Parsons, Ch 6, Aesthetics of Engagement

“Nature and the Disembodied Aesthetic”



2.      Parsons traditional definition of aesthetics as disembodied

         a.      Aes quality is visual/auditory appearance pleasing/displeasing for own sake

                   i.       Only “higher” senses involved, no lower senses (smell, taste, touch) that are tied to and felt in the body

         b.      This requires physical distance between aes appreciator and object of appreciation

                   i.       To see and hear better to not be in physical contact

         c.      Dress example

                   i.       Best appreciated on the rack

                   ii.      If wearing it, aes appreciation becomes harder

                            (1)    Have to look in a mirror

                            (2)    Distracted by how it feels (e.g., it itches)

         d.      Physical separation (disengagement) required for calm, contemplative activity of aes appreciation


3.      Nature is “sub-optimal”object of aes appreciation when aes appreciation understood this way (i.e., as disembodied appreciation)

         a.      Aes appreciation of nature more difficult than art appreciation

                   i.       Unlike art, nature does not cooperate to produce conditions conducive to aes appreciation

                   ii.      Need to do extra work to make sure those circumstances exist in nature

         b.      Nature blast us with icy winds

         c.      Drenches with rain

         d.      Surprise you with warm sun as breaks through clouds

         e.      Nature envelops us and impinges on us

         f.       Hard to attain contemplative, disembodied pleasure required for aes appreciation




5.      Aes of engagement (e.g., of Arnold Berleant)

         a.      Rejects this alleged sub-optimality of nature as aes object

         b.      Claims the problem is with the definition of aes appreciation as disembodied, disengaged

         c.      Aes appreciation is essentially engagement with the aesthetic object


6.      Berleant makes this case by arguing that

7.      Art appreciation (sometimes? always?) requires engagement as well and not the disengaged, pure contemplative, physically removed appreciation of traditional definition

8.      Examples

         a.      Sculpture that needs to be touched and entered to appreciate

                   i.       Buildings can’t be appreciated from outside only!

         b.      Open theater where spectators become part of the play

                   i.       Physical distance impossible, and misses the whole point of the play

9.      Berleant’s definition of aes: Engage with the object trying to appreciate

         a.      Try to diminish or remove distance between oneself and object

         b.      Try to freely use all senses, not just vision and hearing

10.    Berleant understands aes of engagement as a joining of perceiver and object in perceptual unity

         a.      Object/subject of appreciation merge, distance dissolves

         b.      What is appreciated is not object, but the experience that encompasses both me and the object



12.    Aes appreciation of nature is not contemplative but total engagement,

         a.      Sensory immersion in the natural world that aims at unity

         b.      Examples: Diving into a lake or pile of leaves, being enveloped by violent storm

13.    Nature becomes a paradigm of aes appreciation (instead of art being that paradigm)

         a.      Since nature draws us into sensory immersion and envelops us

         b.      And being swallowed up is at the heart of aes experience

         c.      Because nature is good at doing

         d.      Aesthetic appreciation of nature is easy not difficult



15.    One: Involvement of “lower” senses

         a.      To be fully engaged with nature must do more than simply look and listen   

         b.      Feel wind on skin, smell scents from natural things and touch them

         c.      Reduces physical distance between ourselves and nature to zero

16.    Two: Diminished role of thought

         a.      Thought remains in the background

                   i.       Do think to some extent

                   ii.      But thinking does not play central/prominent role in the experience

         b.      Why? Because thinking involves cognitive separation of self and other

                   i.       If aim of engagement is perceptual unity, don’t want to be aware of such distinctions

                   ii.      Aim at jumble of sensation that meld object and observer

                   iii.     Diminishment of thinking can enhance our degree of engagement with nature (may even be necessary for such engagement)

         c.      If thinking means passive contemplation yes, this might reduce engagement; but not clear it must mean this

         d.      If engagement means active doing in nature, would thinking get in way?

