The power of Aesthetic Tastes and Norms: The Formation of Cultural Aesthetic Virtues
Lake Catherine state park in Arkansas is a natural space which is simply teeming with biological diversity and healthy ecological interactions between all of its plants and animals. The state park is several square miles in size and its edges are connected to private properties which are owned and operated by individuals who farm their land but otherwise leave it mostly undeveloped. The only exceptions to this relatively untouched and unharmed natural space are the golf course which is several miles away from the park, the cabins and other buildings on the state park grounds, and a **** factory which is located on the opposite edge of the lake which the state park owns and keeps up. When swimming in or kayaking across the lake the white walls of the factory provide a jarring contrast against the deep blue of the water and the lighter shade of the sky. The smoke stacks tower above the evergreens which have been cut away and only remain on the side of the massive structure; whispers of the forest section which used to run entirely around the edge of the massive lake. In all ways possible, the factory is a wound in the landscape, a gash in the rest of the natural landscape, a hole in what would otherwise be a fully connected ecosystem. How should our aesthetic guidelines represent this ecological damage truthfully and otherwise ensure that the ecology and biological health of the state park is maintained?
The power of Aesthetic Tastes and Norms: The Formation of Cultural Aesthetic Virtues
Firstly, it is imperative that people understand the power of their own aesthetic tastes as well as the power of norms and laws surrounding the aesthetics of natural spaces. Shelia Lintott argues that there is an undeniably important relationship between ecological health and aesthetic tastes. She further argues that most aesthetic tastes are in fact damaging to the environment. For example, Lintott exemplifies the fact that “due to the dominant aesthetic tastes of Western culture” (Lintott 2008: 381) it is much easier for environmentalists to “find public support for bottle nose dolphins and baby seals as compared with bats and snakes” (Lintott 2008: 381) which are generally seen as more approachable, cute, and less dangerous or scary. This however is a massive ecological problem because both bats and snakes as well as many of the other organisms that Western natural aesthetic tastes have deemed “unattractive” (Lintott 2008: 381) actually have the greatest “ecological importance” (Lintott 2008: 381). In short, it is no easy task to preserve or protect those organisms which are aesthetically devalued in comparison to the tamer and ‘pet or baby like’ plants and animals. There is also the important example of the aesthetic values that are engaged in the planning and maintenance of property. It is almost always the case that in urban settings – where there is any green space and the property is not entirely made of artificial material – the native plants and physical features are removed in favor of replacing them with a singular invasive species: short grass (usually Bermuda) and a few small trees; two features which yield little to no room for habitat development or biological diversity. The golf course is the epitome of aspiration for the urban lawn – short grass, and minimal foliage only there to cast shade for a lawn chair with no room for natural species or natural evolution of the space. This ‘buzz cut’ version of a natural space has become associated with massive success when paired with a large house, a backyard pool, and a sports car parked in the drive way. No wonder it is aesthetically valued. This aesthetic standard for the control and manipulation of the natural world is so drastically popular that it is even enforced by law. In Little Rock Arkansas you can be fined if you repeatedly let your grass grow too high or let shrubbery and other low growth plants take over your yard. Thus it is easy to see how the aesthetic tastes and cultural norms of Western culture has created a sort of aesthetic virtue in a certain sense: the correct, acceptable, and valued aesthetic of the urban and suburban setting is one of monocropping, low biological diversity, and a lack of native representation. In short, the virtues are aesthetic uniformness and conformity.
Additionally, Lintott postulates that the aesthetic appreciation of the natural world is constrained by the fear that most people have of wildness and the violent and dangerous power of nature which is uncontrollable and indiscriminate in its affect. If human beings are afraid of something (such as a snake, rat, wild fire, or the deep dark waters of the ocean), then it will be impossible to value it. Additionally, if human beings already value something, usually we “assume it has aesthetic value” (Lintott 2008: 384) and thus try to find it within that object. Thus, fear is an impeding factor in ability of human beings to find value (aesthetic or otherwise) in natural organisms or phenomenon’s. What Lintott is getting at here is that both fear and the aesthetic values and norms described above contribute to the development of an aesthetic attitude. A change in this attitude or point of view is the key to bringing about positive ecological change on an aesthetic basis. Changing the fear that people have in their heads around those sublime parts of nature and changing the aesthetic virtue of the golf green as described above is the way in which aesthetic can ensure positive ecological change. In the case of Lake Catherine State Park, Lintott would say that is it the lack of ecologically safe aesthetic taste in the citizens of Arkansas that has allowed the factory to be built on the edge of the lake. The want to have the aesthetic experience of being in and around a lake that is free from potential pollution from a factory as well as being in a natural space that is free from the evidence of human manipulation is not present, and thus the State Park was not given the public backing it needed to deny the factory being built.
