Why Landscape Art?
Humans have for at least three thousand years depicted landscapes. First in drawings and paintings and, since the 19th century, also in photographs. What do we find attractive in landscapes that compels us to continue this practice?
What we see is that, with the digital revolution in photography, the depiction of landscapes has not only continued, but exploded. Any image search for famous landmarks on the internet turns up thousands of pictures taken by amateurs and professional photographers alike.
In the light of environmental concern and the need to rethink our relation to nature, one can ask whether this visual overload is helpful or not. Does it show our continued connection to the beauty of this planet, or are we promoting a mindset that turns nature into a form of amusement park? In this context, also landscape artists in general and landscape photographers in particular have to define their role. Is landscape photography only a form of home decoration, or can it still be “art”, enriching people’s lives through meaning – and what kind of meaning could that be?
This article is an inquiry into an answer. It’s starting point is the question, why we might find landscapes beautiful and attractive in the first place.
In 2010 philosopher Dennis Dutton gave a TED talk summarizing the main aspects of his “Darwinian Theory of Beauty”. According to this theory, our experience of beauty and a kind of art instinct are responses humans evolved as a result of both natural and sexual selection.
One of the examples Dutton gives relates to studies in the 1990s that investigated cross-cultural landscape preferences. These studies found that people preferred landscapes that have characteristics similar to the Pleistocene savannas of Africa: open grasslands interspersed with trees that are branching low above the ground and are easy to climb. Water is always visible somewhere in the scene. The explanation for this preference, which seems to be strongest in children, is that this archetypal landscape describes the environment which humans have evolved to survive in. Beauty in landscape would thus be based on recognition of a habitat corresponding to our ecological niche. Humans, according to Dutton, are genetically programmed to find beauty in certain configurations that in former times helped them to survive and breed. This genetic programming is not limited to landscape preferences. Our liking of symmetry might help us find healthy mating partners. Also our color vision might be tuned to better distinguish ripe from unripe fruits.
Still, while Dutton arguments convincingly, a view that aesthetic preferences are only based on genetic programming seems too limited. Humans and human societies have continued to evolve and to settle into new landscapes even after the Pleistocene. As commentators to Dutton have pointed out, people now do like landscapes other than savannas, even landscapes and environments that are possibly hostile or non-conductive to survival such as oceans and deserts.
In an admittedly very unscientific experiment I asked friends about their favorite landscape types. The answers I received were quite interesting. Firstly, everyone had a favorite landscape although some grew up in cities. Secondly, even though the sample was small, everyone had a different landscape in mind and none of them were of the savanna type. Thirdly, the preferences were often acquired during youth and sometimes connected with happy memories from this time. This was not a comparative study, so it can’t be said whether Dutton’s archetypal landscape, given the choice, would have been preferred. But it indicates that in addition to evolved responses other concepts like home, safety and belonging to a social context might influence our aesthetic preferences.
The question thus remains, whether a more encompassing view on beauty in landscape can be found.
Long before Dutton philosophers have thought about this question and the answer given by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant in his book “Critique of Judgement” has been seen as definite.
Kant sets out with the general idea that philosophy is not able to make valid statements about reality as such, but only about human perception and reasoning. Consequently, all aesthetic judgment is, according to him, subjective; it is a faculty of the human mind, not an inherent characteristic of any object. He also finds aesthetic judgments to be “disinterested”, that means independent of considerations like usefulness or value.
Applying these principles to the appreciation of nature, Kant defines two flavors of landscapes. Landscapes that are smooth, calm and ordered like gardens he calls beautiful. Landscapes that are usually seen as threatening, like stormy seas or majestic mountains he defines as sublime.
In the idea of the sublime we find an answer to what seemed missing from Dutton’s approach: an explanation why we also admire landscapes that we have difficulties surviving in. Does this mean problem solved? Unfortunately: not quite. The issue is the idea of “disinterestedness”. Kant’s answer is valid only, if we can accept that our beauty judgment always is disinterested. Yet Dutton already showed us that this is at least not always the case. Some of our sense of beauty is triggered by our (or our ancestors’) interest in survival.
