How do you classify art? Is artwork merely that which is in an art gallery? Is it whatever an artist has created? Maybe it’s just that which any given person sees as art. Pushing the boundaries in terms of the terminology of art is something that’s been happening on a large scale for the last century or so; Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 work Fountain — an ordinary urinal — was submitted by the artist for an exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York. The Society was bound by their own rules to accept the artwork of every artist who paid the display fee; yet the urinal was never displayed, because it was considered indecent and, furthermore, not art. Something associated with bodily waste could never, the board of directors thought, be considered a work of art. Duchamp resigned in protest, considering the vote to hide his work from the display as effectively censoring him. Fountain was the catalyst for significant change in the artistic world; what, now, was art?
We still grapple with the question more than one hundred years on. Here, I want to discuss the theory that proposes that nature can be a work of art, and, furthermore, I want to examine how that affects our relationship with environmental conservation. The theory of aesthetic attitude proposes that artwork is something which we take a disinterested attitude towards and that we enjoy for its own sake, not as a means to an end. It is important to note that the theory isn’t trying to say that these two terms make an artwork beautiful; rather, it’s trying to say that fulfilling these two conditions makes something a work of art. There are works of art which can be ugly, under this theory, which might seem a little strange. Sometimes, we conflate beauty with art, but this theory wants to divide the two.
The first stipulation means that, when I’m looking at a beautiful forest, I am not aesthetically assessing it if I’m thinking about what it can do for me. That’s more of a practical assessment. So, looking at a clump of trees, I might think about how trees sequester carbon, and how this is good for the environment. This is definitely an important assessment, yet it isn’t an aesthetic one. An aesthetic one is about how the trees look; maybe how beautiful the different shades of green on their leaves are. Again, this isn’t to say that practical considerations are less important.
Indeed, they may very well be more important. It’s to say that judging something aesthetically is judging what it looks like, rather than what it does for me. Imagine two art collectors. The first has a very expensive Monet in her possession, and she values it because it will make her a lot of money. The second has a Picasso, that she values because she thinks it’s beautiful. It may also make her a lot of money; and maybe this is even more important in her circumstance, because she may have a family to feed, whereas the first art collector does not. The second art collector is viewing the artwork with an aesthetic attitude; the first is not.
The second stipulation, disinterest, revolves around a similar concept. When I listen to a piece of music with the aim of getting a good grade on my music test, I am not listening with an aesthetic attitude. I’m listening with a practical attitude. But when I put these concerns aside, I listen with an intent to appreciate the music aesthetically. Say a famous photographer goes to the Andes. He takes photographs of the mountain range. If he views the mountain range only as a means to an end; only with the intent on winning a prize in photography, or being handsomely paid by a geographical magazine, then he does not view this particular mountain range with an aesthetic attitude. Say he observes a rare Titicaca water frog and remarks on its beauty. He is viewing the water frog as a beautiful creature, and thus he is looking at it with an aesthetic attitude. Say he spies the short-haired chinchilla, a critically endangered species. He revels in the fame and monetary gain he will accrue from getting a good photo of these rare creatures. He is not viewing the animal, now, with an aesthetic attitude.
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Now we’ve seen how the aesthetic attitude can work in reference to nature, you might be wondering: how will this theory make us better environmental conservationists? Well, Allen Carlson argues that the aesthetic view we take towards the environment matters a great deal in whether we choose to conserve the environment or destroy it. He references J. Baird Callicott, who believes that one of the reasons we designate certain areas as national parks and the like is because we see these places as beautiful. Where I live, in the UK, we designate certain areas an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) which confers unto that area protection under certain special rights, namely the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CROW Act). This means relevant organisations and local authorities have to try to enhance the beauty of that particular hotspot, conserve and protect it.
