The Beauty of Nature II

Offering an example of standing near a waterfall, Noel Carroll argues the experience “does not require any special scientific knowledge,” that it may only require our sense of how small we are. He also says we are “able to intuit the immense force,” (172) and goes on to conclude that “the cognitive component of our emotional response does the job of fixing the aspects of nature that are relevant to appreciation… Carlson sometimes describes his preferred source of knowledge as issuing from common sense/science. So perhaps… the operative cognitions are rooted in commonsense knowledge of nature.” (175)

In other words, we may simply look at our common sense to know how to appreciate nature.

I’m reading a pair of essays from Arguing About Art, which discuss the problem of appreciating nature aesthetically. In the second essay, Carroll explains that Carlson’s environmental model (discussed in my previous post) is in line with cultural theories, which makes aesthetic judgments based on cultural practices and forms, such as artistic genres, styles and movements. When we create the work we determine what the terms are. With nature, however, there is no intent to be beautiful, so any aesthetic judgment can be neither true nor false.

If we discover categories in nature using natural history and science, as opposed to subjectively determining what they are, we can solve this problem and be objective about aesthetic judgments of nature as well.

II objectivist epistemology

Carlson’s environmental model sets a standard for other models of aesthetic appreciation to be objective.

Carroll argues that an emotional response can be objective, because we can assess whether or not it is appropriate and therefore open for judgment. He uses the example of a person being afraid of a tank because it is dangerous. If the person does not believe tanks are dangerous, then fear is not an appropriate response. If the person does believe tanks are dangerous, then it is. Going back to the waterfall, he argues “… being excited by the grandeur of something that one believes to be of a large scale is an appropriate emotional response.” If the belief in the large scale of the waterfall is true for others as well, then the emotional response of being excited by the grandeur of the waterfall is an objective one. (178)

In other words, if when using one’s eyes, you call it grand and others also call it grand, then it is objectively grand.

I think, by defining what moves us, given a specific context of time and place in nature, we can determine what is reasonable but not what is objective.

The most I can offer is my own testimony. I can say I see beauty in the sheer scale of a waterfall, of a sequoia, of the side of a mountain spanning the viewable horizon. There is beauty in the strength of its durability.

I cannot explain why this is beautiful. I cannot say whether my feelings for nature are a result of previous responses to experiences that took place before I responded to the natural environment or if my natural surroundings have intrinsic beauty.

What if a person does not see a tank as dangerous? Would one’s lack of fear be an appropriate response to standing in front of a tank? What if somebody is not moved by the comparison of a waterfall to oneself? In both cases, I would say he or she is being unreasonable vis-a-vis what is a normal response given a specific subject to respond to.  

III art as experience

Carroll helps us focus on what makes the waterfall an aesthetic experience. If somebody argues that it is not, because the galaxy by comparison is much larger, we could argue that comparison would not be appropriate. Instead, we should compare it to human scale, because that is where the aesthetic lies: we are moved by comparing one’s own size to that of the waterfall.

Carroll also offers the example of how children may be “amused by capers of Commedia dell’arte but who know nothing of its tradition or its place among other artistic genres, styles and categories.” (174) He anticipates that Carlson would argue that these children are not appreciating the capers on a deep level and offers a rebuttal: “… what makes an appreciative response to nature shallow or deep is obscure. … But if the depth of a response is figured in terms of our intensity of involvement and its ‘thorough-goingness,’ then there is no reason to suppose that being moved by nature constitutes a shallower form of appreciation than does appreciating nature scientifically. The Kantian apprehension of sublimity — and its corresponding aesthetic judgment — though it may last for a delimited duration, need not be any less deep than a protracted teleological judgment.” (180)

Yes, an emotional response can be deep and profound, but I find myself going down a line of thought I cannot resolve and which Carroll stops short of.

I think it is important for a discussion about aesthetic appreciation of nature that we be able to explain why something is beautiful.

But how do we do this without reducing it to one’s psychology. To explain this cognitively seems to miss the point of having a discussion about aesthetic appreciation. You would be looking at it not as something that is beautiful but as something that is psychological. Looking at it scientifically, you would no longer be seeing the beauty the appreciator is seeing.

If you don’t see what is beautiful, how do you judge that it is beautiful? We could be calling something beautiful when it is not.

IV

The debate over whether or not beauty is intrinsic to what is beautiful is an old one, but it’s at the base of this dialogue. By putting art into categories, we put the judgment of beauty in our own terms. If there are no terms, we are again left with the subject being judged vis-a-vis one’s response and this is subjective. One’s natural surroundings may or may not have intrinsic beauty. It may be reasonable to say that it does, but it’s up to the individual to see that beauty.

This is a problem for the field of aesthetics if we are to maintain that the judgment of what is beautiful must be objective.

I would like to say the viability of the art world relies on consensus, much like how the bell curve is based on what is statistically acknowledged, that the consensus is based on what is reasonable. But of course, this is art. There are niche categories. There is also the driving force of art as currency, either cultural or monetary. It’s driven by psychology as much as history or provenance.1 Overall, I cannot say much, but I can say we engage more honestly without prescribed notions of what is beautiful.

When we find ourselves in natural surroundings, we can enjoy what we enjoy.

I agree with Carlson, that we may be missing so much of what there is to appreciate, aesthetically, if only we were aware of all there is, and we must be objective to have some basis for holding a dialogue about what we see. But I also agree with Carroll, that it is not necessary to be aware of all there is to appreciate and be profoundly affected by one’s natural surroundings.

Why somebody finds something beautiful is elusive, but based on my personal response to my natural surroundings, I can honestly say I have seen beauty.


Carroll, Noel. “On Being Moved By Nature: Between Religion and Natural History.” Neill, Alex, and Ridley, Aaron, editors. Arguing About Art: Contemporary Philosophical Debates, 2nd ed, Routledge, 2002, pp 167 -184.

1 I’m talking about the viability of the art world and not the viability of art or whether or not there is beauty to see.

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…

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“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.”

Van Gogh and Nature

Van Gogh: Master Draughtsman by Sjraar Van Heugten

Looking at my previous post, I realize I may have been looking for discussions about style in a book that focuses on technique. On the other hand, I’m not sure you can discuss a person’s style without reducing it to an artist’s technique or without resorting to another approach.

For Van Gogh, I am inclined to look through the lens of psychology. Van Gogh’s father was a pastor and Van Gogh himself wanted to join the clergy for a short time, and knowing this, I cannot help but interpret his drawings as being imbued with religious or spiritual connotations.1 

He may have also suffered from manic-depressive disorder, and maybe I’m letting this color my view of him as well, but I think it’s thus fitting that he personified his surroundings. When he described the fields in Drenthe at sunset, he was rather poetic.

“… ‘when a poor little figure is moving through the twilight — when that vast sun-scorched earth stands out darkly against the lilac hues of the evening sky, and the very last little dark-blue line at the horizon separates the earth from the sky — that same irritatingly monotonous spot can be as sublime as a Jules Dupre.’”2 (47)

Everything is animated and I think how he saw the world informed him of how he conveyed the beauty of it to his audience.

When looking at his drawing, Pollard Birches (1884), I was inclined to look too closely at the details and glossed over how the lines work in concert, how they move the eye up from the ground to the sky. He struck a very neat or ‘perfect’ balance between the horizontal lines keeping one’s view of the trees steady and their branches reaching vertically above and between the horizontal line of the horizon and the lines of the grass guiding one’s eyes away from the base of the drawing toward the branches of the trees.

Meanwhile, there are two human figures standing apart from each other while among the trees. The trees are more than them, while they and the trees are all apart of their greater, natural surroundings.

Heugten describes Pollard Birches as “one of the best examples of the soulful character Van Gogh was capable of injecting into his landscapes…; he felt a great sympathy for these pruned trees with their striking, somewhat melancholy appearance.” (61)

It’s hard to say what is “soulful,” visually, and what is melancholy, but if I do not think of the work in a way that leads me back to thinking about people or the artist himself or myself, I lose sight of a major part of what’s beautiful about the work .

