Natural Aesthetics – Part Two



You may recall (if you are a member of that really small but obviously elite group of regular forest rat readers) that back in July I wrote a post about natural aesthetics. You can read that post here. I mentioned that I was reading a book called “The Aesthetics of Natural Environments”. This is a survey of philosophical essays discussing how we might best go about enjoying and appreciating “nature” and if there are right and wrong ways to go about it.

Ronald Hepburn kicked things off with his 1966 essay, Contemporary Aesthetics and the Neglect of Natural Beauty. Since then many people have put forth ideas about how we might begin to think about natural beauty again after a lapse of something like a hundred years or so.

Now you might think that these people are nuts. Everybody appreciates natural beauty, don’t they? Well, yes and no, but probably more no than yes.

As Hepburn points out, philosophical eggheads interested in the finer points of formal aesthetic theory have cut nature right out of their calculations. They shifted from the consideration of beauty in general to defining aesthetics as “the philosophy of art” – only man made objects need apply. Stinking college boys (and girls)!

Well, the average person on the street has not done much better. We look for nothing deeper from nature than the “Kodak Moment”. To quote Hepburn, “…for all the cult of the open air, the caravans, camps, and excursions in the family car – serious aesthetic concern with nature is today rather a rare phenomenon. If we regard the Wordsworthian vision as the great peak in the recent history of the subject, then we have to say that the ground declined very sharply indeed from that extraordinary summit…”


Allen Carlson takes up the challenge to layout some ground rules for appreciating nature in his essay Appreciation and the Natural Environment. First he lays out what we have so far in the form of two paradigms that he calls the object model and the landscape model.

The object model simplifies things by breaking everything down into individual objects. A painting or a piece of sculpture has boundaries. We can isolate that object from its surroundings and contemplate it alone. This works nicely for non-representational works. They are what they are. We can appreciate their forms, colors, and textures without needing to relate them to anything further.

The object model could be used on nature, but it has some problems. We take a rock from a stream in the woods, bring it home, and set it on the table. It is now an isolated object and can be appreciated merely for its form and beauty without the need to connect it to anything else. This is neat and clean, but it doesn’t really help us to appreciate “nature”. A visitor, not knowing where the rock came from, could think that it is an abstract sculpture that someone chiseled. It isn’t nature anymore, it is an object.

The landscape model, sometimes referred to as the picturesque model, is something with which we are all familiar. Indeed it is really about the only model the average person ever uses when encountering nature. Here nature is divided into scenes. Each scene is then appreciated as if it were a painting. The beauty of each scene is gauged by how closely it approaches the ideals of art.

We pile into the car and trek to scenic viewpoints. These view points have been pre-selected for the best arrangement of elements. A majestic snow-capped mountain in the background with maybe a lake in the foreground surrounded by maple trees for that added autumn color (if you are european, toss in an old castle on the hillside for good measure). The area has been manicured to frame the view. Parking areas and fences have been constructed for safety and convenience. We hop out, walk to the fence, snap a few pics, and head for the next location.

Curving Water

Once again this model does not do anything to help us appreciate nature as nature. Our view of nature is a series of landscape paintings. Another big problem with this model is that only those portions of nature that look like paintings are valued. Therefore we are free to destroy our local environments while valuing only specific places like the Rockies. We learn that it is OK to trash the world in general as long as we set aside a few picturesque sites that we can drive through once a year.

So what are we to do? Carlson has some ideas and others react to them, but I had better save that for next time. This post is too long already.



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3 Responses to “Natural Aesthetics – Part Two”

  1. fencer Says:

    A series of interesting discussions… Hope to hear what other ways of meeting nature come up beyond the object and the landscape…

    Your photos are one of those ways, I think; the photo is such a personal and malleable product of that encounter with nature.


  2. lookingforbeauty Says:

    As always, great photos. The one in the middle has outstanding composition – is spare and beautifully “constructed”, it seems, with a lovely glowing light.
    Interesting discussion too.
    Landscape imagery is curious because it is always about lifting out a portion of the view and cutting it off from the remainder of its context. Nevertheless, we painters are still compelled to grapple with it, to bring some order to it on canvas or watercolour paper. Point of view becomes an important issue if the artist wants to find a unique or personal vision to communicate.
    ….am enjoying your discussion and am waiting for the next installment.

  3. The Genius of Place « Quirk Says:

    […] Forestrat is a talented photographer of the natural world, as you can see on his site, and his examination of how we appreciate the wild world has immediacy due to his own experiences in the upstate New […]

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