Aesthetic Theory, Art and Nature
Primary reference papers:
- Kant, from The Critique of Judgment
- Ueda, “Basho and the Poetic of ‘Haiku'”
- Hepburn, Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature
- Budd, Aesthetic Essays
- Carlson, Appreciation and the Natural Environment
- Sullivan, Symbols of Eternity
- Savile, The Test of Time
- Stecker, Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art
- Yuriko, Japanese Gardens; the art of improving nature
The question now is how to judge this aesthetic when art and nature collide to create ‘naturalness in art’. Our issue is this…What is the difference between our aesthetic response to artificially wrought objects and our aesthetic response to naturally occurring objects?
Art and nature are closely linked and perhaps always have been closely linked. Artists are influenced by nature, inspired by its beauty, engaged in its growth. Delight is found in the natural world across cultures, stereotypes, and lifestyles. I would even venture to say that nature is universally accepted as beautiful in its variance of forms. This is an aesthetic statement.
The question now is how to judge this aesthetic when art and nature collide to create ‘naturalness in art’. Our issue is this…Is there a difference between our aesthetic response to artificially wrought and naturally occurring objects?
“The universe creates beautiful flowers, and the lovely moon, and so does the artist; they are both creative…of things beautiful.” (Ueda in Hume)
Perhaps you, the reader, already know what you think about our issue. You are the photographer who sees your art and the nature you capture as inseparable, you are the painter who paints a landscape but wants to communicate something more than the scene itself, you are the engineer who doesn’t really understand why this issue is so important.
I am going to explain and analyze four schools of thought about this subject. There are more theories,
essays, practices, and discussions about this subject but for now I will just focus on these four.
- Kant’s view
- ‘Unity with nature’ models
- Carlson’s ‘natural environment’ model
- ‘Naturalness’ in art
1) Immanuel Kant
“A product of fine art must be recognized to be art and not nature” (45)
Kant insists that because art is the product of human work, because it is produced with intention, we have to take that purposefulness of the human mind into account when we judge it, and this judgment must presume the concept that defines what the object should be. In simpler terms, the artist produces something with a concept in mind (unlike nature) so in judging their art we have to presuppose what that concept might be.
Nature is not like this, there is no underlying concept, no intentionality.
“To enable me to estimate a beauty of nature…I do not need to be previously possessed of a concept of what sort of a thing the object is intended to be…the mere form pleases on its own account. If, however, the object is presented as a product of art…seeing that art always presupposes an end in the cause (and its causality), a concept of what the thing is intended to be must first of all be laid at its basis.” (48)
The last couple of sentences here are interesting because they touch on the idea that you can take the natural and form it into art. Can cairns of piled rocks by the ocean be considered art? Kant says yes, as long as they were placed this way with intention. It becomes an intentionally wrought thing, a human artifice with a concept.
But I am not conceptually empty, even when viewing a ‘pure’ artifact of nature. I see a flower as a flower. I have categorized it and in doing so, covered it with a concept. With this being said, perhaps I don’t make my judgment of the flower with a concept. I don’t carry the idea of a perfect flower in my head when I look upon a rose or daisy. I don’t judge it in comparison to the form.
“Flowers are free beauties of nature. Hardly anyone but a botanist knows the true nature of a flower, and even he, while recognizing in the flower the reproductive organ of the plant, pays no attention to this natural end when using his taste to judge its beauty. Hence no perfection of any kind-no internal finality, as something to which the arrangement of the manifold is related underlies this judgment.” (16)
“By right it is only production through freedom, i.e. through an act of will that places reason at the basis of its action, that should be termed art. For, although we are pleased to call what bees produce (their regularly constructed cells) a work of art, we do so on the strength of an analogy with art; that is to say, as soon as we call to mind that no rational deliberation forms the basis of their labor, we say at once that it is a product of their nature (of instinct)…” (43)
Another interesting example that Kant presents is birdsong. “The appreciation of birdsong free from a certain constraint if understanding, namely the understanding of its meaning as art.” We don’t hear birdsong as something that is intentionally determined. “You hear the song as an unpredictable, apparently random mélange of phrases.”
“The object of aesthetic delight is the sounds issuing naturally from a living sentient creature, more
specifically, a bird.” (Budd p212)
“Your experience of an item is sensitive to what you experience it as, so that an experience of it under one description has a different phenomenology from that of an experience under an incompatible description. Furthermore, the description under which you experience something constrains the qualities that such an item can manifest in you.” (Budd p212)
Consequent requirement for rules and conventions in art:
“There is still no fine art in which something mechanical, capable of being at once comprehended and followed in obedience to rules, and consequently something academic does not constitute the essential condition of the art. For the thought of something as end much be present, or else its product would not be ascribed to an art at all, but would be a mere product of chance. But the effectuation of an end necessitates determinate rules which we cannot venture to dispense with.” (Kant 47)
Art is always produced, and perhaps more importantly experienced against a background of traditions, rules, conventions, social norms, cultural ideals etc. The art is something that can be understood in some ways due to artistic convention! And if not for these rules, styles, techniques there would be no art history. We rely on this. |
Also: You can criticize the thing made as an intentional object, but there is no such thing as nature criticism.
