From outer space to the museum, from architecture to landscape, from city to wilderness, this book discovers in the aesthetic perception of environment the reciprocity that constitutes both person and place. With rich illustrations and freedom from technical jargon, Berleant applies his new aesthetics to analyzing and solving the practical problems concerning various environmental designs of today.
In this Book
It raises a large number of challenging questions and suggests new dirrections in the analysis of the environment as an aesthetic category. Mutias, Professor of Philosophy, Millsaps College. Table of Contents. Contents p. Preface pp.
The Aesthetics of Natural Environments
Acknowledgments p. One: Environment as a Challenge to Aesthetics pp. Two: The Aesthetic Sense of Environment pp. Three: Descriptive Aesthetics pp. Five: Aesthetic Paradigms for an Urban Ecology pp. Six: Cultivating an Urban Aesthetic pp. Seven: Designing Outer Space pp. Nine: Environmental Criticism pp. Ten: Environment as an Aesthetic Paradigm pp.
Eleven: The Aesthetics of Art and Nature pp. Twelve: Reclaiming the American Landscape pp. Notes pp. Mary Lou Dietrich helped immeasurably in the tedious process of preparing the manuscript. Finally, this book is dedicated to my wife, Riva Berleant, from whose extraordinary knowledge, sensibility, and judgment my work has benefitted profoundly. These include the ugly, the grotesque, the comic, or playful, as well as the conventionally pleasing. In fact the concept of beauty may itself be extended to cover such as these, insofar as they enable us to have experience that is both positive and aesthetic.
The nature of such experience has understandably been the subject of much discussion. Aesthetic experience has been approached from the naturalistic standpoint by Dewey, Prall, and Langfeld, from the analytic by Beardsley and Aldrich, from the phenomenological by Merleau-Ponty and Dufrenne. In fact, so important has the notion of experience been in theories of art that it may be taken as the seminal concept in modern aesthetics. Drawing from some of these sources, I shall develop here some ideas that have significant implications for an aesthetics of environment.
Aesthetic perception is usually described in visual terms: We are given not an aesthetic of experience but an aesthetic of appearance. The sense of sight has a long history in Western cultures and, throughout the twenty-five hundred years of its philosophic tradition, it is well known how visual perception has been dominant and sight has been associated with cognitive activities.
This is seen clearly in the standard stock of visual metaphors that provide the usual vocabulary for denoting acts of thought and cognition. This convention has been transferred readily to the arts, so that sight, along with the other distance receptor, hearing, are the only senses traditionally admitted as legitimately aesthetic. For Plato proposed early on that only the pleasure apprehended by sight and hearing is aesthetic,3 and this conviction has been reiterated until recently without serious question.
I shall not review here the long history, from classical times to the present, during which visual perception reigned as a cognitive standard for art and aesthetic experience. It is a history that describes a multitude of diverse forces directing our understanding of the arts by standards other than those that derive from our perceptual experience.
Religious, metaphysical, historical, and epistemological criteria provided the governing principles by which art was to be made, understood, and judged. When the study of art finally achieved its emancipation and identity late in the Enlightenment, this intellectualist, visual model was not abandoned. It became instead the governing metaphor for the explanation of aesthetic experience, which emerged as a contemplative attitude for appreciating an art object for its own sake alone.
Only in the last century was this account challenged by explanations such as those based on empathy or pragmatic functionalism. My purpose here, however, is not historical, a task I have undertaken elsewhere. At the same time, environmental perception offers an especially rich opportunity for illuminating aesthetic experience.
The contemplative model The contemplative model of aesthetic experience is so securely established as to be assumed the official doctrine. Resting on a philosophical tradition that extends back to classical times, it appears to many as the very foundation of modern aesthetics, axiomatic and unchallengeable. First formulated in the eighteenth century in the writings of Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and others of the British school and embodied in a systematic philosophical setting later in that period by Kant, the doctrine emerged that identifies the art object as separate and distinct from whatever surrounds it, isolated from the rest of life.
More recently, the interest in the formal properties of art objects, in their distinctive nature, in the definition of art in terms of these properties, and in psychologistic theories of aesthetic perception that develop distinctive ways of looking at art are all theoretical manifestations of the same impulse to disengage art from the social experiential matrix and assign it to a removed and elevated position.
Such paintings characteristically derive from a conception of space modeled on the space of the physicist, more specifically the eighteenth century physicist. Such an objective space leads to the objectification of things in it, which are then regarded from the stance of an impersonal observer. What is common to landscapes conceived through this notion of objective space is the depiction of a scene as seen from a particular vantage point.
The observer is removed from the scene and contemplates it from a distance. The space of the painting is separated sharply from the space that surrounds it, including that of the observer, by a frame and sometimes a physical barrier. The landscape space is also discontinuous with the viewer. It often begins abruptly in the foreground, originating at the picture plane.
