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December 14, 2005

an aesthetic question

Why does a distant mountain often look beautiful? It is a simple shape, maybe an inch high if you look at it next to your hand--not unlike a mound of grass-covered earth that's a few feet away, or even a pile of laundry. Yet a mountain is much more likely than those things to be beautiful.

One answer: Human vision is not the perception of a flat field of shape and color, composed of little reflections on our retinas. It is a thoroughly interpretive act. We see the mountain differently from a pile of clothes because we know that the mountain is far away. The space between the viewer and the object is part of what we see. But why should we appreciate a large volume of empty space? Perhaps because we interact with it in our imaginations. We feel a potential to move freely through the space or to "conquer" the mountain by climbing it.

Another answer: Human perception is thoroughly interpretive, and we have learned to value mountains. They are God's work; they are humbling creations of Nature; they are sublime. Supposedly, Petrarch was the first European since antiquity to appreciate outdoor views. Five hundred years later, we have absorbed positive evaluations of landscape. But that appreciation was absent in 12th-century Europe and might not exist in some current cultures. It might be possible for a culture to learn to love the sight of small mounds of earth.

What about pictures of mountains? They are just flat fields of color. Perhaps we enjoy them because we are able to derive the same experiences from them that we take from real mountains.

Also, we appreciate representation itself. A picture of some objects on a table can be as beautiful as a landscape painting of a huge mountain; but the mountain itself will be more beautiful than any set of plates and food. A picture of a mountain may be beautiful even if it is so stylized or abstract that we cannot imagine ourselves entering the space depicted in it. These examples show that it is often the feat of representation, rather than what is represented, that matters in art. In that way, the aesthetics of art and of nature seem fundamentally different.

December 14, 2005 3:08 PM | category: philosophy | Comments


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