BlogNatural Aesthetics

Learning to love beauty and diversity

Learning to love beauty and diversity

The weekend of Feb 20-21 2016

A brief introduction to aesthetics

Shaftesbury’s aesthetic theory depends on his idea that we naturally apprehend beauty in the world.[1] This realist position supposes objects display symmetry, harmony, design, order that we inherently appreciate. Intellectual reflection marries aesthetic experience. Being aware of beauty is being aware that the beautiful object has an order or harmony waiting to be grasped by the mind. The imagination is a catalyst in making this connection, Shaftesbury was an Enlightenment philosopher wedded to reason, but he realised that imagination has an important role. David Hume wrote about taste rather than about objective beauty (through order or harmony). This was partly to explain why people don’t agree on what is beautiful, though he didn’t think beauty exists merely in the mind. Kant criticised Germans who corrupted the sense of aesthetic to mean taste, but had succumbed by 1790.[2]

02 20_Eos and old man's hat
Eos and old man’s hat, Vallla Saturday

But for both Shaftesbury and Hume, whether prioritising intellectual reflection or taste, art was a higher realm than the everyday and its full appreciation confined to an educated elite. (A more contemporary positioning is asking whether the aesthetic response is primarily embodied or in the mind.) Hume noted that we are individuals with different powers of perception, different interests and attention. He thought the faculty of taste had to be developed, the art practiced. I come at this from an interest in attention, how little we give to the natural world – that is the point of Eos

02 20_cirrocumulus cloud1

Our notion of aesthetics has been emasculated since Baumgarten in 1735, and generally ignores the natural (except in discourse of the sublime).[3] Shaftesbury ranked natural beauty above art, but many theorists since have suggested that natural aesthetics is impoverished compare to art, lacking multiple levels of conceptual analysis and artistic intentionality (Dickie[4] & Danto[5]). I would argue that the modalities, strengths and urgencies of natural aesthetics easily make up for any deficits. Allen Carlson emphasises the multi-sensory experiences of nature aesthetics compared to art. He contrasts formal properties with expressive properties, arguing that the latter are more important in aesthetic appreciation of natural environments.[6]

02 20_Eos red

I’ll just note here that Indigenous culture is aesthetic in nature, and the aesthetic networks song, dance, art, everyday living and the Dreaming.

Learning to love

David Hume though we could develop taste and aesthetic apperception: ‘But though there be naturally a wide difference in point of delicacy between one person and another, nothing tends further to increase and improve this talent, than practice in a particular art, and the frequent survey or contemplation of a particular species of beauty.’ [7] Allen Carlson takes this further believing that while nature has rich inherent aesthetic values, but that scientific knowledge helps us categorise nature, in the way art historians classify art, thus increasing aesthetic appreciation, assisting us to know what to look at, what to pay attention to.[8] He refers to his position as ‘cognitive naturalism’.[9] Patricia Mathews writes, ‘For example, once we learn the norms for a species, we learn to pick the object out, learn what features to look at, what features may vary, and which features are rare, all of which functions to focus our aesthetic appreciation.’[10] I can attest to this from birdwatching.

02 21_Bello Birders, Mylestom
Bello Birders, Mylestom Sunday. What the camera can’t show is the male Regent Bowerbird we saw, a spectacular gold and black, too quick, or the White-bellied Sea Eagle catching a fish in the Bellinger just behind us – only Terry was looking that way.

Lawrence Buell asks rhetorically, ‘Must we study Roger Torrey Peterson’s bird books in order to read literature? I am tempted to reply: ‘Yes, that would be a very good thing indeed…’ He goes on to say, ‘But certainly neither I (nor John Burroughs or Ruskin) believed that the poet’s or essayists highest calling has ever been to teach ornithology. Rather, their view was that the potency of the environmental text consisted not just in the reader’s transaction with it but also in reanimating and redirecting the reader’s transactions with nature.’ [11]

It is not only respectful to be aware of one’s environment, but also much more fun, interesting, and most importantly gets one more involved with one’s natural environment. This from a poem of mine on naming.

The bloodwoods give way greenhoods give way to the grass trees
that give way to the hyacinth orchids I photographed carelessly this morning
This succession of flowering, followed by seeds happening constantly
is surely worth ten to fifteen thousand words each day.

The time when a different language was heard along this beach
I don’t mean waving
On the edge of the forest, a family is snuggled on a fork
high in the Blackbutt canopy, so well camouflaged, green
green, an all-green head with orange-red eyes,
ending in a coral-pink/red bright bill.

Green Parrot, Green Keet, Green Leek, Greenie
or Trichoglossus chlorolepidotus

One raises a wing to preen revealing a scarlet underwing,
then they take off, their flight too fast, too true, too beautiful
for the name Scaly-breasted Lorikeet.