While it may lead the eye into the space of the painting, that space is itself usually divided into separate, uncommunicating areas, the objective and divisible space of classical physics. And indeed, the desideratum seems to be to regard the painting as a totality, visually objective and complete. Division, distance, separation, and isolation are equally the order of the art and the order of the experience, for the features of the painting shape the character of our perception.
Custom and frequency, moreover, give it great weight. One is reminded here of Laurence Sterne's ironic observation of the use we commonly make of such ideas: It is the nature of an hypothesis, when once a man has conceived it, that it assimilates every thing to itself, as proper nourishment; and, from the first moment of your begetting it, it generally grows the stronger by every thing you see, hear, read, or understand.
This is of great use. This objectification of art is the predictable product of an intellectualist tradition, one that grasps the world by knowing it through objectifying it, and that controls the world by subduing it to the order of thought. Such a strategy may have secured the assent of philosophers but it has not won over the ranks of artists.
Furthermore, one can reconsider much of the art of the past and discover that it lends itself to quite different modes of experience and to different explanations. Landscape paintings, in particular, provide telling examples, as we shall see later in this chapter. The active model There have been attempts since the eighteenth century to develop alternatives to the classical view of aesthetic experience.
Some romantic theories stressed the sympathetic feeling of the appreciator while others proposed an empathetic identification with the object. During the last century, however, even though the classical theory continued its dominance, some proposals appeared that went well beyond the psychological locus of the common nineteenth century alternatives. These offered to overcome the passivity and separation of disinterested contemplation by depicting the aesthetic perceiver more as a multi-sensory, active agent than through the disengaged vision of the traditional position.
These inclusive accounts offer a promising direction and have been developed in various forms. Let us consider two of them here. What is common to the various forms of the active model is the recognition that the objective world of classical science is not the experiential world of the human perceiver. Thus there is a sharp difference between space as it is presumably held to be objectively and the perception of that space. A theory of aesthetic experience must derive from the latter rather than the former, from the manner in which we participate in spatial experience rather than from the way in which we conceptualize and objectify such experience.
Dewey emphasized this dissimilarity. Art stirs those inherent dispositions into activity with an intimate relation to the surroundings that the human being has acquired through evolutionary and cultural development. Such activities come as an impulsion of the organism and appear in art as an act of expression.
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This activity is central. Indeed, such an act constitutes the work of art, an act in which there is a simultaneous transformation of materials and feelings. There is, moreover, a difference for Dewey between the art product -- a painting or statue -- and the work of art. The work of art is the object working, interacting with the energies that emerge from the experience.
Thus, Dewey holds, the work of art in its actuality is perception. Like Dewey, perception starts with the body, and the presence of the body as here is the primary reference point from which all spatial coordinates must be derived. Thus the perceived object is grasped in relation to the space of the perceiver. It is not a discrete material object. I do not see it according to its exterior envelope; I live in it from the inside; I am immersed in it. Bollnow offered a similar account of space. For then all points and all directions would be of the same importance; none is distinctive and none preferred.
Mathematical space allows the construction of an orthogonal axis system in which any point can be the coordinating zero point and every direction can become the coordinating axis. We never find in it any locations Bollnow sees the inner space of the house as a private and safe space that is separated from the outer space of abandonment and danger.
This world beyond is not undifferentiated, however. There is a middle point which is the space of the group and ultimately the space of the nation to which the individual belongs. Spatial egocentrism has long been believed and practiced, and so such outer space becomes a space of vulnerability, a place of danger and abandonment.
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Only in the inner space of the house is one hidden and safe. Distance, too, is not mathematical but lived. Distances within lived-space, moreover, depend on a person's disposition at the time. Fear contracts space, for example, while love generates it. Calvin Schrag considered the body as the vital center of our spatial experience. To conceive the spatiality of the lived body is to recognize that places and movements are perceived in relation to the body, seen as here or there. The discernment of places with their value and meanings occurs in relation to the central position of the body.
The body's field of action must recognize and take account of the presence of the other. The lived body dominates its surroundings, marking out territorial space over which it exercises control. Phenomenological views as these treat space in its relation to the body and the environment, not as an independent quantity but as an intentional object in association with the perceiving body.
The landscape is not generated out of an act of consciousness; it emanates from the perceiving body and is infused by that body with its meanings, force, and feelings. Environment is not wholly dependent on the perceiving subject. It also imposes itself in significant ways on the human person, engaging one in a relationship of mutual influence.
Not only is it misleading to objectify the environment; it cannot be taken as a mere reflection of the perceiver, either. Recognizing the influence of specific environmental features makes it necessary to extend the active model of aesthetic experience to include such factors. The consciousness of self, of the lived body, and of lived space must be complemented by recognizing the influences that environment exerts on the body, how it contributes to shaping the body's spatial sense and mobility, and ultimately to the definition of its lived space. This leads us to a different conception of experiencing environment aesthetically.
