A for aesthetics

A for aesthetics

Aesthetics is for artists, what ornithology is for the birds. Barnett Newman

You are a beautiful bird in beautiful territory and might suppose that the sensation of beauty is integral to what humans think of as culture. However, aesthetics has become a philosophical enterprise and no longer a natural embodied adventure. Alexander Baumgarten in Reflections on Poetry (1735) introduced the term aesthetic as a philosophy of art that took seriously the “science of sensuous cognition”, something Western thought, since Plato and Christianity, had been antagonistic to. Since then aesthetics has developed cluster of meanings, but no spine of a definition. In the last hundred years, since Picasso’s ‘Demoiselles d’ Avignon’ (1907) and Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ (1917), art practitioners and critics have lost interest in beauty and mimesis of the perceivable world. In a 2004 survey, 500 ‘art experts’ voted the ‘Bedfordshire’ model porcelain urinal “the most influential modern art work of all time” and ‘Demoiselles’ came second.

Art has substantially fashioned our emotional and intellectual idea of natural environments; experiences of both nature and art can shape rich aesthetic sensibilities.[i] It is no longer tenable to suggest that beauty is the essence of art, contemporary art favours theory and tracing avant-garde discourses. Arthur Danto points out the obvious that most 20th C art is not beautiful and states: “I regard the discovery that something can be good art without being beautiful as one of the great conceptual clarifications of 20th-century philosophy of art.” However, like Nehamas, he argues beauty remains an important term as it permeates our living experiences. Nehamas argues the love of beauty is still vital, that aesthetic sensibility is not the outcome of Kantian detached judgement, but a propensity to desire for beautiful objects.[ii]

What is art was subject to a court case, Marcel Duchamp imported Brancusi’s sculpture ‘Bird in Flight’ in October 1926 for an exhibition at the Brummer Gallery and Edward Steichen had purchased it, but on entering the US the slender abstract soaring work was classed as not art, being not representational and thus subject to 40% import duty. Customs released the work for the exhibition but under the rubric, ‘Kitchen Utensils and Hospital Supplies’. Steichen brought the 1928 court case Brancusi vs. The United States to challenge this ruling.

Judge Waite: What makes you call it a bird, does it look like a bird to you?
Steichen: It does not look like a bird but I feel that it is a bird, it is characterized by the artist as a bird.

Judge Young: If you saw it in the forest you would not take a shot at it?
Steichen: No, your honour.[iii]

“A mechanic cannot make beautiful work . . . he cannot conceive of the object, that si the whole point, that is the difference between a mechanic and an artist.”

The question then arose was it original or a copy?

Brancusi sent a sworn affidavit via the American Consulate: “I conceived it to be created in bronze and I made a plaster model of it. This I gave to the founder, together with the formula for the bronze alloy and other necessary indications. When the roughcast was delivered to me, I had to stop up the air holes and the core hole, to correct the various defects, and to polish the bronze with files and very fine emery. All this I did myself, by hand; this artistic finishing takes a very long time and is equivalent to beginning the whole work over again. I did not allow anybody else to do any of this finishing work, as the subject of the bronze was my own special creation and nobody but myself could have carried it out to my satisfaction.”

Judges Waite and Young found that the bronze was original art: “The object now under consideration is shown to be for purely ornamental purposes, its use being the same as any piece of sculpture of the old masters. It is beautiful and symmetrical in outline, and while difficulty might be encountered in associating it with a bird, it is nevertheless pleasing to look at and highly ornamental.” [iv] Note that Duchamp’s Bedfordshire urinal would not have passed the test.

One impediment to bridging sciences and arts is that Greek aiesthesis was opposed to noesis (conceptual thought) and poeisis (the making of objects). This separation was a mistake, one of many unfortunate distinctions that developed in the Platonic, Christian and Cartesian tradition of Western Homo sapiens that still divides embodied wholes into parts. Reductionism usefully explains certain causal functions, but is much weaker at understanding ecological relationships.

The lyrebird sings the most complex birdsong of all, from the Musicians Cottage just west of you, to my ears squawking more than singing for most of his cycle, but its most complex sections derive from your song.[v] Let us be open to experiences.

