Is Everything Beautiful?

Old GarageOne day a thought came to me – why do people think nature is beautiful?

Certainly there are lots of opinions on what is beautiful and what isn’t, but in general I have found that people find nature and natural scenes beautiful even if they are not the “outdoorsy” type. Maybe not everyone finds snakes beautiful, but show a room full of people a coffee table book of landscapes featuring snow capped mountains, pristine lakes, bright sandy beaches, etc. and it would be tough to find someone that would dislike looking at it.

So I started looking into why this is the case. I’m no where near done with my little investigation, but I ran across something while hiking a couple of weeks ago that I thought I would write about now while it is fresh and come back to it later in a more general way.

My study of beauty lead of course to aesthetics which is the branch of philosophy dealing with the ideas of beauty, ugliness, and the like and it’s application to judgements about works of art and other things that we experience. Through the years many of the big thinkers have put forth various formulae for what is beauty and what art should and shouldn’t look like. Today I’m going to look at one idea put forth in the nineteenth century termed positive aesthetics. The idea that everything is beautiful in some way.

The artist John Constable is quoted as saying, “There is nothing ugly; I never saw an ugly thing in my life: for let the form of an object be what it may, – light, shade, and perspective will always make it beautiful.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson in Nature (1849) wrote: “And as the eye is the best composer, so light is the first of painters. There is no object so foul that intense light will not make beautiful. And the stimulus it affords to the sense, and a sort of infinitude which it hath, like space and time, make all matter gay. Even the corpse has its own beauty.”

I’m on board with this idea when we are talking about natural objects and scenes. On the other hand, I feel that I can’t wholeheartedly subscribe because I believe that I have seen ugly things (especially where man is involved). I can’t come up with a specific example at the moment, but when I think of ugly, depictions of violence, destruction, and hatred come to mind along with milder forms of ugliness like strip malls and tract housing.

While thinking about these things I’m taking photographs and hiking and what not. One batch of photos that I recently took were of the inside of an old garage here on the farm. Something that maybe not everyone would think of in terms of beauty. I found the old junk to be quite beautiful especially if lighted in the correct way. Some folks must agree with me as they made comments to that affect.

Another thing that I ran across goes more to the heart of Emerson’s idea. While walking along a frozen stream, I found a dead raccoon. I see this kind of thing all the time. Inexperienced people may have a romantic ideal of nature with happy little bunnies hopping about all the time, but when you are out in the woods a lot you know that some things are prey and some are predators and that age and disease take their toll even here. Normally I would just walk on by, but this day I decided to take some photos.

Could I get “beautiful” images from something like a dead raccoon? Is there beauty even here? Well maybe there is and maybe there isn’t and maybe if there isn’t then maybe there just wasn’t the right lighting (it was dull and overcast) or maybe my skills are lacking or maybe I just need to go on a binge of photographing dead animals in order to become proficient.

I just put links to the photos in this post since they might be uncomfortable for some people. If blood and guts are not your thing, you might not want to look at them.

The first image is relatively tame. It’s just a close up of the racoon’s hind foot. I kind of like it. The photo could certainly be improved, but on the whole I wouldn’t say the image itself is ugly. If I hadn’t told you that the raccoon was dead, would it make a difference?

Raccoon foot

The second image is a bit more gruesome. Nothing goes to waste in nature so the raccoon was gradually being consumed by other creatures. This is a shot of the raccoon’s side with some exposed flesh and bones (but no real “guts”). If you can get past the immediate shock of “I’m looking at a dead animals innards”, you can see some pretty cool textures in the wispy fur, the red flesh, the white ribs protruding, and the dark hidden interior regions.

Raccoon ribs

Anyway, take a look (if you dare) and see what you think.

I’ll have more to say in the future on the subject of why is nature beautiful. I’m not sure if I’ll post any more dead animal photos – rather not get a rep as “that dead animal photographer”. On the other hand I’ll probably have second thoughts when I see stuff in the woods that might not normally be thought of as typical fodder for photos.



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9 Responses to “Is Everything Beautiful?”

  1. suburbanlife Says:

    Mark – the term ‘beautiful’ is a qualifier which seeks to infer positive distinction on phenomena. ‘Ugly’ is its obverse. But in reality, there is a range of possibilities, stuff that ‘just is as it is’. Why would someone express that rusting implements are beautiful, but yet protest as ugliness an image of decay, as in your second shot of the cacoon, which is also an elegaic image, moving for the delicacy of the ribs, the lace of the perforated skin and the lividness of drying flesh?
    Think about it, we sequester the infirm, aging, mentally ill, physicallly disabled, because we do not accept that their presence is as inevitable as breathing, therefore their state being less desirable, we cling to sentimental notions of beauty and appropriateness, rightness. (She gets off her soapbox, now!) Just some thoughts your photos made me think. G

  2. forestrat Says:

    Thanks for the input, G.

