Monday, March 10, 2014

Can there be ruins in nature? And how would they be appreciated?

Robert Ginsberg in The Aesthetics of Ruins has a chapter on "Nature as Ruin."  There he argues that nature can be perceived as ruin.  Of course there is a real difference between a human ruin and a things that might be called "ruins" in nature.  We might speak of the ruins of an ecosystem or of a particular individual animal as a ruin of its former self (just as we might of a human).  But generally, to speak of something in nature as a "ruin" is a metaphor.  Ginsberg is focused on a particular kind of object in nature:  "The dead tree, broken seashell, split rock are available as aesthetic objects whose new unity differs from their intact originals..."   These are objects which we can see as aesthetically interesting even though they are hardly perfect examples of their kind or fully functioning.  Dead trees are of particular interest.  When I am walking in the woods with a camera I tend to be fascinated by dead trees.  As Ginsberg observes "the tree has been simplified, clarified, and unified."  He even argues that it has "more compact energy."  He then takes the unusual and controversial position that "the dead tree has more life, when it has ceased to be biological and turned to inanimacy.  It turns inward as complex object" one which is abstract and appealing in its abstraction.  This is correct, but it raises an interesting question.  Allen Carlson has famously argued against the Object of Art model of aesthetic appreciation of nature:  he claims that we should not appreciate nature as though it were a work of art, for example a tree as though it were a sculpture.  Ginsberg flies in the face of this idea.  He notes that in looking at the tree "the lines, masses, texture, and character of the former tree occupy our attention."  Clearly he is seeing it as though it were art, or with art-like categories.  This is not to say that the dead tree needs to be detached from its place of origin to experience it this way: "It can be enhanced by the surrounding life that cushions it upon a backdrop of greenery."  (203)   We are not seeing it as if it were in a gallery.  But still, there is a conflict here.  Ginsberg is also aware of the expressive qualities of the dead tree, how it is human like in its raising its tired arms, and, although dead, still stands:  kind of Stoic.  In addition to violating the rule against appreciating nature as though it were sculpture the dead tree can feature in appreciation of nature as though it were landscape painting.  Ginsberg observes that in London dead trees were once planted to make a scene like that found in Salvator Rosa's painting of a landscape with a dead tree.  Another experience of the dead tree is that of the roots, and certainly one of the powerful experiences of walking through the sequoia groves Calaveras Big Trees is looking at the massive roots of the uprooted trees that have fallen.  Ginsberg does not take an art-centered view of appreciation of nature.  At one point he observes that the fallen tree adds compost as it decays, that the forest feeds on its death, and so forth, all part of the ecological vision of the aesthetics of nature.  What intrigues me is that his aesthetics of the tree can include both the ecological and the art-influenced way:  a pluralist and synthesizing approach to appreciation of nature.  When discussing seashells Ginsberg notes that one can look not only for perfect examples of every species but also the individual.  But the most unique individuals are the shells that are broken and worn:  "they are interesting as forms and textures, independent of their kind."  So often the aesthetics of nature focuses only on that which is scientifically categorized:  and this directs us to the common, to the perfect example, and away from the unusual.  When Ginsberg speaks lovingly of these partial shells he sees them as handfuls of "objets trouves" and of course this is a troubling thought for the standard cognitivist view of the aesthetics of nature. 

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