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Professional Aesthetics and Environmental Reform
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Marcia Eaton

When the APA met in New York City last winter, a New York Times reporter covered the event with not a little skepticism about the relevance of philosophy to contemporary society. One can only imagine how this reporter would describe the national and regional meetings of the ASA. I doubt we would fare much better. But at least some of those who have been attending both the APA and ASA meetings for several decades must be more confident than the journalist that philosophy does have more and more to offer “the real world.” Indeed more and more of us are invited into that world to share our expertise. This is not just true, say, of bio-ethicists; it is true of aestheticians as well. Reformers in art education regularly have sought out many of our number to assist with curricular developments that include aesthetics as well as self-expression. The Committee for Aesthetics in Education has sponsored several sessions at our meetings that describe these forays.

The Newsletter editors have asked me to describe my ventures in another “real world” area-environmental reform, if I may call it that. Partly, I think, as a result of the requirement imposed by the 1969 Environmental Policy Act that planners give “due account to aesthetic amenities,” engineers and designers in the USA have had to attempt to identify what these are and then deal with them accordingly. Increasingly, ecologists internationally recognize that in the absence of a change in aesthetic preferences, sound environmental practices have little chance of being widely adopted. (For instance, as long as people want large, green, closely mowed yards no matter what the climate or soil or water conditions, they will continue to use polluting gasoline mowers and a toxic cocktail of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.) The growing field of cultural ecology attracts individuals with heightened sympathy for interdisciplinary work and I have been fortunate to work with some of them.

Ideally, cross-disciplinary work is done when sufficient time exists for genuine dialogue, and this, of course, requires that participants learn to understand (if never fluently to speak) each others’ languages. I learned, and taught, the most when I was a member of a team of landscape architects, foresters, geologist, artists, geographers, botanists, soil scientists, and ecologists at my own university that met weekly for two years. But more typical are occasions when a more or less “token” aesthetician is invited to address a group on a one-time basis. A year ago I was invited to give a keynote address at a conference in Denmark on multi-functional landscapes. There were few Americans and no other philosophers--though some of the younger scholars did have a background in environmental aesthetics. (These all knew of the work of Allen Carlson and Holmes Rolston, for example.) My mission was to discuss aesthetic assessment of such landscapes. Most of the attendees were connected to a variety of EU planning councils, and they had pressing and rather well-defined projects-how, for instance, might Finnish preference for saunas built close to a lake’s edge be brought into conformity with EU regulations for building (or, more often now, not building) private structures near public waters? What do abstract theorists have to offer in such deliberations?

One must, of course, be prepared to say briefly what aesthetics is, what aesthetic function is, what aesthetic appreciation is, and what aesthetic assessment is. I emphasize brevity, for in my experience it is a mistake to linger on these to an audience eager to get on with their practical problems. I acknowledge that there is debate about the extent to which scientific knowledge is relevant to aesthetic appreciation, but do not spend much time justifying my own reliance on a cognitive model (like that of Carlson’s). I rather suspect that one of the reasons I am invited to talk about aesthetics to such audiences is that they already believe, or at least hope, that what they know does, or can, make a difference in people’s aesthetic responses.

What I try to do is to help those with not much sophistication in philosophical aesthetics see how those of us who have some might help them to develop models that will contribute to solving practical problems. Most of us, of course, are not prepared to offer specific advice for assessing a Dutch wetland or Turkish beach. My interdisciplinary experiences have resulted in my learning some of the vocabulary and even some current theories for regenerating and sustaining biotic systems. But our contribution to applied aesthetics is analogous to that of moral philosophers in medical ethics. Thus for this conference I saw my primary challenge as one of trying to relate assessment of a multi-functional landscapes to assessment of a multi-function artwork of the sort that one might expect members of the audience to relate to.

Central to the sort of knowledge relevant to landscape assessment (both aesthetic and scientific) is a recognition of the category to which a system belongs. Kendall Walton has shown how important it is in the evaluation of artworks to know the category to which an object or event belongs. One cannot judge whether something is a good tango unless one know that one is in fact watching a tango and not a waltz. Similarly the features one must give due attention to in a desert will not be the same as the feature one must attend to and reflect upon in a forest or on a beach or in an urban park. Furthermore, landscapes consist of sub-systems which yield more categories. Multi-functional landscapes emphasize this. For each function, there will be different, even competing, categories. Controversies about how to handle a forest fire in an area where one finds both protected wilderness and residential areas make this clear. (There are, of course, even controversies about what to do within just a wilderness area.)

From my office at the University of Minnesota I can see the Mississippi River. I am five minutes from the northernmost point of commercial navigation on the river, and from April to October regularly see barges pass by. I am five hours by automobile from the headwaters of the river and several times have traveled to the State Park where one can wade across the “old man.” I am five days by barge and even longer by canoe to the delta where the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico. This river is one of the most polluted in North America. Nonetheless, according to the Mississippi River Basin Alliance, this 4,000 kilometer long river provides habitat for 241 fish species, 27 mussels, 45 amphibians and reptiles, and 50 mammals. It sustains over five million acres of forested wetlands and provides the Gulf of Mexico with 90% of its fresh water-water critical to the viability of that body’s marine resources. The river provides drinking water, sewage treatment, and hydroelectric power for 18 million people and up to now has sustained a two million dollar annual fishing industry, with even larger amounts generated from transportation and tourism. The length of the river has for hundreds of years (both before and after European immigration) supported cities and farms as well as recreation. All of the features I’ve cataloged here have special functions and sub-functions, each of which in turn has a potential for aesthetic function. Wild and domestic life of many sorts have inspired artists and poets. Functions compete--even aesthetic functions. Canoers often report that their trips are spoiled by water skiers and vice versa. How, then, does one maximize aesthetic function-and do so in a way that is consistent with maximizing diverse and often divergent ecological function and multi-function?

