Monday, February 10, 2014

Are art-mediated responses to be disregarded in appreciation of nature?

Aestheticians of nature frequently refer to John Muir in supporting the idea that art-mediated responses should be disregarded in our appreciation of nature.  He is often described as an opponent of the concept of the picturesque.  This is surprising given that in his book The Yosemite (1912) he uses the word "picturesque" positively at least eleven times.  For example, he refers there to the picturesque Cathedral Rocks and picturesque oaks.  The impression that Muir is opposed to the picturesque and to art-mediated responses to nature is usually based on a reading of his "A Near View of the High Sierra" to be found in Nature, Aesthetics and Environmentalism edited by Carlson and Lintott (from his book The Mountains of California, 1894)  Here he says that "To artists, few portions of the High Sierras are, strictly speaking, picturesque." (64) However this is not to say that they lack this quality for Muir himself!  He seems rather to be speaking here specifically of painters of his time.  Even this seems a strange thing to say since there are many amazing paintings of Yosemite by artists of his own time, not to mention the works of later artists, such as photographer Ansel Adams.  The paintings of Albert Bierstadt, for example Yosemite Valley, Yosemite Park (1868) and Thomas Moran, for example Domes of Yosemite (1904), show that Yosemite has long been a rich source for painters.  More recently, consider the watercolor "Birch Lake, near Hetch Hetchy" by Stephen Curl (2012). 

Muir has a theory for why he thinks that painters will find the Sierras problematic.  He speaks of how the mountain landscape there is "not clearly divisible" into smaller units and how this fact makes it difficult to isolate "artistic bits capable of being made into warm, sympathetic, lovable pictures with appreciable humanity in them."  Perhaps artists in 1894 had trouble using the Sierras to produce such effects.  But this in itself is not an argument against seeing the Sierras from an artist's perspective.  It may just be that artists from different periods will see different things.  Well, actually, that's pretty much the way it is.  It is not required to be picturesque that a landscape look like a picture by a typical painter of 1894.  The landscape could be picturesque by looking like a painting by David Hockney, a contemporary landscape artist.  That is, it doesn't have to be warm, sympathetic and lovable to be picturesque.  Or, if readers balk at this expansion of the notion of the picturesque, it is certainly the case that "seeing something in nature as like a picture" is not itself limited to seeing it as like a picture by Claude Lorraine or like a picture by Bierstadt.  Muir himself, I will argue, has a view of the picturesque that expands beyond that which is warm, sympathetic and lovable.   

Muir actually says some very positive things about the picturesque in "A Near View."  There he writes about how "on the head waters of the Tuolumne, is a group of wild peaks on which the geologist may say that the sun has but just begun to shine, which is yet in a high degree picturesque."  (65) His description of this scene in terms of foreground, background and colors could have been made by a painter or a poet.  Also, noteworthy in his description is his constant use of metaphor:  he speaks of the "crystal fountains" of the Toulumne, the river "swaying pensively from side to side with calm, stately gestures past dipping willows and sedges....ever filling the landscape with spiritual animation, and manifesting the grandeur of its sources in every movement and tone."  He even gazes repeatedly at the "glorious picture" and encloses it in a frame with his arms, speaking of it as being "ready and waiting for the elected artist."  And he wishes that he himself knew how to paint, although he contents himself with mental "photographs" and "sketches" in his notebooks.  

Following this description we have the humorous episode in which he encounters two artists, one of them Scottish (is it Moran?), who wanted to know whether he had come across a landscape "suitable for a large painting."  He then describes this one at Toulumne meadows which had "excited my admiration."  The humorous part is that although the artists are impressed by the colors they saw they are disappointed (at first) saying: "All this is huge and sublime, but we see nothing as yet at all available for effective pictures."  The problem, for them, is that the foregrounds, middle-grounds and backgrounds are all similar.  However, they are soon satisfied when "the whole picture [of what Muir previously saw and admired] stood revealed in the flush of the alpenglow."  What they wanted was "a typical alpine landscape" which they weren't getting previously, but now they are.  Notice that nowhere does Muir reject the beauty that the artists seek.  Indeed he speaks of "feasting awhile on the view" that the artists enjoyed.  