02 21_Eos_two_bridgesAllen Carlson visited a friend’s cabin in British Columbia: ‘[H]e dubbed it ‘Eagle’s Nest’ and delighted in the expressive meaning that these ‘noble’ and ‘majestic’ birds bestowed on his abode. On visiting him I pointed out that the birds circling his place are actually turkey vultures. Now ‘Eagle’s Nest’ has become ‘Buzzard’s Roost’ and the true natural and cultural properties of the great birds have united to give it a new expressive meaning. (I have not been invited back.)’[12] We are cultural animals; animals have meanings for us, think of the use of animals in religion, mythology and ancient texts.

02 21_Eos_patterns

So how much knowledge about the natural environment is optimum for enjoyment and for taking some responsibility for it? Marcia Eaton argues that, ‘Knowledge does not simply deepen the experiences that imagination provides, it directs them, or should direct them if we hope to preserve and design sustainable landscapes. Concepts such as imaging well make no sense unless one knows what the object is one is talking about . . . and something (in fact as much as possible) about the context in which the object is found.’[13] Emily Brady finds this too tough: ‘Are we required to read up in the nature centres before we head out? Many people will possess basic concepts of what they appreciate, but is it fair to expect each of us to find out as much as possible about the ecology, geology and so on of the environments we aesthetically appreciate?’ [14] I too prefer a weak cognitive theory – ones that bases aesthetic appreciation on some epistemological foundation (generally this is from the natural sciences) – the problem is then is to understand what is the condition of knowledge for appropriate appreciation. My approach is similar to Peter Timms’ – a ‘wide-eyed amateur’ as he describes himself in his book subtitled ‘Six walks in the bush’ which support Thoreau’s conviction that our immediate environment is the revelation.[15]

Finding Beauty

02 21_Harriet_Yoga by the Kalang_w
Harriet, a young English woman heading up the coast. Yoga by the Kalang

We longer find Kant credible in suggesting in his Critique of Judgement (1790) that beauty can be regarded as a symbol of the Good, or Keats’ riddle ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty.’ Hogarth was democratic, believing ) contra Shaftesbury and Hume) anyone can enjoy art and beauty. Hogarth replaces judgement with sensation and pleasure (which is not what his art shows).[16] At a time of male ostentatious foppery, Hogarth argued that formal intricacy, leads to beauty by leading the eye on ‘a wanton kind of chase.’ Fro William Morris, a socialist, art was central to the everyday and he hated the fact that art could not exist as whole of life while people were divided into ‘cultivated and uncultivated classes’.

02 21_Kalang and Bellinger Rivers
Kalang and Bellinger Rivers

Elaine Scarry defends beauty which in the 20th Century became unfashionable and even politically incorrect (the male gaze). [17] People find beauty in women clothed and unclothed, landscapes, birds and birdsong, trees, flowers, music, scientific theory, mathematics, patterns, people’s demeanour. And we need to save beauty. ‘Over the last several decades, many people have either actively advocated a taboo on beauty or passively omitted it from their vocabulary, even when thinking and writing about beautiful objects such as paintings and poems.’ ScarryShe takes up a parallel track to Carlson that perceiving an object of beauty leads us to seek out other beautiful things and discriminate, and even nourishes our own creative endeavours. She doesn’t believe that, ‘beauty, by preoccupying our attention, distracts attention from wrong social arrangements.’ George Steiner isn’t so sure, ‘If I have spent the day teaching King Lear or Bach, or in front of Goya, I come home and it may be that the cry in the street is muffled; that it reaches me less directly than if my feelings and responses had not been trained to a deeply passionate involvement with fictions – in the widest sense. If this is so, we must find a way of sharing aesthetic, philosophical experience which makes us more responsive to human pain, and not less.’[18] I think it is a question of living on the real world, avoiding obsessions and lofty ambitions.

The artifice of art worried WH Auden. His own favourite poem, ‘In Praise of Limestone’, searches outside the language of poetry for truths laid down in limestone composed of past lives metamorphosed  by water.

‘The poet
Admired for his earnest habit of calling
The sun the sun, his mind Puzzle, is made uneasy.’[19]

To put this in a different perspective: ‘Over evolutionary time, the lithosphere becomes inextricably interwoven with living species. Marble achieves its beautifully patterns from bacterial colonies; chalky cliffs are formed from tiny sea creatures, as is all limestone.’ Sidney Liebes, Elisabet Sahtouris, Brian Swimme.[20]

02 21_Eos_Eastern dwarf tree frog
Eastern dwarf tree frog in our garden, Sunday morning

George Leonard notes the reversal whereby artworks can be indistinguishable from everyday objects, resulting in a, ‘potentially dangerous `forest’ distracting us from the real ‘art’ – that is, the world.’[21] Raymond Williams popularised the idea that art is being separated from the everyday world; the novel and then poetry become a commodity during the early decades of the nineteenth century. One result of this separation is the Romantic notions of the creative artist as a person apart, embodying different values to societies, a dangerous and pervasive idea. Creativity is democratic thought it helps if we work on it and practice attention.

and Photography

Walter Benjamin in ‘The Author as Producer’ thought the photographer could either serve the working class and democratic purposes or the elites and the ruling class. To do the former, radical approaches that bypass capitalist modes are needed he said, but I think that we have learnt since that capitalism can engulf anything – except perhaps Eos. In ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Benjamin argued that when a work of art it is reproduced it loses its ‘aura’ – its originality, uniqueness. The loss of aura (which Benjamin regretted being a collector), nevertheless he saw that this had the benefit of opening up art democratically. Technology has the potential to politicise art – necessary at the time he thought because the Nazis were aestheticsing war and violence. I am a photographer keenly aware that our culture gives aesthetic priority to the visual (as does our cortex). We think of beauty and the visual comes to mind – attention must be spread across all modalities.

