The paradox and its resolution

The paradox of framing derives from the tension that this divergence of paths engenders. We can formulate it this way: On the one hand, it seems that nothing can be comprehended as an object of appreciation unless it is framed or bounded in some way. On the other hand, it seems that appreciative experience of natural environments requires the dissolving and penetrating of all boundaries in favor of a dynamic and engaged experience. Thus, in one sense, frames seem indispensable to aesthetic experience as a precondition of comprehensible appreciation while, in another, they seem destined to impair proper regard for natural beauty, converting limitless sensible subjects into mere scenes or compositions.

The usual strategy for resolving paradoxes involves taking a closer look at apparently incompatible premises to see whether they really do imply what they are usually taken to imply. If it can be shown that the way in which the premises are formulated disguises ambiguities or possibilities of reinterpretation, then re-reading the premises in one way rather than another does away with their apparent incompatibility. That is exactly how we need to resolve the framing paradox. The source of the problem, as I see it, lies in an overly narrow conception of 'frame' that has been assumed throughout the debate. Both framists and anti-framists speak of frames as enclosing their aesthetic contents and helping to compose those contents, making possible an appreciation of their balance, unity, harmony, and so on. Framists think this a virtue. Anti-framists think it a vice, at least as it is applied to nature. But neither side fully appreciates the nuanced way in which the other deals with the line between inside and outside.

Although it is certainly true that picture frames facilitate form appreciation in a way that is relatively rigid and impermeable, our experience of paintings, for example, often penetrates the frame by taking stock of undisclosed elements that are part of the painting as much as is the paint on the canvas. To take an obvious example, a proper appreciation of most medieval paintings will require familiarity with the iconographic code that lends significance to some of their elements. That code is not within the frame; it is instead a part of the work that the framed composition calls up. The aesthetic experience one may have in contemplating such a painting - the beauty one might find in it, say - is focused, but not confined, by the frame. And the same is true of many other features of paintings in all periods and places. Irony, parody, homage, political message, and so on, are important parts of artworks not presented on their framed surface. Nor are such elements of response as the way in which a particular painting resonates with recent world events. Or the way it unintentionally echoes work done in another age or place. Or the way its display in a particular museum space creates harmony or tension between it and other paintings, and so on. Yet all of these factors can properly contribute to one's aesthetic experience of the painting as it is presented.

The same contrast between focus and confinement is obviously true of other artistic media as well. The novels we most want to read are those that refuse to stay resolutely within their covers. When we buy tickets to watch plays, we hope and expect our experience will transcend the limits of the stage to connect up with other valuable things in our lives. And the same is obviously true of dance, opera, sculpture, gardens, and other artforms. Even though the various ways in which works in all of these artforms are framed do the important work of focusing our regard on a definite this to be appreciated, it is nearly never the artist's intent to restrict the audience's attention to what is displayed within the frame.

In the natural environment, the notion of what is framed and what Q is not is equally malleable. [...] M

[The] fortunate propensity of nature to stimulate our imaginations o profitably is an asset bestowed on it by its unframedness (Hepburn, e

;; 1966). Artworks are, relatively speaking, bound in their meaning by the frames and interpretive guides and the like that explain what those frames £ compose. But I am suggesting that this way of putting things both over-| states the controlling function of the frame in art and understates the jP attention-focusing function of informal framing devices in our experience ■g of nature. [...]

If we think of framing simply as concentration of attention within limits - not concerning ourselves with the question of the potential of those limits to control the elements it confines into a composition - we must concede that every aesthetic experience of nature is framed. It is framed because it depends first and foremost upon the senses, and each of these has a limited range. It is easy to make too much of this condition. This sort of framing is a limitation that is, like many other essentially human limitations, generally indiscernible in the conduct of life. But it is also easy to make too little of it. Whether one is standing outside the cabin looking at the vast panorama or standing within it looking through the window, one is looking at what is necessarily only a selection from the great inventory of natural phenomena. It obviously follows that nature as a whole cannot be appreciated aesthetically, and that we are therefore stuck with finding beauty, sublimity, etc., in parts of nature rather than in a limitless and therefore insensible whole. To this plain fact of limitation, we may add the fact that our limited capacities of attention and comprehension, let alone culturally inculcated limitations on what we may become aware of, inevitably circumscribe our ability to experience natural phenomena. This conclusion flies in the face of at least the most ambitious forms of 'aesthetic integralism,' the notion that natural beauty emerges when, and only when, we regard the whole of nature ( just as the beauty of a poem emerges when, and only when, we regard the whole of the poem). [...]

In the end, the framing controversy is about the variety of limits on attention. Everyone admits that our sensory exposure to the world is limited and that our way of making sense of, or appreciating, the world to which we are exposed is also limited. Not only are the limits inevitable, they are basic conditions of the intelligibility of our sensory world. One person walks along a mountain path turning his head this way and that, listening to the wind, smelling the faint fragrance of high pine needles, feeling the gusts of frigid air on his cheeks. His awareness of all these natural qualities is informally framed, re-framed, and re-framed again as he continues his hike. If his sensory experience were utterly unframed it would be chaotic and unintelligible. Certainly it would be unappreciable. Another person peers through a microscope to examine a volvox colony. She locates it in a dense biotic soup of other animate and inanimate matter, and she isolates it for attention simply by seeing it as a volvox colony, taking its physical limits as the limits of her regard, and pushing all the rest of what appears in her optical field into the background. She has framed the volvox colony for attention - and if she finds it aesthetically interesting, as a potential focus of aesthetic experience, she does so simply by allowing one set of frames (names and physical dimensions of the named objects) to subtend the larger frames of sensory awareness. A third person stops in the course of clearing a debris-clogged gutter to admire the way the oil-runoff, surface froth, and slow-moving mud are catching the low-angled winter light to produce a luminous, rhythmic swirl. As he gathers this in, he turns to his fellow laborer and, looking through his hands with thumbs at right angles, says, 'I wish I had a camera!'

I would insist that each of these persons (and of course the roster of similar examples could be indefinitely extended) is in a position to have an aesthetic experience involving a natural object, and hence to be in a position to appreciate natural beauty (or other natural aesthetic qualities). [...] Appreciation doesn't just rove endlessly and haphazardly across the sensory panorama. It must be trained on this or that, focused by our interest in taking in objects or qualities in various assortments. We can't help limiting our experience of nature by selecting various objects for attention at various times.

Taking an aesthetic interest in a particular natural object is an act of selective attention occurring within other selections of attention that don't disappear in the moment of particular appreciation. They just become temporarily extraneous to the appreciation at hand. [...]

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