When we are in nature, we can see that aesthetic appreciation need not be in terms of oneself or ourselves. It can be about our natural habitat, about the ‘other’ beyond oneself, beyond human civilization. When looking at Van Gogh’s drawings, however, I am not appreciating nature but what the artist wanted to express with his depictions of nature. Maybe how he felt about the trees or his relationship to them or maybe how he saw himself vis a vis his own life.

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1 I wish I could compare this to a less biased view but I had known this about him before seeing his drawings for the first time.

2 This is from a letter Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, but I’m quoting it second hand from Heugten’s book. Heugten in turn took quotes from De brievan van Vincent van Gogh, ed Han van Crimpen and Monique Berends-Albert, 4 vols., The Hague 1990; and The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, 3 vols., Greenwich (Conn.), 1958

Heugten, Sjraar, et al. Van Gogh: master Draughtsman. Harry N Abrams, Inc, 2005, pp 47, 61

First Impressions of Van Gogh

In Van Gogh: Master Draughtsman, Sjraar Van Heugten describes the techniques Van Gogh used for his drawings, but he stops short of elaborating on his style.

He describes Van Gogh’s work based on people at the Dutch Reformed Old People’s Home as “large pencil drawings in a vigorous, angular style. He worked with carpenters’ pencils, which have more solid leads than ordinary pencils. The wide piece of graphite in the middle of these pencils allowed him to draw both broad and narrow lines. He liked to press hard, and he also liked to work with wet paper, so he used torchon, a strong, rough watercolour paper. This method gave to many of his figures a power of expression that does justice to the model’s age and character.” (33 – 36)

I am prompted to ask, What about this style “does justice to the model’s age and character?” Why are thick lines suitable for depicting Van Gogh’s models? To be fair, I do agree that there is a “power of expression” but maybe only because both the views of the author and myself are seen through a modern lens.

He again uses the word “angular” to describe drawings inspired by illustrations Van Gogh had collected from periodicals and says “they were studies meant to represent certain types, not characteristic portrayals of specific people. (37)

By “certain types,” Heugten is referring to people who were struggling to get by, financially. Like the illustrations, Van Gogh rendered many of his drawings in black and white. He also experimented with materials and “discovered that milk… can take the shine out of graphite and give it a velvety black quality, an effect that he greatly appreciated and that was well suited to the realistic drawings he wanted to make.” (39)

Why was this “well suited to realistic drawings?”

I haven’t read much in terms of criticism or interpretation of Van Gogh’s work, but even so I have some bias. Here are some first impressions of Van Gogh’s work.

First, color can create a particular mood. Bright colors can make a picture look more cheerful and distract or make a viewer feel something they may not have felt otherwise. For example, I don’t think many people would disagree when I say that Van Gogh’s paintings are full of vitality, due to the contrasting color schemes.1  

So it’s interesting how black and white can create a more somber mood, somber being more fitting for a scene with somebody or a group of people living in poverty. I can’t say much else except that, to look at color, maybe we have to look at one’s psychology.

Like other contrasting colors, the color of the white negative space can make each black mark for the positive space more noticeable. The markings on the page have character and are more easily seen as individual marks. When you see each mark you see how the artist engaged with his materials, and the way an artist marks a page is akin to his hand writing. He may even have some signature moves.

For Van Gogh, it feels like everything wants to be seen: each vigorous mark, each shape and even the gesture or pose of a model.2 Or am I, by “vigorous,” assuming too much? Given how much we as an audience like to emphasize that Van Gogh was prone to mania, am I betrayed by some bias and seeing each mark coming from more angst than careful deliberation?

Maybe I can say that despite his careful deliberation, his angst shows through.

Overall, how Van Gogh marked the page speaks of Van Gogh… and he in turn spoke for the models.

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1 Like Iconography

2 This was in line with contemporary experiments with color

Van Heugten, Sjraar. Van Gogh: Master Draughtsman. Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 2005, pp 33 – 39.