Lexicon term: aesthetic of care

The OED defines aesthetic,

1. Of or pertaining to sensuous perception, received by the senses.
2. Of or pertaining to the appreciation or criticism of the beautiful.
3. Of persons, animals: Having or showing an appreciation of the beautiful or pleasing; tasteful, of refined taste. Of things: In accordance with the principles of good taste (or what is conventionally regarded as such).

And care,

4. to care for: to take thought for, provide for, look after, take care of. Also with indirect pass.

Aesthetic of care, then, suggests that we find things beautiful when they exhibit thought and maintenance.

In “The Beauty that Requires Health”, (2008) Eaton (aesthetic philosopher) argues that aesthetics are important to our experience of landscape – so much so that the 1969 Environmental Policy Act refers to “aesthetic amenities”. She claims that a better understanding of aesthetics, as applied to the natural environment, will make better ecological stewardship possible for the long term.
Eaton cites Carlson’s 1979 models for nature appreciation. According to his argument, we understand the aesthetics of works of art, such as paintings and music, because they are “human creations whose production we understand”. In response, two models for nature appreciation emerge: nature as model, where parts of nature are interpreted and evaluated as artwork, neglecting the greater whole; and nature as scenery, where landscape is valued visually as a picture frame or backdrop, rather than as a source of life. These models leave us in need of a of a model for aesthetic appreciation of nature which engages all senses and emotion.

Eaton argues that people will protect objects (such as paintings) that sustain our interest because we want to be able to return to them over and over again. The challenge in applying this concept to ecology is that aesthetic appreciation requires direct perception and many aspects of ecology cannot be directly perceived. This, Eaton argues, is an opportunity for landscape designers:

“If landscape architects are to take advantage of aesthetic values as they design ecologically sound landscapes, then they must make the aesthetic properties accessible. Ecologically sustainable landscapes will only be possible if due attention is given to the cultural values that determine people’s choices and actions.” (355-356)

She argues that landscape architects must create signs (both metaphorical and literal) that reveal ecological function to the layman.

“Human-dominated landscapes can be very beautiful. Although we must fully recognize that neither aesthetics nor ecology can be reduced to the other, there are examples of connections that can be used to show that an aesthetic-ecological ‘fit’ exists. … Aesthetic and ecological soundness will be perceived simultaneously. The upshot will be, I hope, that health and beauty begin to come together. If this happens, then both aesthetic and ecological sustainability may result.” (358)

Nassauer, a landscape architect, argues in her 2008 article “Cultural Sustainability: Aligning Aesthetics and Ecology” that the issue is not only that ecological systems must be made legible and aesthetic appealing, these systems are often quite large scale and must be made accessible at the small scale. A second challenge exists in that people have a preconceived notion of how a “beautiful” landscape should look. This scenic landscape aesthetic is “…drawn from 18th century picturesque, in which the power of nature began to be seen as beautiful, as long as it was controlled…The picturesque was a cultural idea about how nature works.” (364)

Nassauer terms this control of nature the “aesthetic of care”. She writes,

“The aesthetic of care is laden with good intentions and social meaning: stewardship, a work ethic, personal pride, contributing to community. But like many other ways that we improve our lives or our surroundings, landscape care can cause unintended and unexamined harm.” (364)

“To take advantage of the ready-made cultural necessities of scenic beauty and landscape care, we might ask how we can attach ecological health to these lawlike aesthetic conventions. Freezing nature to look scenic and making nature neat and tidy could create the antithesis of ecological health. But if we acknowledge that we live in a world dominated by humans, in which human perception of the landscape will ultimately affect how every landscape is used or protected, then we are led to find ways to use ready-made cultural necessities. Rather than focusing on the dire implications of some aesthetic features, we can critically analyzed those features and selectively use them because we recognize the power of overall aesthetic experience. Landscapes that attract the admiring attention of human beings may be more likely to survive than landscapes that do not attract care or admiration.
“Survival that depends on human attention might be called cultural sustainability. Landscapes that are ecologically sound, and that also evoke enjoyment and approval, are more likely to be sustained by appropriate human care over the long term. People will be less likely to redevelop, pave, mine or improve landscapes that they recognize as attractive. In short, the health of the landscape requires that humans enjoy and take care of it.” (365)

