George Santayana, Spanish-American Philosopher, 1863-1952 George Santayana The Sense of Beauty (1894)

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Allen Carlson “Aesthetic Experience of the Natural Environment” [originally published 1997]

George Santayana, Spanish-American Philosopher, 1863-1952

George Santayana The Sense of Beauty (1894)

  • The natural landscape is an indeterminate object which allows great liberty in selecting and emphasizing elements.

  • It is rich in suggestion and emotional stimulus.

  • To be seen, and seen as beautiful, it must be composed.

Carlson: the natural landscape is indiscriminate and promiscuous, and the problem is what and how to select for appropriate appreciation.

  • There is no parallel problem in appreciation of art. There we know what and how to appreciate.

  • We know to appreciate a painting’s delicacy and not where it hangs, and we know to look at a painting.

  • We know which parts are aesthetically relevant because we have made them for aesthetic appreciation.


  • We demand different acts of “aspection” [ noticing aspects of things] for different kinds of work.

  • Knowing the classification implies knowing how to appreciate.

Nature is not art.

  • Carlson then discusses four models of nature appreciation, rejecting the first three and promoting the fourth.

Object of Art Model (OAM):

  • We appreciate the actual physical object’s aesthetically relevant features, its sensuous, design, and abstract expressive qualities.

  • We can aesthetically appreciate objects of nature, for example rocks and driftwood, in accord with this.

  • We can actually, or imaginatively, remove the object from its surroundings, and dwell on its sensuous and expressive qualities.

Natural beige driftwood sculpture above, driftwood wall art. 1300.00.


This would treat it like non-representational sculpture.

  • Such a work is a self-contained aesthetic unit of which we appreciate its aesthetic qualities, e.g. balance and grace.

  • Constantin Brancusi, "L'oiseau dans l'espace [Bird in space]" 1923

Putting a rock on a mantelpiece and appreciating it is inappropriate.

  • For nature is indeterminate, and we must distinguish between appreciating nature and appreciating objects of nature.

  • On one version of OAM, objects of nature, when so appreciated, become “readymades” like Duchamp’s Fountain:

  • But the appreciation of nature is lost.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917

  • Or we can appreciate the rock on a mantel only as an aesthetically pleasing object.

  • But doing so still removes natural objects from their surroundings in which they were created by means of natural forces.

  • For natural objects, environments of creation are aesthetically relevant, as are environments of display.

Landscape or Scenery Model (LSM)

  • LSM involves appreciation of a natural environment as if it were a series of landscape paintings.

An example of this is “scenic viewpoints.”

Claude glass 18th century, and painting by Claude Lorrain 1655-1660

Disadvantages of LSM

  • This approach reduces a walk in the natural environment to something like a stroll through a gallery.

  • There are moral problems here. It confirms our anthropocentrism [human-centered attitude] and allows our abuse of local environments.

  • The aesthetic problem is that the natural environment is not a scene, not static, and not two-dimensional.

  • As Ronald Hepburn puts it: people will look in vain at nature for what can be enjoyed only in art.

Human Chauvinistic Aesthetic (HCA)

  • One alternative is to deny aesthetic appreciation in nature since aesthetic appreciation requires aesthetic evaluation, i.e. judging an object as an achievement.

  • One version of this approach is Human Chauvinistic Aesthetic (HCA)

  • one version of this says that nature is not a work of art (there is no author’s intention, tradition, or milieu.)

Attack on HCA

  • But HCA is countered by the orthodox view that everything is open to aesthetic appreciation, and the common sense idea that there are some instances of aesthetic appreciation of natural things, for example fiery sunsets.

Another alternative is AOE: Aesthetics of Engagement.

  • This model, associated with Arnold Berleant, calls on us to replace abstraction with engagement, distance with immersion.

Too subjective!

  • But, Carlson replies, some subject/object dichotomy is necessary for aesthetic appreciation.

  • AOE is too subjective, and it seems to say we should appreciate everything.

Neither HCA nor AOE answer the what or the when questions adequately.

  • HCA and AOE point to a paradigm exemplified by geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, who says that the adult must learn to be enjoying, yielding and careless like a child [I call this the Taoist model].

  • Yi Fu Tuan, emeritus Professor of Geography, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

  • Tuan: if an adult does what he suggests he might experience an environment that breaks “all the formal rules of euphony and aesthetic, substituting confusion for order, and yet be wholly satisfying.”

A stone sculpture of Laozi (c. 600-400 BCE), located north of Qiamzhou at the foot of Mount Quingyuan, China

Objections to Tuan

  • But we cannot appreciate everything.