Matei Calinescu thinks that at the turn of the 18thC the myth of progress came under attack and even as a cruel myth Romanticism’s critique of progress led to Modernism and, “a major cultural shift from a time-honoured aesthetics of permanence, based on a belief in an unchanging and transcendental ideal of beauty, to an aesthetics of transitoriness and immanence, whose central values are change and novelty.” [vi]

Art has been elevated to the spiritual in cultures without religion. Pierre Bourdieu notes that art and the pleasure art provokes “is predisposed to become a symbol of moral excellence and a measure of man’s capacity for sublimation which defines the truly human man. The culture which results from this sacred division is sacred.”[vii]

“I am trying to reclaim the defining tradition of Greek philosophy, philosophy as techne tou biou–the art of living. Though “art” is not a particularly accurate translation of the Greek techne, which is not art in the sense of our “fine art,” but something between art and craft. The art of living is turning your life into a coherent object, into something with style whatever the recalcitrant facts, to weave everything into a pattern, a text.” Alexander Nehamas[viii]

Theodor Adorno thought modern art recognises the world through sensory encounters with objects, reclaiming what the everyday has lost from rationalism and abstraction, being in touch with the world, with techne and with particular things. The fragmentation of modern life found in the division of labour, in emergence of the disciplines, and with Modernism and the modern frantic world of montage, speed and mass reproduction. J. M. Bernstein paraphrases Adorno: “Art’s autonomy, however, is not the achievement of art’s securing for itself a space free from the interference of social or political utility, but a consequence and so an expression of the fragmentation and reification of modern life.” [ix]

Art must be more than making an object, it must be a node for experiences, feeling, ideas and environments. Feeling is a political act.[x] I am thinking right now of Nicolas Bourriaud’s term, “Relational Art” (or ‘Relational Aesthetics’) “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.”[xi] From my perspective artworks cannot be valued on the basis of their representation or energising of inter-human relations even if it is a democratisation of art practice, but environmental ones too.

A natural aesthetic (both of art working with nature, and appreciation of nature) is one key to conserving natural environments. J Baird Callicot believes Aldo Leopold’s land aesthetic provides, “a seminal autonomous natural aesthetic theory” that may help to awaken our aesthetic appreciation of nature, and claims it to be, “the only genuinely autonomous natural aesthetic in Western philosophical literature: It does not treat natural beauty as subordinate to or derivative from artefactual beauty”. He also thinks it may help to awaken our aesthetic appreciation of nature, vital since “our conservation and management decisions have been motivated by aesthetic rather than ethical values, by beauty instead of duty.”[xii]

Birdwatching permits one to practice patience, attention, perceptual acuity, ecological pattern making, memory, mimicry, hunting (without bloodshed), imagination and intentionality of consciousness. It is an excuse to be out in the bush or a garden or park, a flaneur’s delight of unexpected sights and a search for beautiful objects, living things with habits, plumage and the ability to fly – they are miracles. [xiii] Animals are beautiful, birds especially and this male is no exception. A sharp flight attentive to its domain, blue-black sheen with a fiery red eye.

The car has changed how we experience natural environments, as well as polluted and reduced those environments. Alexander Wilson has even noted how ‘aircon’ in cars has increased visual emphasis, and limited other senses.[xiv] Wendell Berry warns, ‘You will have to get out of your space vehicle, out of your car, off your horse, and walk over the ground.’[xv] Sometimes this isn’t enough. Thoreau wrote, ‘We need the tonic of wildness, – to wade sometimes in marshes . . . to smell the whispering sedge . . . We can never have enough of Nature.’[xvi] Gary Snyder writes, “No way to travel off the trail but to dive in: down on your hands and knees on the crunchy manzanita leafcover and crawl around between the trunks… You can smell the fall mushrooms when crawling. It’s not so easy to walk upright through the late twentieth century mid-elevation Sierra forests . . .”[xvii]

Then there’s the emotive intensity humans feel, a sensibility Walter Pater cultivated – “the love of arts for arts sake”: “With this sense of the splendor of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch.” In his conclusion to The Renaissance, so influential on Oscar Wilde and other aesthetes, he talked of “that continual vanishing away, that strange, perpetual, weaving and unweaving of ourselves.” [xviii]

Herder opposed many Romantics attitude to art as above the everyday, art was not just form but had moral urges and responsibilities and could be a powerful tool of social and political change, artists have a responsibility to communicate with the public (and with birds).

For a healthy planet, I believe our notions of art and aesthetics must expand from Gabon figures or Grebo masks and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, or Bedfordshire porcelain and to natural aesthetics.

In a key paper on aesthetics, Allen Carlson contrasts formal properties with expressive properties, arguing that the latter are more important in aesthetic appreciation of natural environments.[xix] He also notes the multi-sensory experiences of nature aesthetics compared to art.[xx] Carlson refers to his position as ‘cognitive naturalism’. He

How do we stop knowing that Picasso is the greatest artist of the twentieth century and start noticing that the twentieth century has put out the stars over our heads and drowned the warbling of the birds?

