Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail)[ * ]

Reflections on Allen Carlson’s Aesthetics and the Environment

Ira Newman

Over the years Allen Carlson has produced a series of essays that have provided fresh insights into the many issues falling under the broad heading of environmental aesthetics.  His new book Aesthetics and the Environment reveals just how diverse those issues are. [1]  The topics Carlson discusses range from the aesthetic appreciation of nature (with which many of us are familiar, from his widely reprinted essay “Appreciation and the Natural Environment”);  to aesthetic appreciation, in general; to historical questions concerning formalism and the aesthetic attitude; to the aesthetics of environmental art, Japanese gardens, architecture, landscapes in literature; and — one of my favorites — the aesthetic appreciation of agricultural landscapes.  But in addition to its breadth of scope, what is striking is the uncommon rigor that marks Carlson’s work.  Whatever insight may have inspired his philosophical thoughts on an issue, it is obvious that only when this insight could become worked into a carefully reasoned analysis or argument would it be committed to print and called to the attention of a critical audience.  Carlson’s work is therefore philosophical aesthetics at its best, and it is a considerable pleasure for me to have the opportunity to say a few words about his book.

From the many valuable themes and proposals contained in the work,  I have selected two topics to discuss.  One concerns some of Carlson’s remarks about formalism, and the other, some of his remarks about the distinctive object of the aesthetic appreciation of nature, viz. nature.

1. Revisiting Formalism

One of the dogmas that have plagued clear thinking about the aesthetic appreciation of visual artworks has been the doctrine of formalism.  This theory directs our attention to the artwork’s design features — its colors, shapes, lines, and composition — and renounces, as irrelevant for appreciation, any information about the history of the artwork’s production, the intention of its creator, its representational symbols, or its psychological and moral motifs.  The classic statement of this doctrine is to be found in Clive Bell, who fearlessly asserted,  “To appreciate a work of [visual] art we need bring with us nothing but a sense of form and color and a knowledge of three-dimensional space.” [2]

While formalism did serve a useful role in directing early twentieth-century thought to the admittedly underappreciated design elements of visual art, formalism went wrong, in Carlson’s view, when it presumed it was the only valid way to appreciate visual artworks (p. 30).  A “proper perspective” on its range of application should have viewed formalism, instead, as but one among several orientations deserving recognition in art appreciation (p. 31). [3]   

An illustration of Carlson’s point might refer us to the paintings of Cézanne, where attending to formal qualities is the key to appreciation, especially in view of Cézanne’s suppressing representation as a vehicle for imparting cognitive or psychological information: thus, we acquire no sense of who lives in the town at the base of Mont Ste. Victoire (a subject Cézanne painted repeatedly) and what moods the mountain conveys either to the museumgoer viewing Cézanne’s picture in a gallery or to the hypothetical witness viewing the mountain in the picture’s internal space.  It is the arrangement of lines, colors and shapes on the picture surface that properly draws our primary appreciative interests.  By contrast, van Gogh’s formal elements of line, color and composition play at best a supportive role in realizing the artist’s psychologically rich depictions of tortured human faces, and alienating buildings and landscapes.  In van Gogh’s case formalism is not the principal approach toward achieving adequate aesthetic appreciation.

It is in relation to the aesthetic appreciation of nature that formalism poses a related, though distinct, problem.  For according to Carlson, ordinary people (such as tourists) and professional landscape managers (such as those working for the U.S. National Forest Service) have often believed that natural vistas should be evaluated in terms of design features such as “form, contrast, distance, color, light and angle of view” (p. 29).  The so-called “scenic view”, cut out at various roadside turnouts — and which is so much a part of the popular conception of natural appreciation — is a classic example of projecting onto a natural setting such formalist values as balanced overall composition, dramatic focal point (embodied, say, in a centrally positioned waterfall or granite formation), and adequate distance separating viewer and scene (allowing the spectator to take in the entire prospect). 

Carlson suggests the fallacy in such thinking is that a formalist approach to natural aesthetics presupposes a framed picture plane across which these formal patterns are arrayed (pp. 36-37).  But, Carlson contends, there is no determinate frame to be attached to any particular natural setting: instead, there are as many frames as there are choices and positions adopted by various viewers.  So since the formal patterns are realized in accordance with a frame — which is, in turn, derived from the position adopted by the viewer — formal properties cannot be attributed to nature proper; it is only to the humanly constructed framed viewpoint that they can so be ascribed (p. 36).  The conclusion we can draw is that the formalist approach, while having some limited value in aesthetically appreciating artworks, has utterly no value for the aesthetic appreciation of natural environments. 