  • Tuan’s approach would only yield confusion, and would not be wholly satisfying.

  • It would be too far removed from aesthetic appreciation of art.

  • [Carlson also opposes the idea that there is one paradigm of aesthetic appreciation.]

The Natural Environmental Model (NEM)

  • This is Carlson’s position: natural and environmental science is the key to aesthetic appreciation of the natural environment.

  • Our response must be what John Dewey called a consummatory experience in which knowledge and intelligence transform raw experience, making it determinate, harmonious, and meaningful.

  • We must feel the ant at least as an insect.

  • The sound of distant traffic may be excluded from appropriate appreciation of the environment.

Common sense and scientific knowledge is relevant to how we should appreciate an environment.

  • Different natural environments require different acts of aspection.

  • Classification is essential to appropriate appreciation of nature.

“we must survey a prairie” Cambria prairie

but examine and scrutinize a forest.
Forest floor, Nova Scotia

Just as with art, relevant knowledge is needed for correct appreciation.

  • The required knowledge is provided by naturalists, ecologists, geologists and natural historians.

  • NEM does not reject the traditional structure of aesthetic appreciation of art as a model for aesthetic appreciation of the natural world.

Must be composed.

  • With Santayana, NEM considers the natural environment to be indeterminate and promiscuous.

  • Thus, the vague stimulus must be composed to be appreciated.

  • The composition must be in terms of common sense and scientific knowledge.

Advantages to Carlson’s View (according to Carlson)

  • It encourages appreciation of nature for what it is: this helps to dispel environmental and moral criticisms.

  • It is not anthropocentric.

  • It aligns with other areas of philosophy depending on [scientific] knowledge of the phenomena in question.

Thomas Heyd’s criticism of Carlson

  • “It is… rather unclear that any one ever experiences the natural environment as "unruly and chaotic," except perhaps when first encountering the rapids in a turbulent, rain-swollen river, or the wind action on a lookout point on a stormy day. It quickly becomes evident to the attentive observer, though, that natural processes inevitably reveal patterns and, as a result of this, most people likely approach the natural environment with the expectation that it is rule-governed and orderly and not as "unruly and chaotic."

  • If anything will likely strike us as "unruly and chaotic" it is, rather, human action and its results, such as garbage dumps and sewers, which intermingle the compostable and the highly toxic.” “Querying Allen Carlson’s Aesthetics and the Environment.”, accessed 10/22/10

“The Aesthetics of Junkyards and Roadside Clutter,” Contemporary Aesthetics, 2008

  • ABSTRACT A little more than thirty years ago, Allen Carlson argued that although the concept of "Camp" would seem to allow for the aesthetic redemption of roadside clutter and junkyards, it does not. He opposes those who claim that if one takes the right attitude to roadside clutter it can be seen as aesthetic. In this essay I argue that that there is nothing wrong with this, although I will not base my argument on the idea of Camp sensibility.

Thomas Leddy “The Aesthetics of Junkyards,” 2010

  • Carlson: an aesthetically positive response to a junkyard would be inappropriate

  • No one should be saddened by the disappearance of a junkyard.

  • You cannot see a junkyard as aesthetic except in a thin sense. You could not appreciate it in a thick sense, knowledge-based sense [in the way he thinks you could appreciate a meadow in the essay we read]

Peter Tytla, PARTS IS PARTS (1992)


Roadside clutter near A2, Bridge, Canterbury. Photo: © Ady Kerry.

  • Advocating the aesthetic value of junkyards is unethical since I [Leddy] am thereby advocating anti-environmentalist values.

  • Yet I am sympathetic to environmentalism.

  • I reject Carlson’s premise that junkyards generally are never appropriately aesthetically pleasing.


  • The term “clutter” generally has a negative connotation: lovers of clutter may be said to favor what other call clutter

  • Messiness can sometimes be a positive aesthetic quality [as when you like the messiness of your sloppy and delicious sandwich]

  • I favor appreciating some things other consider eyesores.

  • Contrast between my neighborhood [Roosevelt Park, San Jose] and the middle-class one next door [Naglee Park]: clutter vs. tasteful front-yards

  • Only the first are photographically interesting.