Related to the aesthetic of care, Nassauer states, is a sense of ownership and stewardship. Public park systems are successful because everyone has a sense of ownership. Outside of public lands, this is difficult because of the United States’ “Jeffersonian principle of democratic land ownership”—everyone owns a little land, and ecological functions are fragmented. Everyone has the expectation that they can do whatever they want with their property, but also subscribes to the cultural expectation that everyone’s lawn should look the same. Cultural expectations must be challenged, and landscape designers must take advantage of readymade cultural signs to create landscapes that display an aesthetic of care while addressing large-scale ecological functions.

“Only if that new pattern were recognizable as meeting cultural expectations could it promote new possibilities for the appropriate appearance of landscapes.” (367)

“The next generation of ecological-protection strategies must go beyond a sound tradition of land acquisition and also address individual management and development of private land. To be successful these new strategies should use the persuasive power of cultural expectations. The way people think their neighbors think the landscape should look is as important as their individual, more idiosyncratic tastes or knowledge. Andrew Jackson Downing was right in 1841 when he described the lawn as a democratic medium. New paradigms for the appearance of landscapes must speak a widely understood and generally accepted aesthetic language. By first being palatable, landscape aesthetics ultimately can go beyond the merely acceptable to evoke intelligent tending of the land so that aesthetic decisions can become intrinsically ecological decisions.” (367-368)

“An aesthetic that meets the approval of the neighbors may seem a peculiar place to start if our goal is to save the planet for human habitation. To most people aesthetics implies trivial decoration, and social conformity seems to contradict social change. But philosophers convincingly argue that aesthetics has a fundamental effect on how we see the world, and naturalists and ecologist who are interested in protecting the landscape have reached the same conclusion. Marcia Muelder Eaton’s definition of aesthetic experience clarifies why aesthetics is fundamental, in part because it reflects cultural values: ‘aesthetic experience is marked by perception of and reflection upon intrinsic properties of objects and events that a community considers worthy of sustained attention.” (370)

“The aesthetic of care affects landscapes more broadly than the scenic because it sets the aesthetic standard for even the most mundane places, including the small parcels that connect protected lands. Care implies that a person or community has ownership of a place –if not as personal property then as social identity.” (371)

Nassauer defines care as watching over change, rather than preventing it,

“Care is attentive to change. It means watching over something as it changes. It means watching over a place and intervening in change to achieve a proper landscape. In this way, landscapes are more like children than works of art. They require tending, not making. They do not thrive under absolute control. Inevitably they change, and they change independently of those who enjoy and care for them. Regardless of good intentions, ignorant care can make a spoiled child, overindulged with too much of a good thing. Similarly, the signs of landscape care that we see in American neighborhoods and farms may show us spoiled landscape, the products of superficial good intentions rather than a more profound understanding of what is ecologically good. Superficial appearances that belie ecological flaws leave us dissatisfied and uncertain.” (372)

The aesthetic of care, as defined by Eaton and Nassauer, is closely related to the use of signs and semiotics in postmodernism. Naussaer’s definition of care, as watching over (rather than preventing) change, suggests that the aesthetic of care is also closely related to concepts of temporality, movement, and change in the landscape.

Del Tredici‘s arguement for the closer study of urban ecologies might be seen as developing a case against the aesthetic of care. He argues that because we have determined that volunteer, spontaneous, or invasive vegetation is not aesthetically pleasing, we have devalued urban ecologies and as a result do not have much understanding of them.

Additional reading: Meyer “Sustaining Beauty”

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