Robert Dixon[xxi]


Or A for Alphabet – I can’t decide

We are the culture of the alphabet, and the alphabet itself could be seen as a very potent form of magic . . . as soon as we look at these printed letters on the page we see what they say. They speak to us. That is not so different from a Hopi elder stepping out of her pueblo and focusing her eyes on a stone and hearing the stone speak. . .

David Abram [xxii]
Trees once corresponded to symbols,

Celtic runes to letters of the alphabet:

Beth                 B          Birch

Nion                 N          Ash

Fearn                F          Alder

Saille                S          Willow.


That is to say,
a tree can ‘speak’ or ‘write’
the story of how things are
but not in your place.[xxiii]

You don’t forget to look into the trees, you know the Pittosporum jutting above your bower, its story of ants and caterpillar, sits sweet creamy flowers in spring and its berries now hardening to an orange capsule, two dozen sticky red seeds in each fruit waiting for your lunch and your excretions, spreading too easily. It has become W for weed, its dense canopy and thick leaf litter stiflling plants, reducing lizard and bird habitat, sparse-perfect for your ceremonial court.

Am I expecting you to run before you can crawl? Learning to read and write is a slow painful “unnatural act”[xxiv], but being able to identify the letters of the alphabet is a key start. [xxv] Though I have no wish to downplay the richness of oral cultural literacy(ies) and or birdsong.[xxvi]

Should I have started with A for apple? Or explain how cuneiform writing, created in mainly monosyllabic and homophonic Sumerian language, adapted to the multisyllabic Acadian language, by developing a syllabic system. The Greek alphabet was adapted from Phoenician system which had little use for vowels, and used symbols representing Phoenician consonants that did not occur in Greek represent Greek vowels.[xxvii] The magic of the alphabet is tied to the magic of memory, the ars of poetry in oral societies was closely tied to both. M should be for magic/memory.

Havelock’s theory of alphabeticisation and . . .

Gregory Ulmer links the concept to changes in thought: ‘Analytic thinking in general, and philosophy in particular, emerged in the process of thinking about a specific experience – justice – within the new alphabetic apparatus. Justice was the first concept, the first practice, to pass from the oral mode of representation (dramatised as an event, performed as the actions of a hero) to a literate mode (abstract definition couched in a logical syntax). [xxviii]


[i] I disagree that a natural aesthetics which is multidimensional, opportunistic and vast is impoverished on an intellectual level, lacking multiple levels of conceptual analysis, and artistic intentionality. George Dickie, Art and the Aesthetic, NY: Cornell UP, 1974, p173-4. Arthur Danto, ‘Aesthetic Responses and Works of Art’, Philosophic Exchange, Vol 3, 1981, p3-22

[ii] Arthur C. Danto, The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art ,. Open Court Publishing Co., 2003. Alexander Nehamas, Only the Promise of Happiness, Princeton U.P. 2007.

[iii] St&eacutephanie Giry on the trial that redefined the meaning of art. http://www.legalaffairs.org/issues/September-October-2002/story_giry_sepoct2002.msp

[iv] Thomas Munro, in ‘The Idea of the Visual Arts’, from Philip Alperson (ed), The Philosophy of the Visual Arts, Oxford University Press, New York, 1992, p20.

[v] “Lyrebirds choose a specific fragment of another’s tune and shape it into their own. They have a fine memory and a distinct aesthetic sense to know exactly what part of another bird’s song they want to use.” David Rothenberg, 2005, p213.

[vi] Matei Calinescu, Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-garde, Decadence, Kitsch, (1977) Duke Uni Press, 1987, p3.

[vii] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction. A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, Routeledge, London, 1979,p6.

[viii] Alexander Nehamas interviewed by David Carrier, Bomb Magazine, 65, Fall, 1998, p36-41.

[ix] J. M. Bernstein, Against Voluptuous Bodies: Late Modernism andthe Meaning of Painting, Stanford University Press: Stanford,CA, 2006, p3.

[x] Herder thought that for human societies to mature, ‘a common feeling must gradually awaken, so that each can feel itself to be in the place of the other.” See Sonia Sikka, ‘On the Value of Happiness: Herder contra Kant’,Canadian Journal of Philosophy 37.4, 2007, p536.

[xi] Nicolas Bourriaud. Esthétique relationeile (Dijon: Les presses du réel, 1998) Relational Aesthetics, trans. David Macey, 2006, p113.

