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On a Contemporary Aesthetics of Nature

For a long time, aesthetic experience played an almost equally important role as scientific experience in the understanding and shaping of the natural world.

Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) “Das Eismeer”, ca.1823/24 © picture-alliance / akg-images

Finally, after a long journey, we had our promised vision of the Antarctica. There I was, with other tourists from faraway places, before the spectacle we had looked forward to: the End of the World, feared by the explorers and sailors from the 16th to the 19th centuries, which has become an accessible tourist destination.

What powerful interest drives multitudes to such a remote place? Is it only the curiosity to reach a virgin territory? A reconciliation with nature lost in the evolution of modernism or a direct way to become involved with her because of the damage inflicted on her by all of us?

A few months before, a boat similar to ours crashed against an iceberg and although all the passengers were rescued and there were no “victims to regret,” it left behind it a trail of a hundred and eighty-five liters of fuel in that pristine sea. Everybody remembered the incident but trusted, as Western civilization has been doing, for the most part, since the 18th century, that science and technology would solve the case.

Meanwhile, what seemed most important at the time was that there was no fog and that the potent light of the southern summer sun exposed to our view the profile of the peninsula we had so often placed, as part of a game, on maps. There were the dark surfaces of the bare rocks contrasting with the immaculate white of the ice lines and the transparency of the icebergs floating here and there.

I could not help thinking of how our culture’s changing relationship with nature during the last three centuries had powerfully influenced our experience of that moment. Standing on board before the landscape, I could visualize images, fed basically by the history of art, from Caspar David Friedrich, Caspar Wolf and William Turner to Olafur Eliasson and Charly Nijensohn, artists who from the beginning of the 18th to the 21st century shared a mystical approach to nature.

I also thought of the landscape-observer relationship, that in this case, included me in silent contemplation, particularly as in the attention Friedrich devoted to paintings like Monk by the Sea, Woman at Dawn (both painted in 1809) or in Two Men by the Sea and Two Men Looking at the Moon painted in 1817 and 1819.

In his book Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic: Friedrich to Rothko (1975), the art historian Robert Rosenblum placed these paintings in the context of early modernism and man’s need to find mystery in nature in face of the world becoming progressively secular.

The importance art acquired since the beginning of the 18th century – known as the age of aesthetics – relates also to this circumstance. Though in this context, the observer – landscape link so often found in Friedrich’s painting could also be interpreted as the relationship established between aesthetics and reason – a connection that brings out the interest shown in the 18th century in the relationship between the outside natural world and the inner process of the subject that drove him to a consciousness of self. It was also essential to the discovery of nature achieved by modernism that granted aesthetic experience a fundamental role. Hans Jauß has tracked this relationship in his studies about the development of aesthetic modernism, Studien zum Epochenwandel der ästhetischen Moderne (1989): It has being the aesthetic perception of things, open to its dealings with art, what has allowed for the discovery of nature in the modern sense. We could also say that the works by Friedrich mentioned above are examples that confirm his statement.

It is thus fundamental to underline the importance of aesthetic experience in the processes that led to an in-depth understanding of nature as well as of the subject in search of the illustrated principle which proclaimed that reason will make men free and masters of themselves. To the point where a well-known German political philosopher stated in 1796 that the highest action of reason was an aesthetic act.

The binomial aesthetics – reason and nature

I am particularly interested in stressing the original relationship of the philosophical project of modern Enlightenment established between the aesthetic – reason and nature binomial. Especially because of the implications that may arise today when thinking of such a link. The idea that human beings may create aesthetic products that make sense in a way that the social sciences cannot was of profound interest to 18th- and early 19th-century philosophy, but shifted as the trust placed in the methods of science and technique increased.

Even though it is difficult to realize it today, the role played by aesthetic experience in the configuration and acknowledgement of the natural world was almost as important as the one held by scientific experience. That the expansion of 19th-century scientific positivism helped to relegate it to a second place is another story.

So the question of the natural abilities we may possess, and what we may do with these abilities to relate to nature and to ourselves, became an issue central to the philosophical thought that accompanied the Enlightenment. From it derives the importance the empirical philosophers attached to sensitive experience, as well as Kant’s interest in our appreciation and creation of beauty, a fundamental nucleus of his concern to learn the structure of our conscience: the basis of modern aesthetics, discussed in his Critique of Judgment.

The relationship of modern man with nature within the laws of reason could not be sustained in the manner the men of the Enlightenment had imagined. The turn towards subjectivity – distinctive of the new age and meant to achieve every aspiration to liberty – was accompanied by the contradictory changes of modernism. These results we regret today were forewarned by Rousseau. In 1750 he observed the alienation of social life, anticipating the deformations of the Enlightenment project that would deviate into capital individualism and an inconsiderate control of nature in the name of progress, science and reason.

What were the reasons that drove modern man to break away from the nature that once sheltered him? Why could modern art, veered towards the future, not avoid seeing itself as anti-nature, justifying the degradation of its relationship with her?

These are the questions we cannot avoid asking of ourselves. Adorno and Horkheimer explained it in terms of the instrumental reason that governed capitalist modernism, representing an abdication of critical reason to the considerations of the supremacy allotted to the narration of technique. From it derive the ill-fated consequences that we regret today: the failure of the project of the Enlightenment, of the aspiration to social justice, and, above all, the degradation of nature. Still, though we acknowledge the gravity of our mistakes, reason cannot be discarded lightly. It is man’s only weapon; his last refuge from the absurd and from chaos, as a disenchanted Horkheimer himself said.

