Emily Brady on the Aesthetics of Nature

Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog-2

I recently spoke with Emily Brady of the University of Edinburgh about the aesthetic appreciation of nature.  We talked about the sublime, which is that feeling you get when you are standing before something much bigger than yourself.  That something could be a mountain or a skyscraper, making me wonder whether the sublime is really just a feeling of “wildness.”

We might not find as much beauty as we’d like in the man-made world, i.e. the very environment that supports our civilization and dwarfs our bodily and intellectual capacities.  But perhaps we can find the sublime.  Perhaps we can view it as a wilderness of sorts.  An environment of awe-inspiring places and objects.

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The internet circa 2005 by opte.org

But what happens historically to wilderness?  It gets domesticated.  The sublime is banished by human ingenuity.  Mountains once appeared to European travelers as warts upon the Earth.  Today they appear to us as storage containers for fossil fuels.

Perhaps the same will happen to this technological wilderness: we will domesticate it.

Is it possible to domesticate the very wilderness we have created?

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Dr. Brady and I also discussed the aesthetic appreciation of restorations. Should ecological restorations be appreciated as art or nature?  Are they like art forgeries?  I was left with a few key points:

First, aesthetic value is only one value among many.  Yet many environmental philosophers have tried to justify environmental protection on the basis of aesthetics.  I’ve observed that this is a lot harder to do for environmental restoration, which is based on the idea of restoring something that once existed.  If a restoration attempts to restore a landscape to the way it might have looked 500 years ago, how can it be justified by aesthetics, if no one living today was around to appreciate it? What is being restored – aesthetic value – does not exist until it is restored.  It’s a Catch-22.

Dr. Brady thinks that aesthetics and ethics are two separate things, but I can’t help but think they are very much related.  She pointed out that Aldo Leopold thought so too: he tied the beauty of the land to the health of the land.  I have trouble thinking of restoration as encompassing an aesthetic value and an ethical value that are divorced from each other as two separate ways of valuing the restoration.  I don’t want the aesthetic to be rooted in “naturalness.”  I want it to reflect the ethical relation between the people and the land.

But once you connect the two, you have to address questions like, what about a landscape covered in an invasive weed with pretty flowers?  It looks beautiful, but ecologically it’s harmful.  Suddenly you have to worry about the role of knowledge in aesthetic appreciation.  Suddenly you sound like an art snob saying that people can’t appreciate art unless they understand art history and theory.

So I’m left with a change of heart – maybe.  So what if our aesthetic values collide with our ethical (or other) values?  That’s life. Why struggle to unify everything into one coherent system of values?

Maybe these tensions are the creative source of new values.

Or at least the times when we ought to stop and reflect on what we care about and why.

The Eiffel Tower by Henri Rousseau.
The Eiffel Tower by Henri Rousseau.

Listen to my un-cut interview with Dr. Brady and comment below.

Intro music by Chris Zabriskie.

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