[xii] J. Baird Callicott, “The Land Aesthetic”, Renewable Resources Journal 10, 1992, p12-17

[xiii] I am an amateur. Niko Tinbergen was a professional who watched animals in the wild, his colleague Konrad Lorenz watched them in cages. Tinbergen was gaoled by the Nazis, Lorenze was a Nazi sympathiser. They shared a Nobel Prize for revealing ways animal behaviour is partly genetically determined. Tinbergen spent as a young man in Greenland, where Inuit hunters taught him to regard animals as objects; he taught Richard Dawkins to view animals as survival machines.

[xiv] ‘The other senses were pushed further to the margins of human experience as nature came to play a role in human culture that was at once more restricted and infinitely expanded.’ Alexander Wilson, The Culture of Nature: North American Landscape from Disney to the Exxon Valdez, Blackwells, 1991, p37.

[xv] Wendell Berry, ‘Out of Your Car, Off your Horse’, in Anderson & Runciman Eds, A Forest of Voices, Mayfield Publishing, 1995, p698. Alexander Wilson has even noted how ‘aircon’ in cars has increases visual emphasis, ‘The other senses were pushed further to the margins of human experience as nature came to play a role in human culture that was at once more restricted and infinitely expanded.’ Alexander Wilson,The Culture of Nature: North American Landscape from Disney to the Exxon Valdez,Blackwells, 1991, p37.

[xvi] From his essay ‘Spring’,

[xvii] ‘So people tend to stay on the old logging roads or the trails, and this is their way of experiencing the forest. Manzanita and ceanothus fields, or the brushy groundcover and under-story parts of the forest, are left in wild peace.’ Gary Snyder, ‘Crawling’, Wild Earth 3(3):6, 1993.

[xviii] Walter Pater, Conclusion to Studies in the History of the Renaissance, Studies in the History of the Renaissance, 1873. Macmillan, p207-213. Pater suppressed the “Conclusion” in following editions, as, “it might possibly mislead some of those young men into whose hands it might fall.”(third edition, 1888).

[xix] Allen Carlson, ‘Formal Qualities in the Natural Environment’, Journal of Aesthetic Education, 13, 1979, p99-114, reprinted chap 3 Aesthetics and the Environment: The Appreciation of Nature, Art and Architecture, Routledge, 2000.

[xx] See also ‘Nature, Aesthetic Appreciation, and Knowledge’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 53, 1995, p393-400. ‘Appreciating Art and Appreciating Nature’ in Landscape, Natural Beauty, and the Arts, Eds., S. Kemal and I. Gaskell, Cambridge UP, 1993, p199-227 – Chapter 7 of Aesthetics and the Environment: The Appreciation of Nature, Art and Architecture, London: Routledge, 2000. For further discussion see Special Issue: Environmental Aesthetics, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 56, 1998, Eds., A. Berleant and A. Carlson.

[xxi] Robert Dixon, The Baumgarten Corruption, Pluto Press, 1995, p40-44, p55-6.

[xxii] The Ecology of Magic: An Interview with David Abram with Scott London, radio series, Insight & Outlook, 1999. http://www.scottlondon.com/insight/scripts/abram.html.

[xxiii] Letters once randomly assigned are now fixtures like our avenues of road signs, anecdotes crowding the white line; we speak of such things rarely despite our irresistible continual irritable movement; you call and a crow flies the least distance.

[xxiv] Gough, P.B., & Hillinger, M.L. (1980). Learning to read: An unnatural act. Bulletin of the Orton Society, 30, p179–196.

[xxv] Jeni L. Riley, ‘The ability to label the letters of the alphabet at school entry: a discussion on its value’, Journal of Research in Reading, Volume 19, Issue 2, Page 87-101, Sep 1996.

[xxvi]  “Of course, reading and writing are necessary for surviving in the modern environment; however, no attention is given to the oral cultural literacy(ies) of our people, even as some of these have been documented and continue to be gathered as part of the cultural heritage, revival, recovery, and restoration movement of Indigenous peoples” Ngapare K. Hopa of Te Wananga o Aotearoa in New Zealand, February 6, 2006. Mary Eunice Romero-Little, ‘Honoring Our Own: Rethinking Indigenous Languages and Literacy’, Anthropology & Education Quarterly, Volume 37, Issue 4, Page 399-402

[xxvii] Laurent Pflughaup excavates the evolution, meaning and form of all 26 letters of the Roman alphabet through paleography, phonetics and graphic design. Laurent Pflughaup, Letter by letter : an alphabetical miscellany,  Princeton Architectural Press, 2008.

[xxviii] Gregory Ulmer, ‘The Miranda Warnings’ in George Landow, Ed., Hyper/Text/Theory, John Hopkins U, 1994, p347.

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