Graham Burgess, Member, on 4 June 2002

This talk was intended to follow-on from one I gave to this group on 1st August 2000 entitled `The Philosophy behind Environmentalism'. In that talk I suggested that the phenomenon of western environmentalism could essentially be traced back to 19th century romanticism, and had, at its core, a concern for the aesthetics of nature. I'm afraid that I was largely misunderstood as meaning that environmentalism was concerned merely with aesthetics (and thus not with anything as credible as science). This was not my meaning at all and I hope that this talk may set the record straight.

As an environmentalist I was, and remain, concerned that issues which do not have a scientifically credible basis for challenge ought not to be justified using spurious, and often apocalyptic pseudo-scientific predictions instead, because this will ultimately undermine faith in environmental prediction across the board (and this appears to be happening already). However, if we are to reserve our scientific analyses for those issues where they most properly apply - say, climate change, GM food or the unresolved issues of nuclear waste - we must find a proper basis for separating off those issues where it does not so readily apply - say, preserving Antarctica, resisting whaling or preventing further destruction of the British countryside. I must stress that I am a passionate supporter of these latter issues, but feel that a different justification is called for.

My thesis, then, is that in such cases the loss is essentially an aesthetic loss and my aim today is to show how this is not a mere aesthetic loss, but a profound aesthetic loss.

Accordingly I intend to trace the origins and progress of what I see as the defining elements in Romantic aesthetics. These will fall under three distinct, though not unconnected headings.

1. The origins of philosophical aesthetics and the importance of beauty in nature.

2. The indispensable role of the artist in shaping the values of society.

3. The fundamentally artistic nature of mankind.

I will try to show how such ideas were combined in the minds of men such as Ruskin and Morris to create a conscious mechanism for social change of which, I believe, the modern environmental movement is one of a number of direct beneficiaries.

1. The origins of philosophical aesthetics and the importance of beauty in nature.

For this I looked to Kant's Critique of Judgement; for, apart from being the seminal work on philosophical aesthetics, it is also one of the few which considers the beauty of nature (as opposed to that of art).

Kant discerns two types of beauty: free beauty and dependent beauty. The latter concerns those subjects in which there is a concept of what the object has to be, i.e. a concept of its perfection. This prevents a free and pure judgement of taste. Free beauty, on the other hand, includes such things as music not set to words, flowers and the wildness of nature. In such cases the free play is unconstrained by rules and thus taste, writes Kant `can exhibit its perfection in projects of the imagination'.

Such a philosophic position, quite new and in accord with the youthful Romantic movement adequately sets the scene for men such as John Ruskin to subsequently pronounce that `All beauty comes from Nature', and to champion the more irregular and organic medieval building styles whilst attacking the `stiff regularity' of classical architecture, not to mention that of 18th century Enlightenment culture in general. Indeed, Kant's philosophical position in this regard exemplifies the Romantic/Enlightenment division; free play of the imagination in nature on the one hand, versus regularity and rules on the other.

2. The indispensable role of the artist in shaping the values of society.

The next important assumption that ranked high in the ideas of Romanticism is that of the crucial role of the artist in determining the values of the future and, in the case of Romanticism in particular, attitudes toward the beauty of nature. Thus, if, as Kant held, our perception of beauty were dependent on our imagination, it would be primarily artists who could focus the popular imagination.

It had been noted by Plato that the works of poets (particularly Hesiod and Homer) exercised an undue, and to Plato, unwelcome influence on the fundamental values of 5th century BC Athenian society.

Shelley, in his essay `A Defence of Poetry' (`Poetry' for Shelley meaning something more like `art'; from the Greek poieo, to make, to do, to create), claims that it is artists who `behold the future in the present'.

John Dewey, writing in 1934, makes a similar point

Literature conveys the meaning of the past that is significant in present experience and is prophetic of the larger movement of the future. Only imaginative vision elicits the possibilities that are interwoven within the texture of the actual. The first stirrings of dissatisfaction and the first intimations of a better future are always found in works of art.1

A more up-to-date example might be the influence of the imaginative works of 1950s science fiction writers and artists on the space programmes of the 1960s, culminating in the moon landings. Scientifically there was little point in sending men to the moon but the imagination of influential sections of the developed world had been `caught' by that of the authors and comic-strip artists of a decade or so earlier. Indeed, the satellites upon which our own society now seems so heavily dependent were themselves first conceived by the sci-fi writer Arthur.C.Clarke.

