Thursday, July 29, 2010

The lush blue landscape

Last year Denis Dutton, editor of that useful website Arts and Letters Daily, published The Art Instinct, a book that applies evolutionary thinking to aesthetics.  Of particular interest for this blog is his opening chapter, 'Landscape and Longing', which begins with a discussion of Komar and Melamid's America's Most Wanted, a project I briefly discussed here before (one of the comments made on that post was a recommendation to read The Art Instinct).  Dutton takes Komar and Melamid's survey seriously and argues that 'the lush blue landscape type that the Russian artists discovered is found across the world because it is an innate preference.'  To do this he draws on some of the psychology of landscape literature that has grown up in the wake of Jay Appleton's book The Experience of Landscape:
  • Gordon H. Orians and Judith H. Heerwagen in 'Evolved Responses to Landscapes' (1992) suggest human beings would take pleasure in 'savanna landscapes', featuring open spaces with low grass and groupings of trees, with evidence of water, diverse vegetation, animal and bird life, and a view to the horizon.  Our taste in trees depends on how climbable they are: the authors posit a cross-cultural preference for dense canopies that fork near the ground. 
  • Stephen and Rachel Kaplan (e.g. Cognition and Envionment, 1982) have looked at the degree of complexity people like in landscapes and found a tendency to prefer terrain that both 'provides orientation and invites exploration.'  Legibility is enhanced with a clear focal point, whilst rivers or paths leading out of a picture give a pleasurable sense of mystery. 
  • Jay Appleton's original 'prospect and refuge' idea suggested that humans prefer to view a prospect from a place of refuge, ideally with an overhang (e.g. trees or roof) and protection from behind.  
  • Steve Sailor's 2005 article, 'From Bauhaus to Golf Course' describes this earlier literature and makes the link to Komar and Melamid's America's Most Wanted.  Sailor says that 'Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, author of the landmark 1975 book Sociobiology, once told me, "I believe that the reason that people find well-landscaped golf courses 'beautiful' is that they look like savannas, down to the scattered trees, copses, and lakes, and most especially if they have vistas of the sea."'   
  • J.D. Balling and J.H. Falk ('Development of Visual Preference for Natural Environments', 1982) showed photographs of landscapes to six different age groups and found a preference among the youngest: eight year olds preferred savannas to forests and deserts.  Similar results have apparently been found by Erich Synek and Karl Grammer (no precise reference for this research is given by Dutton).  They believe that increasing outdoor experience develops children's sophistication in response to landscapes.
  • Finally, moving from age to gender, Dutton cites Elizabeth Lyons ('Demographic Correlates of Landscape Preference', 1983) who has found that women have a greater liking for vegetation in landscapes than men, with an evolutionary predisposition towards areas providing refuge and fruit, as opposed to prospects providing opportunities for exploration and hunting. 

Frederick Edwin Church, The Heart of the Andes, 1859

This painting is reproduced in The Art Instinct.
Dutton says of it: 'the worldwide attraction of such landscapes even today is very likely an evolved trait'

Well, inspired by this line of research I tested my own six year old son with some art postcards.  He wasn't terrifically excited by any of them and certainly showed little interest in my example of a 'lush blue landscape' - his favourite was a forbidding vista of ice and mountains by Caspar Wolf.  Not to be put off, I then decided to search for atavistic environmental preferences in my wife, only to be disappointed when she picked out Friedrich's nearly featureless and abstract Monk by the Sea.  However, she then went on to say that she also liked a Cezanne and a Klimt because they had beautiful trees.  And asked about the lush blue landscape (by Claude) she said "yes I guess that's got trees too but, I don't know, there's something too big and spacious about that landscape..."

The Art Instinct has provoked a lot of debate and commentary (for example on the website of the The International Cognition & Culture Institute).  Denis Dutton assures readers and reviewers that he is not being reductive and views art as much more than just a product of evolution.  He covers a lot of ground and writes engagingly, but a fuller discussion on landscape might have helped to dispel natural concerns that the arguments being made are insufficiently sophisticated.  A longer treatment could have explored in more detail the relationship between research into our attitudes to certain natural environments and the slow development and complex history of landscape art in different parts of the world.  The book could also have dealt with more of the literature on landscape preferences, which is referred to in one of the articles collected on Dutton's website, a review by Mara Miller (author of The Garden as an Art).

Miller writes that 'there is no mention of the recent work on palaeolithic art, like David Lewis-Williams’s The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art (Thames and Hudson, 2004), or theory about the selective advantage conferred by Stone Age campsite selection.  More troublesome, Dutton does not mention, much less analyze (nor even cite in the bibliography), the deep body of work by new philosophers over the past fifteen years that is directly relevant to his topics and arguments.'  She goes on to list Emily Brady’s Aesthetics of the Natural Environment (University of Alabama Press, 2003), Malcolm Budd’s The Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature (Oxford University Press, 2002), The Aesthetics of Human Environments, edited by Arnold Berleant and Allen Carlson (Broadview Press, 2007); and the essays in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism's “Special Issue on Environmental Aesthetics” 56 (1998), 'with John Andrew Fisher’s “What the Hills Are Alive With: In Defense of the Sounds of Nature” (this last highly relevant, given Dutton’s relatively extensive discussion of sound and music).'  Some useful references there if you're interested in this topic.


Denis Dutton said...

Fascinating comments. You have a wonderful site.

I agree that I might have beefed up the bibliographic references for chapter 1.

The way to test wife and son, however, would not be just to ask for a reaction to assorted postcards in this way, but to have a selection of otherwise similar landscapes, one of which was the savanna. The statistical preference over a large number of six-year-olds backs the hypothesis (Balling and Falk).

The Synek and Grammer is in the endnotes, but as a website. You can find it there, but not in the bibliography.

I plan on more work with the savanna hypothesis, and I'd appreciate email contact. My email address is:
Please get in touch.

Many thanks,

Denis Dutton

Plinius said...

Thanks - I've now found the Synek and Grammer article here. I see they were asking Viennese children about actually being in the landscape: 'Would you like to live there (1-5) ? and Would you like to spent your holidays there (1-5)'. I expect my son (who has never experienced mountains) liked a dramatic mountain landscape for its imaginative possibilities.

EH said...

I think modern man, especially in western countries is heavily "programmed" by the multitude of landscape pictures published in the media. My own experience as producer of landscape art is that the average western middle class adult is still prisoned in the landscape ideal of the 18th/19th century. Anything that looks similar to an english landscape (garden) or a landscape painting of that period is appreciated. The old composition schemes are still more than valid as they are perpetuated by the advertsising, travel and leisure industry. Just look at one Rosamunde Pilcher TV-film and everything is there.
If children are allowed and have the time (years) to explore a landscape then they will be marked to the end of their days with the feature of that landscape and they will prefer always landscapes that show some of the features they experienced in their youth.