From Aesthetic Education to Environmental Aesthetics

Article excerpt

Aesthetics can play an important role in environmental research in the humanities, along with criticism of concrete works of art and philosophy of environmental value. Environmental or "green" humanistic research has been recently chronicled for consumption beyond the academy in The New York Times.(1) What is it? Philosophies of environmental value explore explicit value shifts such as those found, for example, in recent attempts to develop the idea that nature (or parts of nature) has fundamental worth. Very different types of value shifts are often charted in environmental aesthetics and environmental criticism in the arts, however, both of which concentrate on cultural expressions of human interaction with nature. Furthermore, some humanistic environmental research, including this essay, also expresses a growing sense that a change in the environment requires a change in the self. My approach is to develop an aesthetics of the environmental self as a way of unifying at least some research in the three areas of environmental aesthetics, criticism in the arts, and philosophical value theory. Since recent environmental aesthetics has not particularly stressed the self, I go back to the aesthetic concept of self developed by Friedrich Schiller in On the Aesthetic Education of Humanity, in a Series of Letters (1795) (my translation of the title).(2)

The idea of an environmental or ecological self has been expressed particularly in concrete works of environmental criticism and in philosophical theories of environmental value.(3) Although diversity is one of the hallmarks of the developing concept of the ecological self, a common theme nevertheless emerges: the ecological self, by immersing itself in and identifying itself with elements of nature, avoids the flattening and circumscribing effects too often found in contemporary narcissistic and consumer oriented society. Thus, Theodore Roszak has developed an ecopsychology which starts from the premise that "the ecological priorities of the planet are coming to be expressed through our most private spiritual travail"; in response to this travail, the ecological self "matures toward a sense of ethical responsibility with the planet which is as vividly experienced as our ethical responsibility to other people." For Australian environmental philosophers Richard Sylvan and David Bennet, environmental self-realization is a matter of attention paid to our detailed interactions with the world: "it is the difference between simply living in a place, and dwelling in it by learning about its history, knowing its plants and animals, and participating in what the environment has to offer, rather than simply passing through it or over it." Meredith Veldman, in her recent history of green culture in Britain, has shown how ideas of the self, expressed in romantic and fantasy literature such as that of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, have influenced environmental activists. Lewis, for example, created a "mythic world," in which "not only the ties between human beings but also the bonds that connect the natural and the human world are forged anew." She sees this vision of a new self reverberating throughout the renewed British environmental movement of the nineteen sixties and seventies.(4)

The fruitfulness of Schiller's work for developing an environmental aesthetic of the self comes from his conviction that when art is conceived in terms of aesthetic education, a new idea of purpose is developed, one which advances the quest for self-determination and self-realization. Herbert Marcuse has connected Schiller's aesthetics to environmentalism most forcefully to date, but much more needs to be done in order to link their aesthetics to recent philosophies of environmental value and to concrete environmental criticism.(5) Hence, I interpret the aesthetics of Schiller and Marcuse in light of the philosophy of environmental self-realization provided by the Norwegian environmental philosopher, Arne Naess. …