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Saito, Yuriko, , . The aesthetics of unscenic nature
1998, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 56 (2):101-111.
Added by: Chris Blake-Turner, Contributed by: Christy Mag Uidhir

Abstract: Revolution in the aesthetics of nature often takes place when people start appreciating the parts of nature formerly regarded as aesthetically negative. One such example is the change in the aesthetics of mountains which occurred during the early eighteenth century. We are witnessing another revolution in this country which started a century ago. Its primary purpose is to overcome the pictorial appreciation of the natural environment, a legacy left by the picturesque aesthetics established during the latter half of the eighteenth century. The picturesque emphasis on vision as the vehicle for appreciating the natural environment has led us to regard nature as a series of scenes consisting of two- dimensional designs. This approach to nature has also encouraged us to look for and appreciate primarily the scenically interesting and beautiful parts of our natural environment. As a result, those environments devoid of effective pictorial composition, excitement, or amusement (that is, those not worthy of being represented in a picture) are considered lacking in aesthetic values. Consider, for example, John Muir’s experience of encountering two artists on Mt. Ritter in the High Sierras. Muir complains that they were satisfied only with a few scenic spots affording spectacular, startling views. However, other parts that attracted Muir, such as the autumn colors of the surrounding meadows and bogs, were “sadly disappointing” to the artists because they did not make “effective pictures.” Half a century later, Aldo Leopold echoes Muir’s complaint. “Concerned for the most part with show pieces,” Leopold claims, we are “willing to be herded through ‘scenic’ places” and “find mountains grand if they be proper mountains with waterfalls, cliffs, and lakes.” Because we expect to be entertained by the grand, amusing, and spectacular parts of nature (such as in national parks), we find the Kansas plains “tedious” and the prairies of Iowa and southern Wisconsin boring. Against such a common tendency, Leopold reminds us that “in country, as in people, a plain exterior often conceals hidden riches,” and urges us to develop the aesthetic sensitivity to penetrate the “plain” exterior to reach the hidden riches. The same sentiment is expressed by a contemporary painter, Alan Gussow. While not objecting to the popular appreciation of the “crown jewels” in the National Park system, he calls for “the cultivation of an ability to see beauty in more modest, less aggressive settings,” such as tidal wetlands and wildlife habitats. According to Gussow, their beauty is primarily based upon health and sustainability and is more subtle, less visible, than the grandiose splendor of the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, or Mt. Rainier. Holmes Rolston III, a contemporary writer on environmental ethics, reiterates this concern for the common inclination to depreciate the scenically challenged parts of nature. In defending the positive aesthetic value of a rotten carcass of an elk full of maggots (not our typical example of scenic beauty), he advises against our tendency to look for pretty objects and picturesque scenes fit for a postcard. ‘At the beginning,” Rolston claims, “we search for something pretty or colorful, for scenic beauty, for the picturesque. Landscapes regularly provide that, but when they do not, we must not think that they have no aesthetic properties.”‘ In his recent writings on nature aesthetics, Allen Carlson also challenges the pictorial approach to nature. According to Carlson, considering nature as a series of landscape paintings is inappropriate, simply because that is not what nature is. This landscape model for appreciating nature “requires us to view the environment as if it were a static representation which is essentially ‘two dimensional.’ It requires the reduction of the environment to a scene or view.” Experiencing nature as a static, representational, two-dimensional scene, however, “unduly limits our appreciation …, it also misleads it.” Carlson claims that with a proper approach (to be specified later), even pictorially challenged natural objects would appear aesthetically positive, confirmed by the change of people’s attitudes regarding mountains, jungles, insects, and reptiles.

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