Disembodied and Engaged Aesthetics

Published

As a painter in a Master’s course for Arts and Ecology, I am to produce a written work that attempts to synthesize my interests.  My hope is to hash out ideas and get my writing chops up right here on this page.  I had recently read Aesthetics & Nature, and wrote briefly about aesthetics.

Aesthetics & Nature by Glenn Parsons begins with a presupposition that it “has become clear that some aspects of our relationship to nature pose significant problems for nature and for us” (Parsons, 2008, p. ix).  Appreciating the beauty of natural place can be a path toward care and respect that may reshape that relationship.  Parsons argues against the term ‘beauty’ in favor aesthetic quality, which is defined as as “a visual or auditory appearance that is pleasing or displeasing for its own sake” (Ibid. p.17). As a painter, I take a formal interest in facilitating an aesthetic experience.  Conceptually, I am concerned with how or when a space can become a place.  I explore the multiple narratives behind connectionsto place through the sites I choose.  I believe aesthetics play a role in creating connections to place.  I present my paintings as an aesthetic experience that I hope invokes conversations and reflections about place, and in turn, contributes to the construction of new value systems to inform more responsible ecological decisions.

Disembodied Aesthetics

In chapter six, Parsons investigates the implications of restricting aesthetic perception to vision or hearing.  The visual or auditory senses imply a physical distance between the perceived object and the perceiver.  One appreciates a vista or a painting from an optimal distance.  Touch, smell, and taste, by contrast, require a more immediate interaction between the perceiving body and the object.  (This notion of distance and proximity across the senses requires an in-depth exploration beyond the scope of this paper.)  The disembodied aesthetic, “in which we are to avoid getting too close to things, or becoming too physically involved with them” (Ibid. p. 82), is a pleasure not felt in any direct region of the body, i.e., visual and auditory.  Parsons then shows the complications of an immersive experience where that distance is more difficult to achieve and discusses Arnold Berleant’s ‘aestheticsof engagement’ as an alternative framework.

Engaged Aesthetics

Aesthetic appreciation on the St. Ives coast during a storm in November 2009

What this means is that the object of appreciation, as a separate and distinct thing, dissolves away, becoming inextricably mingled with the perceiver. What I appreciate is not so much an object, then, as an experience that encompasses both me and the object in an inseparable whole.

(Ibid. p. 85)

To achieve this perceptual unity, “a diminishment of thinking seems capable of enhancing our degree of engagement with nature, perhaps even necessary for such engagement” (Ibid. p. 88).  This diminishment of thinking promotes a dissolution of the self and other.  Because of this dissolution, linguistic description of an engaged state proves difficult.

The ‘inseparable whole’ is an attractive idea for a more ecologically-based approach to nature.  In fact, the very term ‘nature’ is under dispute, as the humans are a part of nature and it may seem artificial to differentiate between then.   This separation has proved useful to us during the industrial revolution, where nature had been thought of as the other, a resource to extract and discard. Dissolving that difference would promote responsibility over the health of ecological systems, for if we are indistinguishable from our environment, we would take better care of it.  Yet Parsons argues, “abandoning the concept of nature, however would be a very unfortunate move, because doing so would rob us of an extremely useful concept” (Ibid. p,3).  He believes the term gives us language to describe natural processes that are distinct from human activities.  To this end, thought and language play an important role in our collective discourse and are significant obstacles to an aesthetic of engagement.  “(H)ow does one convey the nature, much less the value, of the experience of engagement to other people” (Ibid. p.90) when the very form resists linguistic description and diminishes thought?

The engaged aesthetic involves the senses in a way that could provide a rich and more sensual experience with the natural world.  In this way it appears similar to phenomenology.  Embodiment in the engaged aesthetic seems to value the individual perspective and experience over the collective. The notion of shared experience is important in considering relationships to the natural world and I am interested in ways of exploring the positive attributes of this approach while considering concerns of the pubic realm.

Engaged aesthetics is an interesting idea for a practice of observational painting, especially from a plein air perspective.  Some of the best moments when I paint are comprised of diminished thinking (ha!) and an enhanced sense of engagement with the observed subject.  The engaged state may refuse linguistic description, but it may prove beneficial to creating a compelling painting.  Non-representational theory can provide further depth in contextualizing observational painting with engaged aesthetics:

In other words, the act of representing (speaking, painting, writing) is understood by non-representational theory to be in and of the world of embodied practice and performance…the world is understood to be continually in the making—processual and performative—rather than stabilised or structured via messages in texts and images.

(Wylie, 2007, p164)

Parsons concludes that “the notion of engagement seems incapable of serving as a basis for a definition of the aesthetic” (Parsons, 2008, p.93) by explaining that aesthetic experience is possible without the sense of unity that engagement would require.  I am interested in exploring the particular of an engaged aesthetic and how it alters the boundaries or distances between subject and object.

By Noel Hefele

Noel Hefele is an artist living in the Bronx