So, within point one there are several important ideas that underlie all else:
- Intentionality cannot be ascribed to nature
- Rules underpin artistic activity; this has no analogue in nature
- There is no necessity for rules or conventions within nature.
2) ‘Unity with nature’ models
Aesthetic appreciation of nature is different than aesthetic appreciation of art. In his article “Aesthetic appreciation of Nature” Hepburn outlines a complaint: There is no “systematic description” of the aesthetic experience of nature! Nature is not described in understandable language therefore the experience is felt as “off the map” where critical literature scarcely exists. Although this is true I would suggest that there is more at play than a simple lack of critically descriptive language.
The claim held by all so called “Unity Models” is this:
“With an art object there is the exhilarating activity of coming to grasp with its intelligibility…”
“We can locate a nearly parallel but interestingly different background experience when our object is a natural one. Again it is kind of exhilaration, a delight in the fact that the forms of the natural world offer scope for the exercise of imagination.”
Although I like Kant’s points in the first section there is something beautiful about the unity with nature school of thought. Art is a way to capture a moment of nature and can be analyzed as such, but nature is an all enveloping experience. It is more than can ever fit into a frame or onto pages of a manuscript. This art-nature relation is such that when experiencing an art piece it is static, you are the disengaged observer (typically) but in nature it shrouds you entirely.
“On occasion he may confront natural objects as a static, disengaged observer; but far more typically the objects envelop him on all sides.” (p51)
“What a different shape and ‘being’ one becomes lying on the sand with the sea almost above from when standing against the wind on a sheer high cliff with seabirds circling patterns below one.”
Hepburn goes on to say that the spectator is an “ingredient in the landscape and lingering upon the sensations of being thus ingredient.” I really appreciate this idea. In art you take that experience and cover it with yourself, your own intentions, then present it. But nature appreciation is a different thing entirely it is adding yourself into the landscape as an essential ingredient. You are not the disengaged observer. You are a vital part of the living world.
Nature is this ever changing, beautiful, mysterious, chaotic thing. Without US, without human beings and our high functioning cerebral cortex there would be no appreciation. No aesthetic discussion, perhaps we are an essential ingredient because without us that beauty would remain unrecognized.
Nisus to unity: Oneness with the Natural World. Humanizing and spiritualizing nature: Overlaying our own thoughts and feelings onto nature. Unity is “a symbol of the unattainable complete transmutation of brute external nature into a mirror of the mind.” (p56)
Naturalizing the human observer: To realize your place in the landscape, “To allow nature’s otherness
free play in modifying one’s everyday sense of one’s own being.” (p56)
Reconciliation: “The suspension of conflict and of being at one with nature could hardly be present in the art-experience.” “A parallel of an aesthetic experience in which there may have been no synoptic grasping of patters, relating of forms or other sort of unifying.” (p64)
Unity-ideals: “the link with the nature-mystical experiences need not be severed.” (p64)
Now onto the east, starting with the representation of oneness with nature in Daoist aesthetics. Daoism describes connection with nature, this oneness that is the topic of the day, in four ways:
1) Issuing from animistic conception of nature
2) Creative process in line with nature
“Beauty in nature is a manifestation of the supreme creative force which flows through all things in the universe, animate and inanimate. This force should be distinguished from the passim of an individual physical being. The energy of the universe is ‘transpersonal’ in the sense that it has no personal emotion such as joy or anger, grief or hatred. Basho (a historically famous poet) believes that a poet should renounce his personal emotions in favor of the transpersonal energy within him, through which he may return to the creative force that flows in all objects of nature.”
(Ueda, “Basho and the Poetic of ‘Haiku’” p 424)
“As everything has its proper place in Nature’s great organism and thereby receives its particular expressiveness or significance, so that it be represented by the painter, who…co-operates with nature and thereby makes manifest the inherent characteristics of whatever he paints.”
(Siren The Chinese on the Art of Painting p 67)
“the poet will become at one with the pine tree…And when he identifies himself with the tree, a poem will spontaneously form itself in his mind, without a conscious attempt on his part…A mediocre poet cannot do this, so he has to turn to his intellect, learning, conventional poetic technique, and so on; the poem thus made is inevitably artificial (forced, strained)”
(Ueda in Hume, p162)
Kant: Suddenly you see a product of the human mind. It is no longer just a form. The artist strips of their own personality to unite themselves with this energy of the natural world. Thus, it is not a personal thing that is crated, but a universal thing. The great artist creates spontaneously, without effort, it flows out. I related this to the Grecian idea of the Muse.
3) Dispensing with Learning
“Learning consists in adding to one’s stock day by day;
The practice of Tao consists in subtracting day by day,
Subtracting and yet again subtracting
Till one has reached inactivity.
But by this very inactivity
Everything can be activated.”
(Lao Zi, Do De Jing, ch 48)
It does not rely on learning or experience; instead it is about stripping down these things.
4) Conventions of Apprehension of Beauty are the same in Art and Nature
“The easy, empathetic and even cozy familiarity of the Chinese with out-of-doors nature is the psychological quality of the art-appreciation convention which rendered painting of mountain landscaped aesthetically pleasing to the Chinese…in the case of mountain landscapes the Chinese nature-appreciation convention had the same source as the art-appreciation convention.”