    I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I love to learn and the subject of what is beauty strikes so deep into our hearts and minds and the world around us that it opens vast avenues for investigation and thought.


  3. fencer Says:

    I liked the abstract quality of the old garage shot… and rusty things have character for some reason.

    I found the racoon’s foot poignant and sad as an old distant relative’s passing. Life lived and gone away.

    The last photo is harder to deal with. There’s abstract qualities there too, but the reality of blood, death and decay overwhelm them.

    There’s that quote from Kurosawa: To be an artist means never averting your eyes.

    Although some artists feel they must wallow in that dimension. But here, I feel appreciative of your exploration…


  4. forestrat Says:

    Thanks, fencer.

    I don’t think I’m going to try to make a career out of photographing dead stuff. Oddly enough I do remember seeing a book years ago that was a field guide to flattened fauna. They took snaps of animals that got run over on the road and helped you identify them. It was sort of funny in a dark sort of way.


  5. lookingforbeauty Says:

    It’s an interesting post, Forest Rat. It’s good to stir up the pot and ask questions like this.
    As to your two photos of dead raccoon, I can’t say that I like them… but I recognize that they are good informational photos.
    I came across a dead salmon while walking along the Pitt River dikes at Christmas time while all was frozen solid (but no snow). It was curious to see it there because I couldn’t figure out why it was there. Did it leap out of the water and then was unable to get back in? Did someone put it there?
    For about three weeks in a row, whenever I walked by it, the deterioration advanced until the only thing that was left was the skeleton frozen right into the ground. In the latter stages of decay, large cat or bear prints surrounded the beastie.
    It wasn’t beautiful but it was interesting. I think that beautiful photos could have been made of this creature, but the subject in itself was rather gruesome. It did not help that we had no sunshine. Quite possibly, with strong lighting, a “beautiful” photograph might have resulted.
    Which leads me to the conclusion that there is the object itself which may or may not be beautiful; and then the structure of the image which may or may not be beautiful. (The structure of the image or perhaps, the visual language of the image – composition, shapes, texture, pattern, etc. etc.) The two things are different but hopefully merge in the final say.
    I like the John Constable comment and strive to live by that same philosophy; but I have trouble with ugly malls, badly designed commercial buildings, uncared for areas of town; desecrated landscapes, unkempt people….

  6. razzbuffnik Says:

    Emerson “There is no object so foul that intense light will not make beautiful”.

    I don’t agree with that one. Unfortunately there are plenty of things I can think of that look uglier in strong light.

    >I believe that I have seen ugly things (especially where man is involved)

    Now this I agree with. I’ve seen some terrible things. Like a pathetic dead burnt body lying on his back with feet and arms in the air, by the side of a road at a battle front in Cambodia back for one.

    I think that two things come into play when I think I’m experiencing beauty.

    The first one is a sort of almost instinctual recognition of “good” things that serves us much like our sense of smell, alerting us to unfit food. I think in my case beauty in nature is quite often what I feel almost on a genetic level as being good for me on a survival level. Forrest and lovely green valleys seem bountiful and safe to me and therefore “beautiful”. Strangely I also find deserts and mountains beautiful as well, which brings me the another side of beauty.

    The second aspect of beauty for me is rarity or even better, “novelty”. I think that we like things like sunsets because they are “rarer” colour for the sky to be. I suspect that gold and diamonds are seen as beautiful for much the same reasons.

    Just like in Ruben’s time, tanned thin fit people were the norm and voluptuous ones weren’t and that’s what Rubens painted, pale chunky women. Nowadays, obesity has almost become the norm and there seems to be a general sense that thin is beautiful.

    In reality though, beauty is a human construct that we project onto the world.

  7. forestrat Says:

    Here is a link to an article that I found about the idea of landscape preferences being based on survival instincts:

    This beauty thing is very complex which is probably why it has been argued about for hundreds of years.

    As I said, I can’t buy all the way into the positive aesthetic thing. On the other hand I feel that most people’s criteria for what is beautiful could handle some significant expansion.


  8. razzbuffnik Says:

    Thanks for the link.

    Nice to know that some research has been done on what I only suspected.

  9. MARIAM MIR Says:


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