Nature framed

[...] We habitually organize parts and wholes in our experience, whether we are dealing with natural objects or artifacts. The part-and-whole sorting is done through words and concepts. This is a that. This goes in that file. No one calls it that; we call it this. And so on. We don't live life as a vast undifferentiated panorama of experience. We frame what we experience as we go along. Framing is an important and inevitable aspect of our common human endeavor to make experience intelligible. The worker in the automobile factory has to frame his particular methodical procedure to make it sensible to him as part of the larger operation. The minister charged with coming up with a sermon every week has to frame her ideas in a way that will be received by her parishioners as a coherent message. The lawyer defending his client's interests must frame an argument that will win over the jury.

My point is that framing in the aesthetic sense is a lot different from framing in the physical sense. Frames around pictures are simply emblems of the wider business of framing that we engage in all the time. If I see the thistle-head as a thistle-head rather than as a miscellaneous weed or as a piece of trash, that will be because I can call up a category, or frame, within which I can regard it. The categories Kendall Walton identified as importantly determinative of our aesthetic judgments about art are examples of the carving-up process that is involved in all aesthetic experience (see Walton, 1970, pp. 334-67). But they are not the most prevalent examples. Many of the ways we isolate natural objects for aesthetic regard are inarticulate. Some natural objects we deem beautiful are bounded by their names. This, for example, is a beautiful gladiolus. And it is beautiful as a gladiolus. It isn't a lily, and wouldn't be beautiful as a lily. So, the very classification into which the object falls puts us in a 0 position to decide what features count toward its being correctly deemed | beautiful. But many other natural objects of aesthetic attention are not ^ bounded by names or categories. The gentle pit-a-pat of water dripping 0 from dozens of springlets into a narrow gorge. The odd soft-hard feel e

;; of tiny zeolite crystals in the fissure of a sea-ledge. The way silhouetted forms interplay and overlap in a forested horizon at twilight. Odd catches £ of sea-marsh fragrance. The taste left by a weed stem one has been idly | chewing on. And so on and on. Even if we should agree that it is an jP aesthetic mistake and a denigration of nature to think of environmental ■g beauty as nothing other than a series of scenes, framed and composed for ^ our enjoyment as quasi-artworks, we needn't deny that we often gather together the elements of our experience of nature into wholes as a way of focusing attention on them, experiencing them against their background. Sometimes this does amount to looking at nature in the way we look at art. Sometimes it doesn't. The occasional act of seeing a mountain setting as the very thing that might make for a great landscape painting is no more injurious to our sense of the beauty of the natural environment than the occasional act of thinking how much a certain birdsong is like one of the recorder parts in a Telemann quartet. [...]

The business of setting boundaries [...] can be accomplished in a great many ways. The most obvious, of course, is the way the landscape painter employs when she holds up an empty frame, or her hands, determining that just this much and no more will be the range of her aesthetic attention. This is a familiar means of converting the experience of unorganized natural phenomena into scenery, or a scene. But we are also selecting a range of objects for aesthetic attention and setting boundaries when we simply decide that this cloud mass and not that, this tree and not that, this section of the pond surface and not that is what we want to have as the focus of our experience. When we do this, scene and scenery may be the last things in our minds. We want to take aesthetic stock of the natural objects that capture our attention, and nothing more.

How do we do it? We draw upon memory, imagination, and our culturally acquired capacity to direct attention in such a way as to put some things in the foreground of awareness and others in the background. A fern frond can be made to stand out from a crowd of similar fronds on a cliff face just by deciding to pay close attention to it and not the others. One could equally decide to pay attention to a cluster of five fronds, or only to their stalks, or to the way they are swaying in the breeze, or the intensity of the color in their veins. In deliberate acts of selective attention, we informally frame and reframe natural objects of sensory awareness all the time. Not every informal act of framing, of course, will produce an aesthetic experience. The frame is only a precondition of the processes of reflection and delectation that can take place within it.

[...] 'A landscape to be seen has to be composed' (Santayana, 1936, p. 101). The subtle truth behind this gnomic statement is that some measure of bounding and interpretation is needed if the observer is to turn the restless, endless sensory field into appreciable wholes. Here we may wish to recall that Aristotle, who never spoke of the beauty of landscapes, insisted that the possibility of beauty turns on the concept of limitation. Limit, as he saw it, is what makes it possible to take natural objects as wholes, so that their parts may be regarded as composed, or not. If well composed, according to the canons of suitability specific to it, a natural object might be beautiful, and otherwise not. Drawing on this thought, we can generalize the point Santayana was making: To be seen as beautiful, a natural object has to be composed. And to be composed, it must be bounded, so that its parts can be parts of a whole.

Carlson's (2000) attack on what he calls the 'scenery cult' portrays its proponents as busy converting raw environmental beauty into framed scenes that charm in the way picture postcards charm, by articulating what is essentially limitless into compositions whose formal characteristics (balance, unity, etc.) can then be admired. In his most compelling illustration of this mistake, a guest in a cabin with a picture window looks out upon a mountain-ringed lake and admires what he sees encompassed by the window-frame as a splendid scene. But, by moving back into the cabin, he can spoil the effect of the 'picture' by adopting a perspective from which the characteristic of balance is lost as the top of a mountain is lopped off by the frame, as in a bad snapshot. To get the beauty straight and free from forced composition, all he has to do is step outside the cabin and look about (see Carlson, 2000, p. 36). But look about and see what? It seems to me that, outside the cabin, the guest is indeed freer to look first here and then there, taking stock of this and then that aspect of his surroundings. Yet, if he is to see beauty in nature (and not just gather a general sense of the beauty of nature), he may well see it as inhering in a beautiful something - a thing, a feature of a thing, a combination of features, or the interplay of some features with others. And for there to be a something there to see, some limitation of his awareness must be imposed.

It is not, contrary to what Carlson suggests, simply to facilitate awareness of formal qualities in nature (which he thinks are destined to be a relatively insignificant aspect of aesthetic appreciation of the environment in any case) that the guest in front of the cabin will frame, or focus, his awareness as he looks at the mountains, the lake, and so on. Rather, he o must do something of this sort in order to see what he sees as anything Q at all, let alone as a possible subject of beauty. One can imagine him ^ gazing out at the natural splendor and saying under his breath 'how o beautiful!' This exclamation is overheard by another guest, who asks, e

;; 'What is beautiful?' To which he responds 'Well, all of this,' sweeping his arm before him. But gestures of this kind are notoriously ambiguous £ and uninformative. So his companion presses him for clarification. 'Do | you mean the mountain? The lake? The play of light on the water? What, jP exactly?' And at this point we have reached a crucial fork in the theoretic ■g road. If we go in one direction, the inarticulate gestures continue, and ^ there cannot be any prospect of communicating the character or content of his aesthetic experience to his correspondent. In this case the most we can say is that the beauty he perceives seems to be out there in a general perfusion of the sensible environment. If we go in the other direction, he considers just what feature or features of the sensible environment present themselves as beautiful - not, or not only, scenic, but beautiful. And in that case, he will abandon the frameless awareness indicated by the sweep of his arm in favor of a more focused, more considered judgment about what counts in a particular beauty judgment. The first path preserves the sense that natural beauty is best understood as unframed, but it does so at the cost of focus and communicability. The second path embraces the idea that beauty judgments require some form of limitation or focal conspectus to make them comprehensible, but it does so at the cost of the dynamic, engaged appreciation of a limitless environment.

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