02 20_Tree Warratah nectar
Tree Warratah, I hadn’t seen the nectar until I saw the photograph

My interest is in natural aesthetics covers much more than beauty, being also concerned with empathy, intellectual understanding and appreciation of ecological processes and habitats. Then there’s the vast kingdoms of fauna and flora, looks, behaviour and uses – biophilia. Crabs do not tend to find themselves classed as beauties, but watching their behaviour, running in and out of the foam is entertaining and puzzling – the way Scarry says beauty leads to beauty and Hogarth talked of the wanton chase, I want to find out more about crabs.

02 20_crab 02 20_crab1


[1] Shaftesbury’s book Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, first published in 1711, was the second most reprinted book in English that century and very influential on aesthetics, both in Britain and the continent.

[2] See Bazen Brock, ‘Aesthetics as Mediation’ 1977, Trans. Margret Berki, http://www.brock.uni-wuppertal.de/Schrifte/English/Mediatio.html. [DL 6.2.2000]

[3] Alexander Baumgarten coined the term ‘aesthetic’ in Reflections on Poetry, (1735) Trans. Karl Aschenbrenner and William B. Holther, Berkeley: U of California P, 1954. He was concerned with poeisis (and specifically poetry). He defined the aesthetic in terms of somatic experience, rather than beauty, and emphasised that the experience of art as empirically available. In the later prolegomena to his Aesthetic (1750-58), he suggested a science of sense-based cognition. The problem is that he was concerned that judgment differs from person to person, despite the same physiology; he wanted to discipline this anarchy. This led to mistaken attempts to codify, through sets of rules, what good art is.

[4] George Dickie, Art and the Aesthetic, NY: Cornell UP, 1974, p173-4.

[5] Arthur Danto, ‘Aesthetic Responses and Works of Art’, Philosophic Exchange, Vol 3, 1981, p3-22.

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

[7] David Hume, ‘Of the Standard of Taste’ in Four Dissertations, 1757.

[8] See ‘Appreciating Art and Appreciating Nature’ in Landscape, Natural Beauty, and the Arts, Eds., S. Kemal and I. Gaskell, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993, p199-227, reprinted as Chapter 7 of Aesthetics and the Environment: The Appreciation of Nature, Art and Architecture, London: Routledge, 2000. Stan Goldlovich lists natural items of aesthetic interest, but argues that they cannot be graded (unlike art which art historical approaches do grade), ‘Valuing Nature and the Autonomy of Natural Aesthetics’, British Journal of Aesthetics, V38:, 1998, p184.

[9] See also ‘Nature, Aesthetic Appreciation, and Knowledge’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 53, 1995, p393-400. For further discussion see Special Issue: Environmental Aesthetics, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 56, 1998, Eds., A. Berleant and A. Carlson.

[10] Patricia Mathews, ‘Aesthetic Appreciation of Art and Nature, British Journal of Aesthetics, V41:4, Oct 2001, p398-99. She concludes, ‘the appreciation of nature is no less rich or complex than that of art.’ p410.

[11] Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture, Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1995p97

[12] Allen Carlson, ‘Heyd and Newman on the aesthetic appreciation of nature’
http://www.uqtr.uquebec.ca/AE/Vol_6/Carlson/carlson.html. DL 12.9.2002

[13] Marcia Muelder Eaton, ‘Fact and Fiction in the Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature’ Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 56:2 1998, p152,

[14] Emily Brady, Aesthetics of the Natural Environment, U of Alabama P, 2003, p162

[15] Peter Timms, Making Nature: Six walks in the bush, Allen & Unwin, 2001. Timms is an art critic who describes six bush walks at Tallarook, Victoria. He is concerned that if we lack first-hand knowledge of the bush, how can we be politically knowledgeable?

[16] William Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty, 1753

[17] Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just. Duckworth, 2001

[18] Maya Jaggi, ‘George and his dragons’, interview The Guardian, 17.3. 2001. Walter Benjamin warned, ‘Our cultural treasures, have an origin which [one] cannot contemplate without horror… There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’ Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, Ed., Hannah Arendt, Schoken Books, p256.

[19] W.H. Auden, Selected Poems, Ed., E. Mendelson, Faber, 1979.

[20] Sidney Liebes, Elisabet Sahtouris, Brian Swimme, A Walk Through Time: From Stardust to Us: The Evolution of Life on Earth, John Wiley & Sons, 1998, p29

[21] George Leonard, Into the Light of Things: The Art of the Commonplace from Wordsworth to John Cage, University of Chicago Press, 1994, p7. Quoting Lawrence Wiener.

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