One can further ask, should we be disinterested, or does disinterest actually mean: disengaged? Kant’s view certainly evokes mental images of a leisurely traveling upper class consuming picturesque landscapes without any inner relation to it. Landscape aesthetic would thus at its core be something that highlights our estrangement from nature because the very disinterestedness tells us: we are no part of it.
No wonder then that Kant’s (and his later followers’) stance has troubled conservationists and environmentalists since John Muir (the father of US National Parks), who try to convince us that we are still part of Nature and depend on it not only for our physical, but also our spiritual survival. Muir writes: “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” This “going in” means that the separation between us and landscape is artificial, disinterest is a distortion of Nature and ourselves. Muir’s biographer Linnie Marsh Wolf describes to us, what for Muir the aim of environmental activity consequently is: “Man must be made conscious of his origin as a child of Nature. Brought into right relationship with the wilderness he would see that he was not a separate entity endowed with a divine right to subdue his fellow creatures and to destroy the common heritage, but rather an integral part of a harmonious whole.”
Modern aesthetics since the 1970s has picked up on this theme. Arnold Berleant, a contemporary American philosopher, developed an “Aesthetics of Engagement”. Instead of promoting disinterestedness this aesthetics advocates appreciation of Nature and art as an interactive experience. When applied to landscapes this implies “being there”, experiencing the impressions nature makes on all our senses, rather than looking from distance or even on photographs. To quote Muir again: “One day of exposure to mountains is better than cartloads of books. See how willingly Nature poses herself upon photographer’s plates. No earthly chemicals are so sensitive as those of the human soul.”
Where does this leave landscape photography? At the beginning of our quest we asked whether photography can have meaning beyond the merely decorative. Following Muir and Berleant, we can now say that such meaning could be in bridging the artificial chasm between Nature and us, to provide the experience that we were never separate from Nature and that the reflection on landscape is always also a reflection on ourselves.
But how can a two-dimensional medium like photography hope to provide such an experience? Are there any examples in landscape art that might serve as guidance in this undertaking?
For answers we can look to one of the oldest traditions of landscape art: the Chinese monochrome ink landscape painting.
Chinese art early on understood itself as “experience art”. Making reference to a text dating from the 4th century, the late and great art historian James Cahill wrote in his text “The Theory of Literati Painting in China”: “The feeling inherent in natural scenery can be lodged in paintings of this scenery, because of the affinity between the soul of the artist and that of his subject.”
One could call this affinity between artist and the landscape, and then between the viewer and the painting, a form of resonance. Such a resonance is possible, because, in Chinese understanding, principles like the concept of Yin and Yang underlie both Nature and man. An artist who succeeds to implement Yin and Yang in a landscape painting, e.g. through light and dark contrasts, motifs and composition can create resonance with the viewer. Not surprisingly the Chinese name for landscape painting is “Mountain and Water Painting” or, as mountain and water are emanations of Yang and Yin, one could say Yin and Yang Paintings.
Based on this resonance induced in the viewer, this paintings were meant as true surrogates for being in nature.
We have seen the fundamental idea that a landscape can resonate with the viewer also in John Muir’s thinking. The great American photographer Ansel Adams once said: “Some photographers take reality … and impose the domination of their own thought and spirit. Others come before reality more tenderly and a photograph to them is an instrument of love and revelation.” This love and revelation seems not too far removed from the affectionate resonance attempted by the Chinese landscape masters.
Dutton’s Darwinian Theory of Beauty reminds us that our relationship with landscape reaches deep into our genes. As we rediscover that landscape is not a mere scenery and we are not mere spectators but players in the ecosystems that encompass landscapes, our view on landscape art might change. Like the Chinese masters, also today’s landscape photographers can take up the challenge of creating landscape art that resonates with the viewer on a deeper level. For the photographer it may require to dampen the urge to seek effect and drama and instead look for Adam’s “tenderness” and the “affinity of the souls” of the Chinese masters.
In my view this also means to leave room for the viewer, in the hope that the photograph can become a friend and home for the viewer. While the photographer is always part of the picture his role is that of a mediator not of a dictator. The meaning of landscape for the viewer comes not from the artist, but from the landscape itself. Through his affinity, and a tender and loving approach, to his subject the photographer can only hope to conduct this meaning to the viewer.