For the longest time, “aesthetics” has been strongly identified only with works of art or with beauty. For generations Y and Z, the word has evolved to also encapsulate one’s own style and sense of identity. However, aesthetic appreciation is not confined to works of art, beauty, or style. We do experience aesthetic enjoyment e ven in that which the capitalist art collectors once fantasized to possess but couldn’t: “ungraspable” nature, as described by John Berger, in his explanation of the landscape genre in traditional oil painting in Ways of Seeing (1972).
Some things cannot be confined within walls. Natural beauty, which most aestheticians set apart from works of art, deserves closer scrutiny. The 18th century ideas on aesthetic appreciation paved the way for the resurgence of what would come to be known as environmental aesthetics.
As defined by Allen Carlson and Arnold Berleant in their anthology The Aesthetics of Natural Environments (2004), environmental aesthetics is a relatively new field that is concerned with “the aesthetic appreciation of the world at large and, moreover, the world as constituted not simply by particular objects but also by larger units, such as landscapes, environments, and ecosystems.”
Although discourses on environmental aesthetics is largely confined within the walls of the academe, shedding light on this young field might help raise awareness on how our aesthetic appreciation of nature has connections to our ethical obligations in nature’s preservation and maintenance. This is what Yuriko Saito unravels in her Appreciating Nature on Its Own Terms (1998).
Saito raises an issue in contemporary art theory on “how to appreciate works of art correctly and appropriately.” The necessary sensory experience of a work is expected to be accompanied by knowledge of its cultural-historical context. Roland Barthes, in his The Death of the Author (1967), offers criticism on this practice for it imposes an interpretation of a text. Convenient but limiting, the discovery of a work’s meaning in its historical-cultural context might not be as “exciting, ingenious” as compared to when we appreciate it on our own terms.
It is crucial that a balance be struck between appreciating a work on its terms and on our own. The value in acknowledging and understanding a work’s reality on its own terms is it allows us to expand our finite perspective by opening doors to unfamiliar cultures.
Saito provides a critique of the pictorial and the associationist appreciation in our aesthetic engagement with nature, and she posits that our way of appreciating can pose a threat to the environment. In the pictorial appreciation of nature, focus is given on its being picturesque—giving much importance on its pictorial surface and visual design and neglecting its other qualities. Pictorial appreciation drove 18,000 tourists in 1986 to Boracay, after Jen Peter’s “Philippines Travel Guide” described the pristine island as “paradise on Earth.” Beginning in 1997, Boracay’s waters have suffered from high levels of coliform because its sewage system could not handle the large number of tourists. In April 26 last year, the government closed down Boracay for a six-month rehabilitation.
The same fate happened to Mount Pico de Loro, famous for its steep monolith known as the Parrot’s Beak offering a 360-degree view of the surrounding Palay-Palay-Mataas-na-Gulod Protected Landscape and the shores of Limbones Cove, which is under an indefinite closure for its rehabilitation as well.
Saito contends that, under pictorial appreciation, we handpick those that are “visually coherent, exciting, amusing, enjoyable, or pleasing” for us and neglect those that are “boring” or “scenically challenged.”
On the other hand, the associationist appreciation of nature is best demonstrated by the consequences of the movie That Thing Called Tadhana (2014) to the mountains of Sagada, Mountain Province.
Sagada, to be specific the Kiltepan Peak, has become an answer to the question “Where do broken hearts go?,” credits due to Antoinette Jadaone’s film. In its most iconic and important scene, Anthony (played by JM de Guzman) and Mace (Angelica Panganiban) run together towards the edge of the mountain, revealing behind the thick lush pine trees the majestic sea of clouds. The dreamlike aesthetic experience that Kiltepan Peak provides helped in the main character’s healing process, in letting go of her past. With the popularity of hugot , the Kiltepan Peak has rapidly become a blockbuster hit among soul-searchers, prompting conservationists and concerned citizens to call out the harm the hype has unintentionally caused.
Associationist appreciation was first a popular concept in Europe where an object of natural beauty, say a landscape, surrenders its aesthetic value to the historical or cultural account associated with them. American landscape’s lack of historical and cultural narrative, for a time, magnified the need for nature to be humanized in order for it to be appreciated. Writers and artists had then created pieces that can be associated with their landscapes. Saito condemns this appreciation, accounting its aesthetic value merely as “a theater or prop for a human drama.”
Because of the lapses of the two appreciations —pictorial and associationist—Saito offers up scientific appreciation of nature as a moral appreciation, recognizing and respecting nature’s own reality. Through the aid of natural history and sciences, we cultivate a sense of knowledge that we draw from nature’s spatio-temporal properties so we get to understand its origin and relationship in the larger ecosphere. Saito also sees bioregional myths and folktales playing a crucial factor in this quest for a moral appreciation for they tell us the respective stories of, say, each mountain, acknowledging its individuality.
Towards the end of Saito’s essay, she made a disclaimer, warning that she does not intend to discredit the merits of the pictorial and the associationist appreciation. In the context of our aesthetic appreciation of art, it is foolish to bombard an inexperienced viewer with all the cultural-historical information about the work of art. But as the viewer willfully immerses themselves in its context then, inevitably, they start to appreciate art with justice.
The same rings true in the aesthetic appreciation of nature. Nature’s picturesque qualities, and historical and cultural context, initially catch our attention, but environmental aestheticians hope that it doesn’t end there. Nature has boundless underappreciated objects of aesthetics waiting for our eyes and our minds, and may they lead our hearts to a better understanding of our pivotal role as Earth’s stewards.