This is where considering assessment of a multi-faceted artwork might shed some light on approaching assessments of multi-functional landscapes. One such art form, I suggested to the group assembled in Denmark, is opera, a conglomeration of orchestral and vocal music, dancing, acting, and the visual arts via costumes, scenery, props, lighting, etc. Overall aesthetic function is not simply a sum of these various features. One does not judge the costumes, lights, music, story, singing, and acting individually and then add up the scores, as it were. It is the relations between them that matter. And, interestingly, opera producers face problems many of which have analogs for landscape planners.

This became clear to me when I read a recent article by Jonathan Miller where he discussed the variety of problems he has faced in producing classical operas for contemporary audiences.

Traditionalists argue that… the producer should assume the role of a self-effacing restorer, bending his ingenuity, such as it is, to the faithful reproduction of the staging which realizes the composer’s original intentions. (“Doing Opera,” New York Review of Books, May 11, 2000, p. 12)
One can easily substitute for some of the terms in this comment words or phrases appropriate to some theories of landscape planning-those that favor restoration of original function in the belief that the greatest aesthetic value of a particular landscape will as a consequence be realized: Traditionalists… argue that… the planner should assume the role of self-effacing restorer, bending his ingenuity, such as it is, to the faithful restoration of the biosystem which realizes Mother Nature’s intentions. Pointing this analogy out, and describing how Miller deals with the issues in opera production is a way of showing landscape planners how aesthetic evaluation might work in multi-functional landscapes. Miller argues that reproducing a composer’s intentions is a pipedream, and many environmental planners agree that simple restoration is impossible in most landscapes. In opera, the fact that aspects such as cast, instruments, and venue necessarily change from one performance to the next means that total replication is impossible. Even if it were possible, as with Heraclitus’s river stepping into a landscape changes with each new entry. “… Meanings so eloquently expressed at the time would no longer communicate themselves to a modern audience… .[The production] would seem quaint and antiquated.” Audiences for early performances of Verdi’s Rigoletto or Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro were aware of their radical politics; audiences today often find them only rather silly. Like visits to restored rural sites described as “a working 1850 farm” or to city areas with names like “Germantown,” one is often too aware of how “unreal” they are. Indeed, the admonition to “get real” is often one of the most serious challenges facing landscape planners. Miller is optimistic, however, and his strategies for success might be borrowed by these planners. He has found that audiences who find clumsy tricks off-putting (e.g. having characters wear costumes inside out), can relate to having singers dress in ordinary clothes and perform simply in front of an orchestra. Thus one “function” (costuming) of opera may be eliminated in order to make others more likely to succeed. Perhaps analogous strategies are possible in some landscapes where some aspects are eliminated or minimized in the realization that not all can be saved. Along the Mississippi River or in prairies, something like zoning may be required where motor boats or snowmobiles are banned in some areas, and, in areas where they are permitted, perhaps we shall just have to give up on attempts to sustain all delicate plants or birds. The difficulty, of course, is that rivers and prairies provide corridors, and zoning may have disastrous effects. Again, sound ecological knowledge must be integrated with aesthetic choices.

Miller admits that audiences often feel cheated by in-front-of-the-orchestra opera performances. He himself continues to try to achieve what he calls “plausible credibility.” What would an analog for this be along a river or in a prairie restoration project? How might one bring the public to believe that economic or recreational functions, say, can plausibly co-exist with ecologically sound aesthetic practices? It may be helpful to think a bit about a particular opera and consider what goes into the overall aesthetics that lead some individuals to leave a theater feeling thrilled and uplifted. When I announced that I had tickets to Lucia di Lammermoor last summer, my son warned me that the story was so silly that I would probably find myself laughing rather than weeping as the composer intended. The libretto is based on a Sir Walter Scott novel, and even the characters’ names translate into a rather absurd mix of Italian and Scottish-Ricardo Ashburton, for example. The men are all male chauvinist pigs. Lucia is an hysterical female whose madness is foreseen in Act I but unconvincingly realized in Act III. What kept me from laughing? It may in part be due to the fact that I did not have very high expectations about the story. But mainly it was because the features that function to evoke aesthetic response to opera do so in a way that a not-so-silly overall effect is achieved. The story can be silly if it doesn’t get in the way of the whole performance. The story is not irrelevant; the aria sung by a mad woman just has the right style and content-one appropriate to the expression of insanity as that is understood within the conventions of this art form itself.

Traditions in opera provide us with ways of weighing functions. Determining whether there are comparable traditions that might guide planners is surely a reasonable area for research in landscape aesthetics and ecology generally. I have found that some planners are open to and eager for such suggestions. At the Danish conference, one began hearing the “opera metaphor” at papers following my own. One person even gave a special session in which he talked about how the metaphor had enabled him to re-think one of his projects. I must confess that for every enthusiastic listener there were many sets of glazed-over eyes. It remains a challenge for us theoretical aestheticians who are so inclined to continue to find ways of showing how what we do can really matter to people responsible for shaping the world outside our offices and classrooms.


2002 © Marcia Eaton

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