Yet here is where I raise a question.  As I have previously stated, Carlson’s objection to formalism as an approach to art appreciation lies not in the incorrectness of its core idea, but in the alleged scope of its application (pp. 30-31).  A judicious assessment should have indicated that formalism correctly treats some elements of some artworks, but not every element of every artwork.  The clear inference is that if formalism were presented in terms more measured than those of its original — and overgeneralizing — formulation, it would be perfectly capable (as Carlson himself acknowledges) of assuming a more balanced position within a set of legitimate appreciative stances toward artworks.  The suggestion I want to consider now is whether a similar strategy of refinement can be extended to the aesthetic appreciation of nature.  I shall argue — in contrast to Carlson’s orientation — that it can, and ought to be.

I agree with Carlson that framing a natural vista in a certain way often produces a unique arrangement and display of shapes, lines and colors.  Furthermore, if the viewer has a particular balanced arrangement in mind as a standard of natural beauty, then that sort of scenic management does amount to projecting, onto nature, qualities that nature may not have in itself.  Carlson treats us to a wonderful example of this when he describes how a particular mountain lake in Alberta, when seen through a cabin window, acquires the appearance of balance and unity it would miss were it viewed either from outside the cabin or from a point inside the cabin where the window frame obstructs a view of the highest peak in the setting (p. 36).  I would argue, however, that such strong (even overbearing) manipulation of a setting’s framing need not be the case under all circumstances; there are also quite casual and low-keyed instances of framing that do not exert such powerful influence on whether (and what kind of) formal properties will emerge in viewing a natural setting.

We might even go to a primary source for framed pictures to see this possibility played out.  The history of landscape painting is highly diverse.  The art historian Heinrich Wölfflin points out that seventeenth-century  Dutch paintings valued, what he calls, open (and loosely arranged) forms, which marked a sharp break with the closed (and tightly organized) forms seen in Italian paintings of the previous century. [4]    Thus in the sixteenth century the contents of Italian paintings were grouped around various vertical and horizontal axes in the picture plane, among which were the lines of the rectangular frame itself.  This gave the painting an “intentional” and structured look, as each thing in the picture seemed to have been placed there for the sake of another. [5]    In seventeenth-century Dutch painting, by contrast,

the filling has lost touch with the frame.  Everything is done to avoid the impression that this composition was invented just for this surface. . . . [T]he whole is meant to look more like a piece cut haphazard out of the visible world. [6]

That these open-formed seventeenth-century paintings possessed a readily visible frame therefore did not lead to the dominating influence of the vertical and horizontal axes that, according to Carlson’s intuition, seem required for the forms to emerge across the enclosed picture plane. 

As an example, Wölfflin cites the landscapes of Jakob van Ruysdael, which “are . . .  conditioned by the will to alienate the picture from the frame, to prevent it looking as if it were governed by the frame.” [7]    In Ruysdael’s View of Haarlem  there are no trees running parallel to (or in harmony with) the vertical edges of the frame; there is no single focal point that the viewer’s eye is led to assume by the frame’s rectangular shape; there are no structures symmetrically balanced across the rectangular grid established by the frame; and most importantly, the frame seems to cut through the scene quite arbitrarily, suggesting that the framing could have been done in any number of ways. [8]    Nevertheless, formal features that are free from the deterministic force of an overall architectonic structure do manage to emerge.  These involve some very perspicuous patterned relationships: the vertical shapes of the chimneys echo those of the church spires; sunlit areas alternate with shaded ones; the outlines of puffy cumulus clouds repeat the curlicues outlining deciduous trees.  One would have to call these echoings, alternations and repetitions formal qualities of the scene; yet these do not emerge just because of a frame, nor are they the product of an ardent artistic rearranger picking just the right position to set the scene before us.  In fact, it is not hard to imagine finding such a scene in many an undistinguished view witnessed by chance through the window of a passing automobile.