It is imperative to restore today the dialogue of the original subject – nature relation that transformed modernism. Something that probably evokes reasons similar to those that influenced German Romanticism, to try to recuperate, from a philosophy of nature, the meaning of the frustrated project of the French Revolution. So if Friedrich’s scenes reappear making sense in our present horizon, it is because the perception held in current times of the consequences of instrumental reason appear more and more dramatic in the shape of ecological urgencies, cataclysms or natural threats than those represented in the estimate of the exultant modern project of civilization and progress.

The question becomes central to the appeal for other possible worlds that was the origin of the first End of the World Biennial, and is dramatically emphasized in the notion of Inclemency that rules the second edition in answer to the desolate perspectives opened in the heart of our civilization.

A different approach to the natural

The real question mark is what are the chances art has of modifying these circumstances and if, as Andrew Bowie states in his Aesthetics and Subjectivity. From Kant to Nietzsche (1990), aesthetic experience can make a stand today from another angle, not to be repressed by an erroneous conception or limited to reason.

To answer this is to reflect on the development of the relationship between modern man and nature. To analyze the reasons why it broke down and, if possible, see it in the current perspective in an effort to restate a sensitive approach, the importance of which was curtailed in the name of scientific empirical methods. That the modernist movement begotten during the Enlightenment seems depleted today has been the subject matter of a variety of studies and debates throughout the last two decades; the truth is that the horizon of aesthetic and political expectations it covered, as Jauß pointed out in the cited book, is still, to the large majority of people, an unfinished project.

It would therefore make sense to go back to the original principals that in the dawn of philosophical modernism aimed to shape critical thought encouraging imagination and understanding from an approach to beauty through the liberal arts. Bowie states that aesthetics reminds us that there are other forms to envisage the natural and human activity. That the beauty of nature does not have to be functional, least of all limited to the condition of a device to be used and profited from, as imagined by modern science.

It is not by chance that in the 1960s a renewal of the aesthetics of nature took place, rebelling against the denial promoted by modernist art in the beginning of the 20th century, when a double process of depriving cosmic nature of its power and a displacement of the subject took place.

Walter De Maria, Richard Long, James Turrell, Dennis Oppenheim or James Pierce are a few of the artists who have reinstated the presence of nature in their works, acknowledging the grandeur and importance that it had lost.

The aesthetic category of the sublime

It is at this point that I believe it is timely to expound as a hypothesis the recovery of the sublime, an aesthetic category analyzed – in truth brought up to date – during the 18th century to illustrate the experience of a magnificent nature, so grandiose that it impressed on human beings their smallness, imbuing them with fear.

Why bring the sublime to the present, if it somehow represents and has been the object of every attack aimed at idealist aesthetics? Is it not ancient, or at least unnatural, to insist on the abysmal character of the aesthetic experience that recovers nature in all its grandeur?

I am interested in placing the accent on the sensitive experience of the current spectator in this particular instance, to allow for the recovery of the ability to be moved before the majestic and threatening in nature. In a great measure, because it relates to a feeling of vulnerability and fear that is inherent to our historical horizon, and because it implies becoming conscious of the failure of the modern project, linked to the milieu we inhabit only through technology and science.

To have despised the internal order of the natural world, underestimating the consequences arrogantly, has placed us in a state of extreme helplessness, well represented by the concept of Inclemency chosen by Alfons Hug as the central idea for the second edition of the End of the World Biennial.

It is in this context that the category of the sublime acquires a renewed importance, as it speaks to us of the experience of a magnificent nature, but also of the fear it awakens. It becomes appropriate then to review the circumstances and historical conditions that brought it about and compare it to the present, inasmuch that beneath the illusion of dominating nature, contemporary man realizes that he is, more than ever, at her mercy.

It is with this in mind that it is relevant to analyze the differences between the idea of the sublime in Burke, the English empirical philosopher, who followed up the concept of ancient rhetoric, and the philosophy of Kant, who, as an Enlightenment philosopher, took it upon himself to frame it rationally.

First published in 1757, Burke’s work recuperated the treatise On the Sublime by an author of the 1st century known as Pseudo Longinus. Translated into English in 1725, this treatise on rhetoric was a great influence on empirical thinkers who introduced substantial changes into the old idea of the sublime.

Why do we find what is terrible attractive? asks Burke in his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. His studies relate the feelings of pleasure and of fear to the dangers entailed in our self-preservation.

Let us remember that the relationship of the subject to nature was instrumental to the enquiry into the structure of thinking in the 18th century. It is obvious that a nature out of scale, darkness, power and infinity is emotionally arousing, as well as frightening. Burke associated a feeling of the sublime to the primitive instinct of survival unlike what happens in Kant. With Kant it is reason over experience.

It is moving to Burke, and he insists that if this feeling does not impair us, it is because it is supported by sensitive experience, which is a source of pleasure as long as our survival is not seriously at risk.

For Kant, on the other hand, the sublime is present in his aesthetic reflections but is subjected to reason. It does not exceed it. It is reason and not an aesthetic attitude which organizes the effects that an unmeasured experience of the natural has on the subject. This is why it is meaningful as long as we are able to control and explain what is sensitive.

Now I go back to the sublime in certain contemporary productions that empower nature once again in all her splendor. The challenge that faces contemporary art in its interpretation of nature is to avoid the impulse to seduce as done by tourist projects or publicity in its efforts to capture the attention of the general public to promote commercial tourist destinations.

Perhaps, then, the answer is to unfold a sense of foreboding in the perception that it is nature which will set the limits if our reason does not prevail, as it has not been able to do so up to now. And this may bring about again the pleasing horror concept expounded by 18th-century reflections, when facing the future responses of the natural world before so much aggression.
Ana María Battistozzi
is an art critic for the newspaper Clarín of Buenos Aires and an independent curator

Translation: Alina Tortosa
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V. 2009, Humboldt

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