Taking the scenic route

Can we use established theories of aesthetics to guide our thoughts on how we view nature? Despite the gulf between the created and the natural there are models that seek to draw upon conventions in aesthetic appreciation of art and use them with aesthetic appreciation of the environment. It seems that our standard approach: “we know what to appreciate” because “works of art [are] our own creations” and “we have made them for the purpose”. The same cannot be said for the natural environment.

How and what to aesthetically appreciate within nature is, perhaps governed, at least prima facie, by established schemes of art appreciation.

Object Model

Illustrated via appreciation of non-representational sculpture, for example Miró’s Chicago. Appreciating this abstract sculpture involves valuing the object as a self-contained aesthetic unit, further it is similar to the natural environment because like nature it does not need to represent anything further, because we also take nature as we find it as an object in the world.

For example, consider a conch shell. The object model holds we appreciate the shell in the same way as Miró’s Chicago. The object model requires removing the conch shell from its context, and then we are free to dwell on its design qualities. Motivations for this model of appreciation revolve around the fact that it incorporates traditional aesthetic approaches and fits in with convention because natural objects like driftwood or conch shells are often found and appreciated in our homes.

Issues with the object model

The “indeterminate form” of natural environments essentially how can we pick out one object, when it is so intrinsically linked to its surroundings?

A potential reply would be to say that there is a distinction between the natural environment and objects within the natural environment; we can see that determinate objects make up the indeterminate. Though, calling upon this distinction reveals some problems. Advocates of the model have to decide between conferring status of non-representational sculpture to a natural object, which requires removal from the natural environment. However this is not useful when we consider that the objects have developed out of the elements. We can suggest that environment is aesthetically relevant to the objects – so to remove it results in miss-appreciation.

The alternative is to leave the object within the environment, but this is also problematic for the model, for the basic reason that we cannot deploy the object model if there is no one specific object identified. This is the dilemma that the model faces.

The Landscape model

This model is illustrated by landscape painting; we are given initial guidance of aesthetic appreciation of nature because we are told to view the natural landscape as if it were a landscape painting. It requires dividing up the environment to post-card friendly scenes. Shepard argues the model is so misguided that it makes him doubt the possibility of aesthetic appreciation at all (Shepard, 1973, pp147-148). He reasons it reduces the countryside to an art gallery, he even asserts that ‘scenery’ only came with the advent of art museums (Shepard, 2002, p119). It is at this point we can bring in the ethical worries associated with this model.

Rees argues a product of the Romantic Movement, or our “picturesque phase” was confirmation of the “anthropocentrism” of nature in that we considered it “exists to please as well as to serve us” (Rees, 1975 p312). Kant claims we should never assume nature was created for our own pleasure (The Critique of Judgement, §58). Smith and Smith further damage the model when they say that appreciating nature as a landscape relies on the rules found in art appreciation – “unity, balance, integration, harmony or proportion” (Smith and Smith, 1970, p131), which suggests nature has a “deliberate design” which puts a mental frame, “around a portion of the natural scenery” we have aesthetic appreciation of a “segment” (ibid). There is too much reliance on transference of these traits from the art world to the natural world.

That being said if such transference was acceptable, then supposedly “aesthetic appreciation of the environment would then take care of itself” (ibid) but there is something unappealing about this, Smith and Smith identify it as arrogance. Experiencing nature as an artistic category supposes nature is arranged by what we find aesthetically pleasing, for them this is morally suspect, so we should reject the landscape model.

Although possible to develop these moral concerns, the model may be too weak aesthetically. Simply put, the landscape model renders nature a static, two-dimensional scene that requires projecting man-made aspects onto something natural. This is why it fails because; because this is not what nature is.

The Environmental model

The environmental model avoids the above problem because it focuses on the natural environment primarily. However, what is meant by ‘environment’ in the first place. Is it simply an “unobtrusive background”, and it is only when attention is paid to natural objects we remove it from its ‘unobtrusive’ state, placing the specific object in an obtrusive foreground. To avoid neglecting elements of the environment, even the “unobtrusive” needs to be appreciated This involves all our senses; experiencing it as raw sensation, and then one step further “knowledge” of the aesthetic experience shaped by relevant scientific knowledge, to stop our aesthetic appreciation being a mess of raw senses.

In this way there is no limitations to appreciation to the environment, and are only governed by our limitations to our scientific knowledge. For example, when observing Mt. Blanc, I know to ignore litter because knowledge of mountains informs me that plastic is not part of a natural environment.

Knowledge is the crux of the environmental model; knowledge informs our appreciation of the natural environment in a similar way to how knowledge of art history is used in appreciation of artworks.


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