Of course Carlson might reply that such formalist applications presuppose a certain undesirable relationship, namely that the viewer is severed from the environment he is encountering.  Thus:

In framing a section of the environment, one must become a static observer who is separate from that section and who views it from a specific external point.  (P. 36)

What makes this an illicit relationship, in Carlson’s view, is that it is too much like scanning a painting of a natural setting, where the landscape is reduced to an object in the perceptual field of a viewer who is not himself part of the natural setting he is scrutinizing (pp. 45-51).  By contrast, the proper relationship for aesthetically appreciating nature is to be situated within a natural setting that one’s perceptual systems experience as an environment.  What makes the situation even more problematic is that a compromise — where appreciators are environmentally situated at the same time as being externally positioned — is not possible.  This is because the two respective stances, in Carlson’s view, are psychologically (perhaps even, conceptually) in conflict, and are therefore mutually exclusive alternatives (pp. 36-37).  In order to have the desired relationship of environmental situation, we are simply forced to abandon spectatorship.

I would reply, however, that environmental situation by the viewer is not incompatible with assuming a concurrently static, external point of view.  After all, sometimes we do find ourselves viewing from a distance the interconnected sections of a natural environment we, at the same time, inhabit;  moreover, we are aesthetically stimulated precisely because of the distance separating those sections from ourselves.  A walk over a rolling hillside may suddenly open up to an expanse of variegated hills, sun-dappled meadows and woodlands, whose distance from us is an inherent ingredient in what we find aesthetically interesting.  But this relationship does not emerge just because in the course of walking we are reminded of (or unwittingly conditioned by) some schematically composed picture hanging on a museum wall or printed on the pages of a calendar; this separation between ourselves and the natural environment develops because of the rhythmical patterns of shapes, color segments and spatial relations strikingly present in the setting itself.  (Of course, in the spirit of the refined formalism I am proposing, such formal elements comprise only one aspect of our interest.  We are also interested in what these objects are: oak and pine, grasslands, hills, etc.)  So the fact that this natural vista resembles a picture does not entail (or even suggest) that we resemble in any important way museum attendees who are severed from a pictorial object.  Sometimes natural settings really are before us and out of our reach — at least for the time being.  But then we advance further in our walk and our scene is metamorphosed into a perceptual field where the viewing distance is diminished.  Environmental circumstances are rich enough to present both the distant panorama plus that which is contiguous to us and palpable, and our active engagement with our natural surroundings has no alternative but to accommodate both, as required responses to changing conditions.

2. The Nature of Nature

Sweeping arcs of cranes descending to a marsh in Wisconsin, undulations of pine and aspen branches in a canyon in Utah, Pacific waves exploding in shards of white spray in a cove in northern California.  Why couldn’t an aesthetic appreciation of nature exhibit itself through attending to such phenomena?  And not casually, as might take place when the spectator’s mind is preoccupied by other interests — a vigorous jog or hike, a career or personal problem — but carefully, with an eye (and ear and skin) attuned to the similarities and dissimilarities among the shapes, lines, colors, sounds, and levels of cold and moisture one is surrounded by and experiencing?  In many ways this bears some resemblance to the way I might immerse myself in the display of formal properties in an abstract artwork, such as the curving black lines of a Jackson Pollock painting, sweeping across an indeterminate and unframed space before me, overlapping and intersecting other lines and shiny black puddles and splotches of silver, some surprisingly delicate in the weblike patterns that accidentally emerge.

Certainly one is able to do this:  the phenomena are that rich and the mind is sufficiently supple and disciplined both to address and study them.  No doubt an orientation of this sort might elicit, from even the most resistant analysts, the classification, “aesthetic appreciation.”  But according to Carlson, such an approach could not rightly be called an “aesthetic appreciation of nature.”  This is because, for all its attentiveness to phenomenal detail, it ultimately comprises a careless disregard of the object one is presumably appreciating (pp. 62-68).  That object is nature, which is not in reality a mere screen for the discrimination of aesthetically interesting forms.  Nature in reality is a complex of objects and events having its own autonomous existence and structure, which is in no way dependent on human existence and structures, including our own aesthetic standards and categories.  Surely natural phenomena may lend themselves to this sort of discrimination; but that does not mean such an application is true to that which is distinctive and central to nature.  After all, an edition of Hamlet may also lend itself for use as an exercise in grammar or a lesson on printing.