And just in case there remain any lingering doubts as to the enormous influence art can have on popular perceptions, I need only point out the tactics now used by advertisers. Advertising today is, as we are all aware, far more subtle than it once was. It has recruited art and artists to effect exactly such profound changes in future values, perceptions and aspirations in precisely those ways suggested and even lauded by those I have cited in this paper. It has worked spectacularly well, but for one thing. Art has been turned into a tool for commercial ends rather than for, as Morris puts it `the beneficent progress of civilisation'; a tool for the corralling of imagination rather than for its liberation. It would, after all, not sound in the least incredible but merely rather cynical to pronounce advertisers as the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

It is by no means incredible, then, to suggest that such sentiments as recognising the vulnerability of the beauty of nature may have been aroused by the earlier work of romantic artists.

3. The fundamentally artistic nature of mankind.

Under the influence of Hegel and Feuerbach, the notion of man's free and unconstrained productive activity becomes for Marx, the essential attribute of humanity and that " Spontaneous, voluntary activity is his element, and in such activity he expresses himself as an artist. . . and forms things in accordance with the laws of beauty." (Tucker)

This is, at any rate, what man would do were it not for the fact that he is largely forced to engage in `alienated labour', whereby he is compelled to produce things for others in which he has no possibility of expressing himself and is at the same time surrounded by products of other people's alienated labour which do not reflect either himself or even the imaginative endeavours of others like himself. He is thus doubly alienated, both in his work and in the made environment, and cannot, therefore, realise his true nature as a creator.

The basic truth of such an analysis was generally uncontested, at least among artists, philosophers and social reformers.

The importance of countering this is twofold: Firstly, that it prevents basic human fulfilment in creativity and production; secondly, that it eliminates the appreciation of the creative work of others and of the beauty of nature, resulting in a careless attitude towards them.

Civilisations, reasons William Morris, have hitherto sought to enhance the beauty of the world, yet this destruction is taking place fastest in those places apparently most `civilised'. How can that be? For hundreds of years our civilisation created a wealth of beauty; indeed, is this not what defines it as civilised: its art, its architecture, its music, its literature? But now it seems, observes Morris, as though civilisation were `eating her own children'. He concludes that such destruction must result from ignorance and carelessness rather than from malice or as an inevitable consequence of civilisation. However, as long as people remain single-mindedly focused on accumulating wealth and prestige - among the rich and influential - or compelled to work long hours at meaningless tasks, simply to afford to eat - for the poor, art will be neglected and considered superfluous. A society which neglects art and truly creative work ceases to value beauty, and destruction easily follows uncontested.

An appreciation of the true value of art is thus the essential feature of an appreciation of beauty in nature without which there is no motivation to protection. Hans Georg Gadamer, in his essay `The Relevance of the Beautiful', holds that

` A deeper analysis of this aesthetic experience teaches us that . . .in fact we can only see nature with the eyes of men experienced and educated in art.'2

The blocks to a general appreciation of art are manifold, but, in Britain at least, there is evidence that, over time, the late 19th century Romantic artists did have an effect. Indeed it was as a result of Ruskin's proposals that we now have national parks and the National Trust, and as a result of Morris that we have the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. The so-called `Arts and Crafts' movement which sought to embody the aims of Ruskin and Morris grew up, aiming to create simple buildings and everyday objects fitting their purpose and environment while at the same time giving local workmen a degree of artistic freedom. And although it often found it expedient to compromise the ideals, it was a worthwhile artistic enterprise which unfortunately faltered during the First World War. Similar ideals were carried forward in the Garden Cities movement, The Commons Preservation Society, The Ramblers Association and were embodied within British socialism at least until the 1930s. Indeed, the legacy of these late Victorian thinkers is ultimately unknowable, although certainly profound. Gandhi, for example, was inspired by Ruskin, as were countless artists and authors of the twentieth century and their ideas have become a significant part of the background of our thinking.

There are no grounds for complacency, however, and my main concern is that as we steadily get further from its source, and as we become progressively less aware of the true mechanisms involved, the effect will become weaker and the careless forces of greed will again break loose - it already feels like a losing battle. The environmental movement is a direct descendent of this tradition, yet it seems that it hardly knows itself. If only it could see itself as a part of a long and worthy tradition, a tradition which has achieved an enormous amount by being honest and proud in its motives, it may yet reverse its declining credibility.

Graham Burgess

1 Dewey.J: Art as Experience. Perigee. NY. 1934 pp.345-6

2 Gadamer.H.G.The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays. Trans. N.Walker. CUP.1986 p.30


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