(Richardson p 187)
“The Chinese feels at one with the cosmos and the Tao and this feeling is conveyed not mere in the artifact, the painting, but also directly by the landscape itself when the nature lover travels
to a favorite spot or retreat and gazes at his favorite view.”
(Richardson p 186)
“When we contemplate Master Chang’s art, it is not the painting; it is the very Tao itself. Whenever he was engaged in painting one already knew that he had left mere skill far behind.”
(Michael Sullivan Symbols of Eternity p49)
“The picture was not an object in a form, to be looked at and admired for its form and color, but rather a mysterious thing that contained the essence of the world of nature.”
(Michael Sullivan Symbols of Eternity p29)
The source of the pleasure is the same. (Kant opposes this idea) And the force of the painting is a natural force, through him we engage with the natural world. As a counterpoint to this wonderfully beautiful view of art creation is Anthony Savile’s book, The Test of Time:
“Beauty in art needs to be seen as conceptually prior to natural beauty” and “when we judge of a person’s or a flower’s beauty we are judging then within canons that we develop from out acquaintance with the arts.” (p181)
3) Carlson’s ‘Natural Environment’ Model
Carlson outlines what he argues are two unsatisfactory models. The Object Model and the Scenery or Landscape Model…I think by this point they will sound quote familiar. Then outlines his ‘natural environment’, or ‘environmental’ model.
The Object Model: Appreciated the actual physical qualities of the separate object.
Carlson’s problem with this Object Model is that natural objects have “organic unity with their environment of creation… the environment of creation are aesthetically relevant to natural objects.” However, focusing on a single aspect of an object while simultaneously ignoring others is quote normal in aesthetic appreciation, applying equally to art, isn’t it?
The Scenery or Landscape Model (also called the picturesque): Prospect is seen from a specific point.
The problem here is that it reduced the environment to a 2-Dimensional ‘scene’
“We are to appreciate the natural environment as if it were a landscape painting.” It is called upon to appreciate qualities that the environment does not have. BUT a landscape can be seen in a number of different ways. Sometimes paintings provide a new and unexpected, perhaps surprising, way of seeing a landscape.
Finally we come to the Environmental Model: Relevant knowledge to appreciation of nature is common sense or scientific knowledge.
“If to aesthetically appreciate art we must have knowledge of artistic tradition and styles within those traditions, to aesthetically appreciate nature we must have knowledge of the different environments of nature and of the systems and elements within those environments. In the way in which art critic and the art historian are well equipped to aesthetically appreciate art, the naturalist and the ecologist are well equipped to aesthetically appreciate nature.”
Dave Austin a famous and renowned rose breeder sees things in the flower that you or I could not hope to see. I would expect him to have a much deeper appreciation for the beauty of the plant than your average layman. In this case knowledge enhances appreciation. On the other hand, when I first came to Wisconsin I exclaimed over the expansive sky, the beauty of cornfields, the color and the horizon. Every native Wisconsin person who I have talked to about the beauty of the Midwest have no idea what I am talking about. I come from a mountainous region and was therefore amazed by the plains that stretch right to the horizon; because it is something that they have experienced every day these people didn’t see what I saw. Knowledge (or in this case, experience) can dull appreciation in the same way.
“But there are cases where knowledge of the nature of a phenomenon-not merely the ability to identify that type-can transform one’s aesthetic experience of nature. People have thicker or thinner conceptions of the nature of the phenomena: children have exceptionally thin conceptions; adults have conception of greater and varying thickness. The thicker the conception, the greater the material available to transform the subject’s aesthetic experience of nature.”
“The knowledge of art [relevant to appreciation] is knowledge of its point or purpose, its functions and values, and the characteristic means of achieving these. We discover these things by acquiring knowledge of traditions, conventions, intention and styles among other things. [These are] obviously relevant to understanding the purposes and values of art, and the means used to achieve these. But in nature we do not find points and purposes or characteristic means to these. Hence it is not clear that knowledge of nature can perform the same function as knowledge of art. The mere fact that we have knowledge of both hardly established that they can do the same job.”
4) Naturalness in Art
“Fine art must be clothed with the aspect of nature, although we recognize it to be art. But the way in which a product of art seems like nature, is by the presence of perfect exactness in the agreement with rules prescribing how along the product can be what it is intended to be, but with the absence of labored effect, (without academic form betraying itself) i.e. without a trace appearing of the artist having always had the rule present to him and of its having fettered his mental powers.”
Saito Yuriko on ‘Zen-Related Arts’:
“The hallmark of artistic success is spontaneity, artlessness, and freedom, without thereby meaning the absence of rule observance of human artifice. The highest artistic accomplishment within the Zen tradition is achieved when the artist has mastered and integrated the technique and rules of the medium so thoroughly that the end product, whether it be a tea-making ceremony, a work of calligraphy, or a haiku, appears as if it is spontaneously and effortlessly generated.”
(“Japanese Gardens; the art of improving nature” Chanoyu Quarterly 83:41-61)