All this becomes evident when we recognize that anything can be seen in a number of ways, depending on the categories, descriptions or frameworks one uses as a context.  If we see natural patterns under the formalist category, or under the descriptions “visual rhythm,” or “sweeping arc,” or “shards of spray,” we might as well be seeing patterns constructed artifactually by an environmental designer.  (Imagine: some yet-to-be, twenty-first century computer artist who manages to generate an internally undetectable set of environmental experiences, through something he calls a Virtual Nature Machine).  As Carlson reminds us, to appreciate nature aesthetically means to see possibly the identical visual pattern the formalist discerns, but under a category (or description) that reflects faithfully what those objects are that present these patterns to us (pp. 62-68).  Arcs of descending cranes are not just curves sweeping against a grayish cloudy background, but the latest moment in a pattern of migratory returns these birds have followed for millions of years.  Here is the naturalist Aldo Leopold strikingly making this point:

And so they live and have their being — these cranes — not in the constricted present, but in the wider reaches of evolutionary  time.  Their annual return is the ticking of the geologic clock. [9]

Presumably the formalist, with her neglect of the history of what she sees, resides in the “constricted present” that, in Leopold’s view, distorts the genuine nature of the journey these birds take.  To appreciate nature aesthetically would seem to require a natural aesthetic that recognizes the autonomy of nature.

Elsewhere I have described Leopold’s aesthetic as biotic aesthetics because of its presumption that the proper aesthetic appreciation of nature requires our recognizing how the various living species are ecologically and evolutionally interdependent. [10]     Much of Carlson’s thoughts would agree with this emphasis.  And Carlson’s recommendation that we should bring to bear on our aesthetic appreciation the naturalist’s knowledge of the biological and geological forces that produced these interdependencies, is a legitimate one when viewed from the perspective of a biotic aesthetic. [11]

The question to Carlson I want to raise at this point deals with the meaning of ‘nature’.  Might not the term itself be an ambivalent one, which becomes subject to at least two legitimate interpretations?  One is plainly an objectivist sense, where the subject matter picked out by the term ‘nature’ operates independently of the human mind, as this mind is expressed through the concepts, language, thoughts and feelings it either constructs or undergoes.  But the other sense — call it the subjectivist one — refers to a situation where human meanings are projected onto the human subject’s environment and interwoven structurally into it, as the scene of our hopes, triumphs, fears, consolations, anxieties and elations.  There are some suggestions in Carlson’s earlier work that open the door slightly for this subjectivist interpretation, since it was Carlson himself who acknowledged there that ‘nature’ is best understood as a ‘natural environment’, where

[a]n environment is the setting in which we exist as a “sentient part”; it is our surroundings.  (P. 47)

But if we are at the center of the natural phenomena that we experience (and establish) as our surroundings, then our own subjective, human-based interests may be viewed as exacting a real interactive effect on our biologically-  and geologically-driven surroundings.  And whether or not we perceive or cognitively learn the truth about what caused these biological and geological products, our projections onto our surroundings are as real from the subjective framework as those causal forces are from the objective one.  The natural environment should be understood therefore not only as the scene of biology, but as that of biography, as well.

The conceptual situation we find is analogous to debates about the meaning and reality of color.  “What is the reality of color?”  is an unanswerable question, until reality is relativized to a framework or category.  If we are told  “. . . from the perspective of physics. . . ,” we are able to proceed, and can answer the question in terms of the molecular structure present in the surfaces of physical objects, where color is a dispositional property that, under standard observational conditions, may cause a person to have a distinctive visual sensation.  On the other hand, if we are told  “. . . from the perspective of the perceiver’s visual field. . . ,” then we are directed not to molecular structure, but to phenomenal appearances and their qualitative differences from other phenomenal appearances in terms of hue, saturation, brightness, etc.  In short, colors are real in both ways, but each way is relative to a certain description, category or framework.

And so what I am proposing is a dual-aspect view toward nature, where from the objectivist perspective, the biological and geological dimensions of natural phenomena (as Carlson and Leopold indicate) are considered essential.  At the same time, from the subjectivist perspective, the human-derived meanings of natural phenomena must be given the recognition they are due. [12]    This subjectivist recognition may be realized in a formalist manner.  But in keeping with the refined formalism discussed earlier in relation to art appreciation, here in dealing with nature appreciation, formalism will be joined with other approaches, including the symbolic, psychological and moral responses to the patterns present in natural phenomena.  In fact, we might even call it an iconographic formalism, under whose framework the soaring arcs, shattering waves, radiant sunrises and flowing botanical rhythms can be understood and appreciated for their exemplificative  and expressive meanings, and not just their abstract and bare forms. 

