Notes on Scruton, “Beauty”, Chapter 3 – “Natural Beauty”

Summary:

  • Kant – aesthetic appreciation is universal: “Nature, unlike art, has no history, and its beauties are available to every culture at every time” (pg 50)
  • Kant perceived beauty in relation to individual objects – plants, flowers, creatures – whereas a landscape or view is infinite and the invisible suburbs or the motorway next door hamper our appreciation of it even if within the view as framed by us we cannot see them – “organisms possess an air of aesthetic untouchability. Bathed by the aesthetic gaze they separate themselves from all relations, other than the relation with the one who studies them.” (pg 51)
  • Marxist thinking is that aesthetic appreciation is a bourgeois ideology i.e it is a politically expedient notion rather than a universal truth. “to show that some concept – holiness, justice, beauty, or whatever – is ideological, is to undermine its claim to objectivity.” (pg.53)
  • From the earliest drawings… art has searched for meaning in the natural world. The experience of natural beauty …contains a reassurance that this world is a right and fitting place to be.” (pg 55) Aesthetic experience has a “metaphysical resonance”.
  • How do we separate nature from the manmade, when so much of the landscape (and its depiction in paintings) is transformed by hedges, walls etc? “Some argue that we attribute beauty to natural things only by analogy, seeing the works of nature as though they were works of art. But this is surely implausible. Works of art interest us in part because they represent things … express ideas and emotions… to approach natural objects with similar expectations is … to miss the true source of their beauty, which is their independence… their capacity to show that the world contains things other than us.” (pg 57)
  • The manmade landscape has a “deep spiritual significance” as marking a way of life, and has been distilled into art, but it is not an experience of “natural beauty“.
  • Nature is generous, content to mean only herself, uncontained, without an external frame, and changing from day to day.” (pg 60)
  • Summary of Burke: ” When we are attracted by the harmony, order and serenity of nature, so as to feel at home in it and confirmed by it, then we speak of its beauty; when, however, as on some wind-blown mountain crag, we experience the vastness, the power, the threatening majesty of the natural world, and feel our own littleness in the face of it, then we should speak of the sublime.” (pg 61)
  • Kant suggests that in experiencing the sublime “we are presented with an intimation of our own worth.”
  • Kant believed in a connection between an interest in natural beauty and a morally good disposition – there is no real basis for this opinion but it has been shared by others since and feels inherently accurate.
  • The basic suggestion of Kant is that aesthetic appreciation is disinterested, it separates the beauty of a thing from its purpose. Yet appreciation of beauty is not entirely without purpose, we connect beauty with design when we build in the landscape, or when we experience art. This leads to the fundamental question: what purpose does beauty serve?

Thoughts:

I have previous pondered why a photography of a sunset doesn’t capture the experience of the sunset, and I think the distinction here between nature and art is significant – the experience of nature is an immersive one, it is not necessarily a visual perception or even a multi-sensory perception, it is a moment in which a multitude of factors influence our experience. I can see why Kant finds it easier to ascribe beauty to an object, something we can experience in its entirety.

Scruton clearly disagrees with Marxist thinking – as far as the sublime is concerned I tend to agree – I have an emotional reaction to certain awe inspiring landscapes which I don’t believe is conditioned by upbringing or other experiences and which I would consider to be an ingrained aesthetic response. At the other end of the spectrum there are things I perceive as beautiful which I am quite certain are the result of indoctrination – brightly coloured beach huts for example. However there is a middle ground which is less clear – daffodils in spring are uplifting and I would say beautiful rather than sublime, but is that because I grew up with Wordsworth or is it because there is an inherent response to a splash of yellow after a dreary winter? Is the whole idea of a dreary winter actually a response to the difficulties of finding food, and spring being uplifting is more about a need to start farming for the year ahead? Perhaps the sublime is the truly “natural beauty”, and everything else is a “bourgeois ideology”?

Art, with its conventions and its efforts at meaning, is clearly on the ideological side of the equation. Can visual art therefore represent the sublime at all? I suspect it cannot elicit the same response as a sublime experience, but perhaps it can allow us to meditate on the sublime, to consider the factors that trigger such a response.

 

Reference: Scruton, R, “Beauty: A Very Short Introduction”, (2011) Oxford University Press

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