In this view, the environment is understood as a field of forces continuous with the organism, a field in which there is a reciprocal action of organism on environment and environment on organism, and in which there is no sharp demarcation between them. Such a pattern may be thought of as a participatory model of experience. It is perhaps easier to understand the forces that emanate from the body as it thrusts itself into the environment than it is to grasp the magnetism of environmental configurations as they exert subtle influences on the body.
While body and environment extend mutually interacting forces, what distinguishes the participatory model of aesthetic experience from the active model is its recognition of the way in which environmental features reach out to affect and respond to the perceiver. This phenomenon is not new; artists and architects have long utilized it. What has been missing, however, is an articulation of how environmental activity occurs, an account that incorporates this phenomenon within the frame of aesthetic theory.
I want to suggest such an account here, for I believe that the participatory model is no special case, an exception to the prevailing observational mode in aesthetics that is required by the unique conditions of environmental experience. Rather, this is a model that can be applied successfully to other, indeed, all modes of art in the form of a general theory of aesthetic experience.
Kurt Lewin's field theory is an important instance of this. Lewin's topological psychology represents the framework in which events can occur within a life space. Distance and direction are properties of that environment, and tendencies for or against our goals are forces exerted on a person. Situations possess dynamic properties, and Lewin developed concepts such as: positive and negative valence to denote the attractive or repulsive properties of a region; vectors or psychological forces that directly produce the reaction of a person;26 barriers or barrier-regions that may exist in the life space of an individual; and the boundary zone of the life space.
Lewin's vector psychology is, then, a psychology of motivation, not of environment, but it displays the value of revealing the interpenetration of consciousness and environmental perception. More recently the perceptual psychologist James J.
One can find numerous instances of invitational qualities in the visual arts by the use of features designed to elicit a participatory response in the viewer, a response often imaginative, to be sure, but perceptual and thus genuinely experienced. While the contemporary arts are rich with a multitude of ingenious uses of viewer participation, one might think that this feature is a recent innovation and anomalous in the history of the arts.
That, however, is not at all the case, and so to make my claim the stronger, let us consider several historical examples of the use of such invitational features. While these personages are flanked by angels or other figures, the steps are typically empty; they face the viewer, an unspoken invitation to mount them. Peter's Square opens up to invite us in and, once in, surrounds us in a columnar embrace. The entering staircase of Michelangelo's Campidoglio works in the same way, welcoming one into its stately, enclosed square.
Caravaggio's paintings often operate in like fashion, seeking to engage the spectator directly in the action. This device was emulated more recently by Cartier-Bresson, who photographed groups of people from the rear in the act of looking at something, thus making us join the crowd in the act of gazing at the photograph. Paintings of landscapes offer particularly effective illustrations of environmental action, for they contain the same kinds of features that environmental designers must fashion, and this makes them instructive models.
In spite of the constraints of conventional aesthetic theory, landscape paintings often incorporate the perceiver into their space, compelling involvement. A road or river does more than organize the landscape and provide visual interest and variety. It does even more than serve to draw the eye into the painting. It may serve as an invitation, leading the viewer to enter the pictorial space. And just as a spoken word commands our attention and a question compels an answer, a road beckons to the viewer.
Again, the use of perspective in visual art of the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries implicitly recognized the position and hence the participation of the observer.
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By moving in toward the painting, perspective opens up the pictorial space and includes us in it, just as, conversely, modeled figures emerge from the flat canvas when we step back. Furthermore, it is a mistake of the observational attitude to lead us into thinking that as viewers we must encompass the entire painting in our visual field.
On the contrary, to activate many landscape paintings they must be seen from too close a position to be able to view the painting as a whole. While the optimum physical distance to the canvas may vary in each case, a participatory landscape requires us to look into the space, to enter it, so to say, and become part of it. When we view the painting from up close, we become aware of the details of the activities going on beneath and beyond them, and these become the principal interest of the work.
Looking at landscape paintings in this way, a remarkable inversion of importance takes place as the view dissolves into an environment. Paintings with exceptionally large canvases may force this involvement upon us. The type and direction of the subject's gaze tends to elicit an appropriate response in the eyes of the beholder. An averted gaze makes one look tentatively at the figure so as not to be too intrusive or bold, while a downcast gaze evokes a look of superior strength.
A direct gaze may produce a meeting of personalities. When paintings are regarded as experientially active, they come to exemplify the workings of features that occur outside art. Moreover, what is true of our perception of painting and photography when understood in the fashion I have been describing holds true for our perception of the physical environment, the same features in both can act in similar ways. Let us explore this by considering several such features of the physical landscape.
Participatory environmental features Perhaps the clearest illustration of this is the path. Paths, of course, are especially rich in significance. They are not experienced as cognitive symbols but, if one insists on using that concept, as living symbols that embody their meaning, symbols that make us act, commit our bodies, our selves, to choices.