In the story, Muir decides to leave his companions to climb Mr. Ritter on his own.  As soon as this happens one might think that his aesthetic references would no longer run into the realm of the arts (if contemporary aestheticians who take a cognitivist approach to the aesthetics of nature are right).  And yet this is not what happens.  In speaking of the Tuolumne river he says "what a fine traveling companion it proved to be, what songs it sang, and how passionately it told the mountain's own joy!  Gladly I climbed along its dashing border, absorbing its divine music, and bathing from time to time in waftings of irised spray."  And then "new beauty came streaming on the sight; painted meadows, late-blooming gardens, peaks of rare architecture."  Each beauty is described in terms of a different art!  Muir did not limit himself to the art of painting in his descriptions:  music and architecture also play a role.  Sculpture does too when he speaks of a scene "adorned with characteristic sculptures of the ancient glaciers that swept over this entire region." (67)  The art of gardening is also mentioned, as when he says "pools at this elevation are furnished with little gardens."

It is true that the knowledge he had about geography also animates his experience.  For example, recognizing that the waters lead eventually through the San Francisco Bay to the sea adds to the entire experience.  It gives it a certain aura.  However, this is not just geographical knowledge that informs perception.  Rather, it is form of story-telling in which his experience of the mountains  scenes he perceives is imaginatively enhanced by the story. 

Yuriko Saito, a well known aesthetician of nature, takes another approach to this.  She writes, "In contrast to the accompanying artists' pictorial appreciation of the landscape, Muir attends to the way in which the geological events are embodied in the rock formations, and celebrates nature's own story-telling without imposing his own vision and poetry upon it"  ("Appreciating nature on its own terms" in Carlson and Lintott, p. 161.)  My reading of Muir is somewhat different.  I see him as a strong advocate of using arts-based viewing in his appreciation of nature.  He did incorporate his knowledge of geological events into his perceptions and his descriptions of Yosemite.  However, rather than this being in contrast to his artist friends and contrary to the picturesque I would say that this is a supplement to his experience that enhances his concept of the picturesque.  I would agree that he did not impose his own vision and poetry on the landscape.  However, it is clear that he has his own vision and that he constantly uses poetic metaphors in articulating this vision.  In a sense he is using his own vision and poetry.  The term "imposition" is supposed to imply something negative, something to be avoided, and it may be that some poetic visions or renderings of natural scenes seem like impositions (for example, ones that stress aesthetic properties that cannot be found when one is there).  It is not clear to me why his own vision and poetry is any less an imposition than that of Bierstadt or Moran.  In any case, I do not accept the idea of contemporary aestheticians of nature that nature has its "own story-telling" independently of the stories we tell about it.  At best, we can say that the story Muir tells seems immensely fitting to those who have visited the same scenes.

Many aestheticians of nature have commented on these passages by Muir.  They frequently make fun of the painters for their interest in finding something "alpine" to represent.  However, remember that what the painters saw was "alpenglow" and that if Muir was opposed to the alpine picturesque one would think that he himself would be opposed to using this concept to describe his own aesthetic experiences.  (alpenglow has been described in Websters as "a reddish flow seen near sunset or sunrise on the summits of mountains" and originates from the German Alpenglühen, from Alpen Alps + Glühen glow, first used in 1871.) But instead, as he hikes by himself, he writes of the rosy glow that gradually deepens in the evening and says, "This is the alpenglow, to me one of the most impressive of all the terrestrial manifestations of God.  At the touch of the divine light, the mountains seemed to kindle to a rapt, religious consciousness..."  This is hardly someone taken only by the glories of geological science or nature's "own story" told through geology or natural science alone.  Nor do we find here that Muir limited himself to perceiving the mountains as an artist would.  This is a highly aesthetic experience of the sublime that partakes of the religious.  This religious dimension is also to be found when he speaks of "the darkest scriptures of the mountains [the desolate scenes in the very high sierras]" as "illuminated with bright passages of love that never fail to make themselves felt when one is alone."  (68)  [see my next post for more on this.] 

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