I live on the lip of the Cotswolds, a designated AONB which covers a relatively large surface area. It’s just stunningly beautiful. The Cotswolds’ website notes that, geologically speaking, ‘the Cotswolds is a limestone mass stretching 100 miles SW by NE with Bath to the south and Chipping Campden to the north. The ‘wold’ is old English for ‘upland common’. These rolling hills are used mainly for sheep and arable farming. The local breed, ‘the Cotswold’ can produce a fleece in excess of 10 Kilos.’
The Coaley Peak View Point is beautiful; right at the top, there are views for miles and miles of rolling hills and fields. This kind of aesthetic experience lends itself to awe; the philosopher Immanuel Kant called it a feeling of the sublime, that we get when we look out at such expansive views that stretch further than the eye can see. Because we can’t comprehend how much greater this land area is than us, we experience a sense of overwhelming awe at the environment.
It’s an experience directly linked to the aesthetic and the beauty of nature. When we marvel at how great nature is, we want to conserve it, to protect its beauty. The experience of the sublime particularly lends itself to conservation. When we look at just one or two fields, we do not experience the sublime. But these rolling, expansive fields that go on for miles bring out the experience of awe in us. Thus, we want to conserve a mass of land; not just the hotspots that Callicott describes.
Great Witcombe Roman Villa is another beautiful place in the Cotswolds. Nature grows alongside the remains of the Roman villa, and you can walk freely among the structure. Here is the conservation of both history and nature, together, both equally important. We conserve history in a similar way that we might want to conserve nature; we conserve history, perhaps, because we want to know where we came from, we want to learn lessons from the past. We’re fascinated with our origins.
Great Witcombe Roman Villa, a place where history and nature conservation meet
The little village of Castle Combe, said by some to be the prettiest village in England, is surrounded by little green coves of nature. Much of Castle Combe’s appeal lies in these natural delights. The little cottages form a human enclave, set against the vast swathes of nature surrounding them. Most people want to live in beautiful areas, and they want to live in a place that has nature that’s easily accessible to them. These are all reasons for conservation. We admire the beauty of nature, when we look at it with an aesthetic eye. We marvel at the number of species, at the variety of species in an ecosystem. This inspires us to conserve ecosystems, and help them to flourish. We want to preserve and maintain the beauty that is around us.
Castle Combe, a quintessentially English “chocolate-box” village, surrounded by beautiful countryside
With great architectural design comes great gardens; a stately home is matched by a stately garden. The Cotswolds pulls huge numbers of tourists each year, and they come for the beautiful natural backdrop to homes like Dyrham House. Dyrham Park’s name supposedly comes from the Saxon word for deer, and you can spot a herd of 150 fallow deer who have 270 acres to roam free across. This is a feature very particular to Dyrham Park, and it draws visitors back time and time again. Dyrham Park is run by The National Trust, a registered charity, and so every pound spent there goes directly back into the upkeep and conservation of the environment surrounding the Park.
Practically, then, an aesthetic attitude can transform a place. AONB’s draw money primarily because they are beautiful, and people want them to stay beautiful. The enjoyment of nature cannot, for most people, be crudely translated to a monetary value, but the reality is that human beings will pay to see what is beautiful. When nature flourishes, it is beautiful. So people will pay for the upkeep of beautiful places, when it’s clear that their money is going to the conservation of a beautiful place.
Dyrham House, set in Dyrham Park, in the AONB of the Cotswolds
It might seem selfish, to some, to care for the environment because it’s beautiful. If you ask your partner why they love you, and they respond, “it’s because you’re beautiful”, you would quite reasonably feel affronted. Yet the reality is that, for a lot of people, the force behind loving the environment for future generations might not hold much weight. They may well want to love the environment for what it gives to them now; how beautiful it is for them to look at as it stands now. This might well be somewhat self-centred, but it doesn’t make how they feel any less true. It might be a little bit wrong to love nature for how beautiful it is, for the experience it gives you, but that is a lot of the reason that people love nature. We ought tap into that feeling in order to better conserve it.
The civil parish of Rodborough in the district of Stroud, Gloucestershire
Previously published on medium.com and is republished here under permission.
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