Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Object of Art Model for Appreciation of Nature

Allen Carlson famously opposes the "object of art model" for appreciating nature. He agrees with Santayana’s suggestion that when appreciation is directed to objects that have determinate form in nature “we no longer have genuine aesthetic appreciation of nature.” He thinks that in doing so we must remove the object from its surroundings in reality or imaginatively. Then, he thinks, we will be treating it like a work of art, perhaps as a "readymade," but not as it is in itself. There seems to be a confusion here about how we appreciate art. When we appreciate art we seldom really remove it from its surroundings, even imaginatively. As Paul Ziff has observed, we are, when appreciating a painting, at least subliminally aware of the frame and the gallery walls. And, except for the strictest formalists, we confront the work in the context of information we may have about the processes and context of its creation. This is why we pay attention to the label on the wall. Carlson is simply mistaken that art works are “self-contained aesthetic units such that neither their environment of creation nor their environment of display is aesthetically relevant.” Even when we know nothing of these matters we have a tendency to view the work in terms of how it was probably created: we try to reconstruct its context. Carlson says that “natural objects are a part of and have been formed within their environments” as though works of art were not formed within their own environments or are not part of the environments in which they are displayed! I would like to argue that focusing on determinate objects in nature, for example a specific rock, pine cone, or flower, is a legitimate form of appreciation of nature. This can happen when these items are found in nature or even when they are taken home and put on a mantelpiece. In doing so we may have the very kind of background knowledge and awareness of the original background of creation that we bring to a work of art.

I am not denying that natural objects can take on different qualities when moved from their environment of creation to another environment of display (e.g. the mantelpiece). This is also true for works of art. Whether this is a negative is another matter. To be sure, natural rocks when incorporated into the wall of a work of architecture take on different aesthetic qualities than they would have had in their original location. (It is doubtful, by the way, that they would have had any aesthetic qualities at all if they were underground and invisible in their original location.) They do not lose their historical context: that context is simply placed in the background so that we are only vaguely aware that, for example, these rocks were collected locally. Carlson speaks as though the highlighting of those features of such objects that are not related to the context of origin makes their appreciation “limited” in the sense that something has been lost. But in fact much has been gained. The incorporation of the rocks into the piece of architecture enhances our own experience of the building as a whole and brings us close to nature in ways that, although different from those of the naturalist, are not necessarily worse.

I have just been looking at a spider in its web in sunlight: what a thing of beauty! But when appreciating this beauty I did not think much about the surrounding garden or about the evolution of spiders. I just focused on the web and the spider, on how they looked at that moment. On Carlson's view, this would be wrong: I would not be treating the web as it is in itself. I just don't buy it.

Allen Carlson, "Aesthetic Appreciation of the Natural Environment," in Aesthetics ed. Susan Feagin and Patrick Maynard. (Oxford U. Press, 1997) 30-40.

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