Sunday, March 19, 2006

Deer in snow

Ronald Hepburn’s essay ‘Trivial and Serious in the Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature’, argues that whilst it is ‘trivial’ to engage in an unreflective superficial reading of a landscape, it is just as trivial to resort to an ‘ironical, anti-Romantic, belittling, levelling reaction’ to the idea that landscapes can be beautiful. There is a balance to be struck. Nature needs to be respected and seen on its own terms, but this does not mean that only a detailed or objective ‘scientific’ reaction is acceptable. It is valid to appreciate natural landscapes in terms of metaphor, as long as we do not simply fall back on dead metaphors. Aesthetic appreciation of a landscape will involve the viewer in shaping the disparate elements into a unified whole, but serious appreciation means at the same time not losing site of the arbitrariness and otherness of nature.

In another essay reprinted in The Reach of the Aesthetic (2001), ‘Data and Theory in Aesthetics’ Hepburn continues this theme. He uses the example of a view of deer moving across a hillside in the snow. Here it is not essential to keep in mind the facts of ‘forestry as commerce or animals as food’ but, it is necessary to attend to the reality of this natural event rather than automatically experience it selectively according to pre-existing aesthetic criteria. Must an awareness of environmental concerns colour our appreciation of nature? “Certainly our cherishing of aesthetic experience must not be allowed to displace practical efforts to reduce environmental threats and dangers. But neither do these dangers have to dominate all our approaches to nature. There is room – and great need – for both.”

Hepburn also disagrees with Stan Godlovitch, who has argued for an aesthetic appreciation that recognises the categorical otherness of nature, implying a sense of being outside oneself. For Hepburn we do belong in nature and therefore the partial understanding we possess, conditioned by our culture, is a legitimate starting point for aesthetic appreciation. This appreciation should be is a synthesis that simultaneously encompasses nature’s mutability and stability, the landscape’s present appearance infused with a sense of its past.

No comments: