Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Florence M. Hetzler on the Aesthetics of Ruins

Florence M. Hetzler in "The Aesthetics of Ruins: A New Category of Being," Journal of Aesthetic Education , Vol. 16, No. 2 (Summer, 1982), pp. 105-108 says "A ruin can be defined as the disjunctive product of the intrusion of nature without loss of the unity that man produced. This product must be semiotically different from that of the man-made work when it was first made."  Yet I do not see much presence of nature in a ruin.  If you want to see some nature, go to a place that has minimal human presence.  Ruins are full of humanity.  I suppose the idea is that the decay is "intrusion of nature" although, interestingly, we do not see the disintegration of a natural bridge as "intrusion of nature."  Hetzler goes on "We must free ourselves from history to be sure that we are looking at the ruin as a ruin. It may be massive; it may show human power; it may show the interplay with nature. We do not have here only natural beauty or only artistic beauty, but we have a third kind of beauty: a ruin beauty, which is a new category of being. In it we come closer to the sublime, the ineffable, and the indescribable than we do in natural beauty or in artistic beauty only."  I must disagree again.  I don't like being told that I must do something when that thing is quite the opposite of what I would do (unless of course what I would do goes against some reasonable rule).  I don't free myself from history when viewing a ruin.  Part of what I do is immerse myself in history, as least some of the time.  The ruin comes alive for me as manifesting history.  Hetzler is partially right on this point:  it does not give us the beauty we would see, for example, in the monument in its state of recent completion.  But incomplete or partially ruined works of art can still be beautiful as works of art.  The Coliseum is a ruin but still beautiful as architecture.  Imagination can fill in many of the missing parts.  What you can see of natural beauty in the Coliseum is minimal at best.  As for sublimity, it is true that the ruin adds to monumentality (which in itself is sublime) the idea of death and decay.  So, using Burke's idea of sublimity, part of the sublime aspect of the ruin is that it can lead our thoughts to these ideas.  But that it would give us something more of the ineffable or the indescribable in this sense than great art or scenes of natural beauty is hard to believe.  Don't overrate the ruin.  Hetzler, however, makes her idea of the importance of nature in ruins more cogent when she says  "Nature gives it a shape, and it gives nature a shape. A ruin needs, for example, the smoothed, bleached stone of Corinth; the growing grass of Macchu Picchu..."  and gives many other examples.  One wonders:  is nature simply that which ruins the ruin, or is it something that adds new features, for example the way that roots of trees can intermingle with stones to produce aesthetically interesting combinations.  Hetzler interestingly writes "Because a ruin is a unique combination of man and nature; because it has its own sound, light, and smells, a reconstruction of the man-made
part of the ruin would not be so interesting as the original. It would not have its own environment that constitutes the world that it was."  It might be as interesting, but it certainly would be interesting in the same way.  An odd thing about ruins is that we would we miss their aesthetic quality as ruins if time were reversed suddenly and we were face to face with what-was-ruined.  Whether or not there is something greater about ruins than art or nature because it combines the two is an interesting question and I hope to think about it some more.

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