Random thoughts on random topics

North Sea

On natural phenomena as aesthetic objects

Are natural phenomena (objects, events) aesthetic objects in the Wittgensteinian sense? There is no doubt that we apply  adjectives such as ‘beautiful’ to things like sunsets, landscapes, people. But what does that mean? Are there norms that we apply?  Do we compare one phenomenon with another? Last night’s sunset with this one? The landscape before our eyes with the one we saw in a movie? This person’s face with that of our favourite movie star? 

In the last case it seems that we do indeed compare and also that we are able to express the reasons for our evaluations to some extent. In the case of sunsets this is far less obvious. Is there a sense in which this sunset is more beautiful than last night’s? More spectacular perhaps, yes. But more beautiful? And if we compare landscapes, aren’t we just  expressing preferences? (“I hate woods, give me open skies any day.”)  

We can sharpen the issue somewhat by asking about the role of two key features of aesthetic practices in Wittgenstein’s sense: training and expertise, and directed discontent. 

As for training and expertise, we have no problem in acknowledging that some people are better than we are in judging the quality of a musical performance, or that of a painting, or a sculpture. That is why we seek to learn from them and so develop our own skills and our own appreciation of a given kind of aesthetic objects. Does the same happen in ‘evaluating’ a sunset? Do we ask an expert to tell us whether this sunset is better than the one we saw yesterday, and if so, to explain to us in what way? If we ask someone whether he prefers a rugged mountainous landscape to an ocean view, do we seek to learn anything over and above his preferences, something that will help us make a more informed judgment ourselves? And if someone declares that she thinks her husband is more beautiful than the man just voted ‘sexiest man alive’, do we take her to task for not agreeing with ‘the experts’? 

It appears that although the answers may not be the same in each of these cases, there is a marked difference with how training and expertise work in aesthetic practices that are concerned with non-natural phenomena, with artefacts, performances, and the like. This relates to the second feature, directed discontent.

Directed discontent typically involves judgments about objects according to norms with an aim to improvement. We look at the object (or performance, that’s basically the same in this regard), apply a relevant norm, and judge that the object does not qualify unreservedly, that there is room for improvement. Typically, improvement presupposes control, at least in principle. Hence, a key feature of aesthetic objects is that they lend themselves to manipulation, to change and be changed. 

Now, natural phenomena are not disqualified  by this requirement per se. But it does place restrictions on when natural phenomena can be regarded as proper aesthetic objects. First of all, there has to be some element of control. Since sunsets are typically not man-made, they equally typically are not aesthetic objects: there is no aesthetic practice that aims at producing sunsets according to certain shared norms. Landscapes are an in-between case: think of landscape architecture, garden design. Here there is enough control to start an aesthetic practice. But we don’t go about designing and producing mountain ranges. (At least, not yet. Notice how all this is conditional on human ability, and hence human technology.) What about people? A human face becomes a proper aesthetic object in the context of, e.g., plastic surgery. We can well imagine two people judging the result of an operation and one of them expressing directed discontent; “Nice result, but the left cheek is not quite what it should be … Let me see, a bit more like this, perhaps?”

And this immediately reveals the second  conditio sine qua non for something to be an aesthetic object, viz., that there has to be a set of shared norms. 

So we see why on the one hand natural phenomena do not automatically qualify as aesthetic objects and why on the other hand most of our aesthetic practices involve pure artefacts: control is needed for a practicable application of norms.

Martin Stokhof
[from: EOL Discussion Board
date: 27/02/2020]

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