The Beauty of Nature

Arguing About Art: Contemporary Philosophical Debates, 2nd ed, edited by Neill, Alex, et al

Not to get too sidetracked, but I started looking into the subject of Nature as a form of art and found two essays in Arguing About Art: Contemporary Philosophical Debates. The book was published in 2002, but I think it serves as a good starting point for further reading. The editors preface the two essays with a framework of longstanding questions in the philosophy of art: “What exactly is it to appreciate something aesthetically? How are appreciation and understanding connected? Is aesthetic appreciation and judgement fundamentally [subjective], or is it open to assessment in terms of rationality and truth?”1 (154)

I

Let me approach this on an emotional level.

Imagine you are on the beach or on a walking path in a national forest or any location which you might describe as being in nature. What are you feeling? Is it awe? Or would you say it’s a connection you’re having with the earth? I ask because, when reading responses to similar questions online and elsewhere, I often see the words “awe” and “connection” in the description of how one is feeling.

When I ask myself the same question, I want to say I feel an expansiveness. I do feel awe and wonder, but that is a response to how obviously small I am when compared to what I’m trying to see in my mind’s eye. I believe I am always assessing or judging in some way what I see, even if I don’t intend to. When it comes to nature, how am I to judge what extends farther than my eyes can see?

Webster’s 10th collegiate edition defines aesthetic as “of, relating to, or dealing with aesthetics or the beautiful.” Do we appreciate nature for its beauty? (Not that we can really define “beauty.”)   

When I look at the colors of the horizon or the colors and textures of a rose, I can easily say I am moved by the colors. When I look at the bark of a tree, I can appreciate aesthetically the flow of the lines and how they work visually in uniform.

But when I am in close proximity to a running river, I have an emotional response to its appearance as well as its sound and the feel of the wind coming off its surface if not the smooth, cold tumble of its rolling waves. I am also in awe of its expanse and the idea of its coordination and interactions with other elements in nature. Even though I cannot see everything that happens, I have an idea of it being greater than myself and beyond myself, and I respond emotionally to this idea.

So… Is the idea beautiful? Or do we value expansiveness and connectivity not for their aesthetic value but for other reasons?

In the essay, “Appreciation and the natural Environment,” Allen Carlson discusses how the knowledge one has of one’s natural surroundings informs one’s aesthetic appreciation of nature. Noel Carroll responds to this with the essay, “On Being Moved by Nature: Between Religion and Natural History,” in which he argues that Carlson neglects to acknowledge a more immediate and subjective response one might have.

II

First Carlson addresses how traditional approaches to art, as object and scene (EG as with a landscape painting), are inappropriate for one’s approach to aesthetically appreciating nature.  

I am admittedly guilty of taking home seashells from the beach and later finding that they lost their luster when dry and no longer on the beach. I’d wanted to take home the experience of being on the beach by having a piece of it while at home, to respond to it emotionally. It didn’t work.

The constant ebb and flow of the ocean hydrated them and their gloss was part of the shimmer of their surroundings. When I took them home, they were no longer apart of something that is greater than both myself and the shells themselves.

Carlson goes further and addresses the problem of what he calls a “landscape model,” which “requires us to view the environment as if it were a static representation which is essentially ‘two dimensional.’ It requires the reduction of the environment to a scene or view. But what must be kept in mind is that the environment is not a scene, not a representation, not static, and not two dimensional.” (160)

But besides being lazy and resorting to models we are familiar with, might there be another reason for why we turn to them?

Carlson refers to ideas from John Dewey’s Art as Experience and argues that “anything which is aesthetically appreciated must be obtrusive, it must be foreground but it need not be an object and it need not be seen (or only seen).” (162) But how do you have something in one’s foreground and not see it as an object or landscape?

If we have only a raw experience, with everything in the foreground, we may lack an appreciation for the experience. For the answer, Carlson again refers to Dewey and argues that appreciation requires our knowledge and intelligence to transform raw experience into something “determinate, harmonious, and meaningful.” (163)

It allows us to know what is appropriate to focus on and even how to limit what we include as apart of the aesthetic experience. Moreover, while we might have different approaches for different works of man-made art, we might approach different types of environments differently.

“It seems that we must survey a prairie environment, looking at the subtle contours of the land, feeling the wind blowing across the open space, and smelling the mix of prairie grasses and flowers. But such an act of aspection has little place in a dense forest environment. Here we must examine and scrutinize, inspecting the detail of the forest floor, listening carefully for the sounds of birds and smelling carefully for the scent of spruce and pine.” (164)

To be continued…

__________________________

“Aesthetic, Adj. (1a).” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed., Merriam-Webster, 1996, p. 19.

Neill, Alex, and Ridley, Aaron, editors. Arguing About Art: Contemporary Philosophical Debates, 2nd ed, Routledge, 2002, pp 154, 155 – 165.

1 The book says “subject.”

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