Ned Hettinger discusses a similar problem concerning point of view and attitude. Hettinger postulates that the environment is an open frame in terms of what people should appreciate. In other words, he believes that there is no appropriately defined scope or range of nature appreciation. Hettinger would say that in the case of lake Catherine, one could appreciate the sounds of the birds, the movement of the wind as it disturbs the water of the lake, or the color of the leaves on the trees as the catch the light from the sun. Yet he thinks that the context of that which you are appreciating will lend a specifically appropriate method. For instance, “we should not appreciate trout swimming in a mountain stream with a telescope or a microscope” (Hettinger 2008: 420), the naked eyes is much more appropriate in this example. Here is one example of Hettinger’s theory of better and worse methods of appreciation of the natural world. Hettinger is a proponent of a pluralism of valid methods of appreciation, yet he has one massive constraint which is the basis of a test which all possible methods of appreciation must pass if they are to be acceptable. This constraint is based on the reality of human impacts on natural environments and our aesthetic responses to such impacts. If a person sees a natural space and views the human impact on that space with a positive aesthetic response, they are categorically wrong in their appreciation. This is the biggest difference between Lintott and Hettinger. Lintott would say that one could aesthetically appreciate the ways that the factory’s smoke stacks reflect off the water and the bright colors of the oil in the lake that runs off from the production line, but that these aesthetic responses would not be environmentally positive. Hettinger is much less forgiving. He argues that appreciating these things is biased, wrong, damaging, and downright unethical. His argument suggests that if we do not directly notice negative human impacts, call them out for what they are, and further denounce them, we are distorting the environment in some way. If we choose to ignore or “frame out” (Hettinger 2008: 422) these negative human impacts such as the deforestation in the rainforest or the melting of the ice caps due to human caused climate change, we have fallen directly into the trap of being biased towards our own human wants and needs, and have failed to notice something that actively changes and damages our aesthetic experience. Thus Hettinger argues that all methods of appreciation are valid if they adhere to this constraint. Furthermore he outlines other guidelines that one might judge the ‘goodness or worseness’ of an aesthetic appreciation. “Discriminating responses are better than undiscriminating ones. Attentive responses are better than inattentive ones of inappropriately attentive ones… Mature ones are better than immature ones; unbiased responses are better than biased ones. Patient and carful responses are better than hasty ones; perceptive responses are better than confused ones” (Hettinger 2008: 417-418). Thus it seems that Hettinger is prescribing some sort of virtue based approach to environmental appreciation. The discriminating, attentive, mature, unbiased, carful, and perceptive person is she who will be able to appreciate nature the best; but she is not the only one who may appreciate it. Thus the main constraint of environmental wholeness and the naming of negative human impacts on such wholeness as well as the six or more virtues listed above are the means by which a person can strive for the best method of natural appreciation.
Finally, both Hettinger and Lintott agree that scientific knowledge has an important role in the maintenance of ecologically friendly aesthetic appreciation. For Lintott, by allowing the scientific knowledge surrounding certain aesthetically unappreciated creatures to become prevalent and well known, the aesthetic of the creature may change. This is done by dispelling fear, and by linking creatures and natural spaces to the benefit of the entire global ecosystem of which human beings are a part. For Hettinger, knowledge concerning environmental degradation should inform our appreciation. By this he means that understanding what degradation is and how it works should inform our standards of beauty in a natural environment. We should have visceral negative aesthetic responses to degradation.
When putting these two view points together, the development of a new model for environmental appreciation is formed: the privileging of scientifically informed cultural aesthetic values. The environmental studies community is full of a diversity of social scientists as well as natural scientists. These social scientists include philosophers, sociologists, and anthropologists. These three academic disciplines would be especially good at studying both past and current human actions and determining what environmental policies, initiatives, behaviors, and methods of appreciation have best exemplified the virtues described above. Additionally, in consultation with natural scientists, these academics would be able to identify the best possible additions to the above list of what could be termed “natural virtues” and could be the forerunners of the debate over weather being attentive is more important than being discriminating to give one example. In this way, scientific knowledge is being used within a constrained pluralism but still has the weight of truth and research behind it. The singularist argument proposed by Carlson is thus somewhat expanded with the realities of culture, norms, and aesthetic subjectivity taken into account.