17.    Three: Ineffability of engaged state (can’t describe it)

         a.      Words get in the way of this unity as they separate and undermine undifferentiated unity of sensations

18.    Issues

         a.      Unity and ineffability part of “engagement” is problematic and seems independent of other elements

         b.      Using all senses is important part

         c.      Active engagement with and being in the midst of nature is important



20.    Sensory immersion in nature (plunging into pile of autumn leaves, midnight swim in mountain lake)

         a.      Such engagement is pleasurable, memorable, delightful, valuable

         b.      But is it the essence of aes experience of nature?

         c.      Is it aes appreciation at all?

         d.      Is it one type of legitimate way to aes experience nature, or part of the fullest, best aes appreciation of nature?

21.    Engagement view of nature aes not useful for the purpose of using aes in env decision-making

         a.      Because of insistence on ineffability of the experience

                   i.       For it to be useful in conservation decisions it must be communicable to others

                            (1)    For that is only way to communicate value of the experience of engagement with nature to others

                   ii.      Reply: Have the decision makers go experience it for themselves; have them hike in the forest they are deciding to preserve or log

                            (1)    Point of Sierra Club getting people out into natural places

22.    Engagement does not manifest respectful attitude toward nature

         a.      Merge with nature, produce unity

         b.      Treats nature as a means/tool to producing this experience and fails to take it on own terms or respect it

         c.      **“To appreciate the leaves on own terms would be to consider more than simply the kinds of sensations they happen to produce when we fall into a pile of them”


23.    Berleant’s idea that aes of engagement works better for art (than does traditional disembodied aesthetic) is mistaken

         a.      It works for some avant guard art, but not for much/most art

                   i.       Jump on stage and get engaged with a production of Hamlet?

         b.      This definition of aes experience makes sense for some art but not other art

         c.      Should not throw out traditional definition of aesthetics (disembodied pleasure in perception)

24.    Engagement with art/nature is not aesthetic appreciation, but some other sort of appreciation

         a.      Parson recommends that for art meant to be appreciated with engagement, we say this is artistic appreciation of art, but not aesthetic appreciation of art

         b.      Some artist have become interested in facilitating forms of experience other than aesthetic experience, namely engagement

25.    Engagement (e.g., unity with aes object) is neither necessary nor sufficient for experience to be aes

         a.      Can have experiences that are aesthetic but don’t achieve unity

         b.      Can have unity experiences (sex) but they aren’t aesthetic

         c.      **No one aside from proponent of engagement definition of aesthetics thinks sex intercourse is an aes experience

26.    Engagement does not reveal anything about nature of aesthetic

         a.      That engagement is neither nec nor sufficient for aes exp would not show that it could not be an important component of a valuable aes exp

27.    Parsons accepts that nature is not optimal aes object

         a.      Hard to get aes appreciation from nature when compared to art

         b.      Not surprising, as most art is arranged for purpose of providing aes experience (and nature is not)

28.    Nature’s resistance to aes experience makes it a challenge that increases the richness and complexity and makes it more worth having

         a.      Does not diminish the worth or stature of nature appreciation

Questions on Parsons, Ch 6: Nature and the Disembodied Aesthetic

1.      What is the traditional definition of an aesthetic quality? In what way is it “disembodied?” Which senses does it use? Is physical distance relevant?

2.      Why does nature become a “sub-optimal” object of aesthetic appreciation if one accepts the disembodied aesthetic.

3.      What is he aesthetics of engagement? What does the “aesthetics of engagement” say about nature as sub-optimal for aesthetic appreciation and more generally about the “traditional definition of aesthetics”?

4.      What are some examples of art appreciation that allegedly require “engagement?”

5.      What are some examples of engaged nature appreciation?

6.      What is the role of thought in the aes of engagement?

7.      Which explains aes appreciation of art better, aes of engagement or the traditional disembodied aesthetic?

8.      What are some of the criticism of the aes of engagement? Do you agree with them? Is such a view of nature appreciation useful for aesthetic preservationism (=preserving nature for aesthetic reasons)? Is it respectful of nature?

9.      Is sex an aesthetic experience? What would these two conceptions of aesthetics say about this?

10.    Does Parsons think nature is an optimal object of aes appreciation? If nature is sub-optimal, does he think that lessens its worth and value as an aesthetic object?