Let me briefly suggest what I mean.  I am following Nelson Goodman’s distinction between exemplificative and expressive symbolism here. [13]    When something is both an instance and a sign of one of its own properties, it is called by Goodman, an exemplifying symbol of that property.  Thus a yellow paint chip, acquired from a catalog of wall paints, is both an instance and a sign of its property of being yellow.  In a similar way, the natural environment (for a suitably positioned human perceiver) may present an assortment of exemplifying symbols, such as sunlight exemplifying radiance, ocean currents exemplifying waviness, cliff outlines exemplifying jaggedness or abruptness.  When these properties, in turn, are viewed in a metaphorical (as opposed to literal) manner, Goodman calls the result, expressive meaning.  Thus the radiance literally exemplified by the sunlight metaphorically expresses, possibly, hope.  The waviness literally exemplified by the ocean currents may metaphorically express  the unalterable rhythms of time.  The jaggedness literally exemplified by the cliff outlines may metaphorically express tension or disturbance.  By understanding our subjective transactions with the natural environment in this way, we may acquire an understanding of how nature itself may be accorded a dimension different from that of the exclusively biological or ecological.  

And this is important.  Surely it is true that we do not pay proper regard to the object of our natural appreciation if (as Carlson reminds us) we do not acknowledge the objective structure of that object, as this structure is revealed by the object’s natural history.  At the same time, it is also true that we disregard who we are as human subjects if we reduce ourselves to merely one more living species like any other, whose proper relationship to the natural environment must exclude any of its own projective inclinations.  As subjects we have the capacity to shape the phenomena presented by the natural environment and to construct an environment of meaningful (or iconographic) symbols.  It is what we are as interpreting creatures, and it is in turn what nature often, and quite essentially, becomes for us

But we should make no mistake: a genuine duality rules here.  Thus Oscar Wilde (curiously like Bell in his propensity to overgeneralize) needs to be reined in.  Wilde’s attitude toward nature was wrong not because it never applied to the subject of his claim, but because he presumed it always (and only) did.  Nature is not always, in Wilde’s words, “our creation”;  nature merely sometimes is, and only in some ways or aspects. [14]   

My conclusion, then is that the two aspects of nature — the objective and the subjective — both need to be acknowledged and included in a joint conception of the nature of nature.  Allen Carlson has provided us with an invaluable set of proposals on how to incorporate the objective aspect into that overall view.  Those who wish to explore how the subjective can be worked in will have, in Carlson’s book, a very high benchmark of philosophical craftsmanship against which to measure their own efforts.

[1] Aesthetics and the Environment: The Appreciation of Nature, Art and Architecture  (London and New York: Routledge, 2000).  All in-text references to Carlson will be to this book.

[2] Art  (1914; reprint, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1958), p. 28.

[3] See also p. 30, where Carlson acknowledges the validity of formalism, but only as it designated one approach among several that were developing in twentieth-century theory and criticism:  “And now vigorously growing new artistic traditions, different schools of criticism, and opposing theories of art have combined to achieve a balanced appreciation of the formal dimensions of art along with its other dimensions.”

[4] Principles of Art History,  trans. M.D. Hottinger (New York: Dover Publications, 1950), pp. 124-48.

[5] Ibid., p. 126.

[6] Ibid., pp. 125-26.

[7] Ibid., pp. 131-32.

[8] Ibid., p. 146, for a reproduction of View of Haarlem (which is also discussed on pp. 144-45).

[9] A Sand County Almanac, With Essays on Conservation from Round River (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 103.

[10] “The Dream of an Autonomous Natural Aesthetic: An Assessment of Leopold and Callicott on the Land Aesthetic,” in The Beauty Around Us: Environmental Aesthetics in the Scenic Landscape and Beyond, ed. Diane P. Michelfelder and William H. Wilcox (Albany: State University of New York Press, forthcoming).

[11] The importance of scientific knowledge for the aesthetic appreciation of nature is one of Carlson’s central positions.  For some analyses and arguments see pp. 11, 49-51, 62-68, 85-90, and 119-21.

[12] See Thomas Nagel’s application of this dual-aspect view in his analysis of the subjective and the objective as two mutually irreducible frameworks for understanding certain philosophical issues: for example, The View from Nowhere  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 208-31, and Mortal Questions (London: Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp. 196-213.

[13]    See Nelson Goodman and Catherine Z. Elgin, “How Buildings Mean,” chap. 2 in Reconceptions in Philosophy and Other Arts and Sciences (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing, 1988); and Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing, 1976), pp. 52-67, 85-95.

[14]    The quote is from “The Decay of Lying” (1891), reprinted in Oscar Wilde, The Artist as Critic, ed. Richard Ellmann (New York: Random House, 1968), p. 312.   

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