Modern Artists

  • Modern artists made it possible: Picasso, Rauschenberg, Kienholz, Dine, Oldenburg, Kaprow, Conner, Cornell, Burri, Chamberlain, Arte Povera

Picasso, Bull’s Head, 1943, Bronze Cast Bicycle Parts

Robert Rauschenberg/Monogram, 1955–59 Freestanding combine: oil, paper, fabric, printed paper, printed reproductions, metal, wood, rubber shoe heel, and tennis ball on canvas, with oil on Angora goat and rubber tire, on wood platform mounted on four casters

Robert Rauschenberg - 'Canyon', 1959, oil, housepaint, pencil, paper, fabric, metal, buttons, nails, cardboard, printed paper, photographs, wood, paint tubes, mirror string, pillow & bald eagle on canvas

Edward Kienholz, “The Beanery.” 1965

CHRISTOPH BÜCHEL. “Simply Botiful 2006-10-11 - 2007-03-18”

Claes Oldenburg, The Store, Dec. 1, 1961 - Jan. 31, 1962, Ray Gun Mfg. Co., 107 East Second St., New York


Allan Kaprow. Yard. View of tires in court of Martha Jackson Gallery, New York 1961

Allan Kaprow, Household, Happening, 1964

Kurt Schwitters, Merzbau, 1924-37

John Chamberlain Hatband 1960
painted steel, 58.5 x 53 x 38 inches

Richard Misrach, “Bomb, Destroyed Vehicle, and Lone Rock,” 1987

"Last Call Bison Head"
Andrew Junge, 2005, Norcal, Waste Artist in residence.

Tyrome Tripoli, 2002

"Car Wreck"
Richard Kamler, 1999

Arman, 1960 “Plein” [“The Filled”] Paris

Arman, 1959. Accumulations d'ordures ménagères sous verre. [Household garbage in glass box].

Vermont junkyard

Monroe Beardsley: “the dilemma of aesthetic education”

  • One way of directing taste is reformist towards an ideal of beauty: associated with programs of beautification

  • Another takes the aesthetic point of view whenever possible.

  • Suddenly a whole new field of aesthetic gratification opens up.

  • An automobile graveyard [can have a wild] and grotesque expressiveness.

  • Litter and junkyards may be perceptually transformed.

  • But this [the second view] is defeatist, and sometimes there are moral objections.


Debate over the thick sense.

  • Leddy: Carlson’s thick description of junkyards is just one of many.

  • Carlson himself admits he cannot be certain what life values these objects express

Andy Zoop

  • Another approach is exemplified by Andy Zoop [pseudonym], a blog-writer who argues (2007) that junk acts as a testimonial to anonymous men and women: it is a slide show of our deep humanity.

  • Carlson thinks that in appreciating junk one condones values of waste and exploitation.

  • But, following Kant, in appreciating the palace of Versailles, one is not condoning the monarchy that produced it.

Paul Ziff   (1920-2003)

Paul Ziff “Anything Viewed” 1979

  • Paul Ziff argues “anything that can be viewed is a fit object of aesthetic attention.”

  • Ziff defends seeing litter as an object for aesthetic attention.

  • Looking at Pollock, Tobey, Monet, and the Cubists might help.

  • [Next: Monet: “Impression Sunrise” 1873, and Jackson Pollock, Full Fathom Five Number 8, 1949 ]

  • Carlson could reply that although a properly run junkyard can express values of environmentalism, oil spills cannot.

  • Although it is difficult to appreciate such things, there have been artworks, for example Robert Smithson’s “Asphalt Rundown” that help.

Robert Smithson Asphalt Rundown, 1979

  • It might be argued that my approach relies on artworks and not on immediate experience of the environments described.

  • Reply: artists are sensitive observers of the environment.

  • Robert Adams photographs clear-cut forests, finding beauty in certain aspects, while still disapproving of the practice.

Robert Adams, “Clearcut,” Humbug Mountain, Clatsop County, Oregon, 1999–2001

Some argue that this leads to appreciation of unethical things.

  • But should we feel aesthetic disgust in whatever disgusts us ethically?

  • Contra Plato, it is not clear that aesthetic appreciation of representations of evil things will lead to evil acts.

  • Aesthetic appreciation of something does not require commitment to its continued existence. Appreciation of smog-enhanced sunsets does not hurt anyone.

Urine Filled Containers

  • It might be argued that the average person should not have to put up with what the avant-garde may appreciate aesthetically.

  • Urine-filled bottles beside the road may look cool to someone, but they are mostly just disgusting.

  • I do not think however that anyone is morally required to find a photograph of such a thing disgusting.

  • Next: “Piss Christ” by Andres Serrano, 1987

Conclusion: Carlson’s distinction between thick and thin concepts fails to resolve Beardsley’s dilemma.

  • Beardsley thought that the dilemma is irresolvable, and I agree.

  • I have sought to clear a space for aesthetic appreciation that is freer, more imaginative, and more in tune with contemporary art than that allowed by current morality-centered aesthetics.

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