theoretician who wrote about post-structuralist thought, aesthetics, politics and attempted to explain Postmodernity and the sublime.
Q: What is a (the) Sublime?
A: The Sublime in general terms is an effect on the mind usually experienced in the face/knowledge of a force or event that first overwhelms it, threatening annihilation and terror only then to abate and give way to euphoric relief.
Q: Why care about it?
A: Philosophical concerns seem tedious and extraneous to regular life and its problems but they underpin systems of belief that mould and shape societies so should not be ignored or treated with indifference.The ideas embodied in post structural philosophy have made their way into the mainstream consciousness through advertising, art, literature, politics and education systems.
I should say rather, when an idea is finally accepted as "normal" or "everyday" then it is no longer visible or subject to scrutiny. Some ideas "shock" initially and then with persistent re-presentation are eventually subsumed by the mainstream power structures. I cite for example here Piero Manzoni the Italian artist who produced 90 tins of his own excrement as art in 1961, each of which was to be valued at the price of gold which was $37 at the time. Sothebys sold a tin in 2007 for 124.000 Euros proving that a precedent once established carries enormous power over time.
Since then we have seen artists simulate or actually perform acts of socially transgressive behaviour in public including but not limited to, piercing, hanging, humiliation, rape, masturbation, defecation, menstruation, murder and cannibalism with a numb public nervously giving assent or pretending not to see. Manzoni's tins of shit are the little stones that, once thrown at art, released the avalanche of detritus, which followed soon after. This stream of "performance art" wasn't what Jean Francois Lyotard had in mind as examples of the "sublime" but they serve to demonstrate that not all "art experiments" are legitimate or even beneficial though they might provoke shock or intelligent discourse. This kind of art is in fact anti-sublime because after the initial controversy the art points back to the artist (the known) and stasis, instead of the "unpresentable" the unknown, which then leaves us in a perpetual state of "frisson." The power of ideas to change the world is staggering and the "sublime" as a mode of feeling and experience is a "tour de force" capable of altering our perception of life.
Simply put, where the art object no longer bends itself to predetermined models (modes of mimesis) it tries to present the fact that there is an "unpresentable" and no longer imitates nature but according to Edmund Burke, "the actualisation of a figure potentially there in language." What does this mean? We see something, (a painting) we don't know what it is, we look and look but we only see colour and form, maybe line. We start to frame the artwork but conceptually it escapes us! We don't really know what we're looking at. Frustration and maybe anxiety set in and we either dismiss what we see or we continue to wrestle with making meaning. We swing between pain and pleasure as we stand before the art object. This is the "sublime" feeling and it offers hope because it always alludes to the never ending arrival of the thing that is "happening." This is good because it assures us that something is in fact always "happening" which allays our fears of the "last moment" or the time when nothing will happen again! This we intimately know is when obliteration occurs and is an all subliminal pervasive fear. So then, the "sublime" is a majestic aesthetic intervention allowing us an ongoing, open ended dialogue with artworks. This in turn guarantees freedom by perpetually deferring the closing down and control of language systems which can and do subordinate whole societies to terror and extermination. That sounds crazy but don't believe me, check out Hitler's Germany, Mao's China or Pol Pot's Cambodia. Art was the first thing to be destroyed or come under control for devious purposes.
Read more of Lyotard's writing:
The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge pdf
Lessons on The Analytic of The Sublime