GREAT DIALOGUE: Ecocentric Beauty / Anthropocentric Beauty
The dialogue that follows was generated by colleagues who accepted my invitation to comment on a statement I had drafted. This text attempted to differentiate ecocentric beauty from anthropocentric beauty. Their questions, comments, and challenges were so insightful, I am sharing them in the hope that they will spark new discussions regarding a fascinating topic that has not earned consensus.
Aesthetics, in my opinion, evolves in tandem with cultural developments. That means the definition of ‘beauty’ can take many forms and refer to many formulations. What is consistent from era to era is that ‘beauty’ embodies a culture's most esteemed values.
Currently, environmentalism is spurring a radical reconsideration of the relationship between humans and ecosystems. It is revising the anthropocentric definition of beauty that has prevailed for hundreds of years, replacing it with an ecocentric characterization of beauty.
May I propose the following comparisons:
- serves the needs and desires of humans
- refers to strategies that assert control over non-human entities, materials, and conditions
- privileges appearance
- approaches nature as an obstacle to overcome, a territory to acquire, a resource to consume, or a condition to control
A formal expression of these values: rigid geometries based on mental constructs
- promotes responsibility for the welfare of all forms of life, not just humans
- protects and enhances ecosystem functions
- privileges function over appearance
- involves responsive interactions that protect and enhance ecosystems
A formal expression of these values: evolving forms based on interactions between materials, conditions, and forces.
Fascinating and useful in numerous ways.
The one place I trip however is in your characterization of the formal expression of anthropocentric values as “rigid geometries based on mental constructs.”
I sense a bias in this statement; one that seems polarizing perhaps…or just too simplistic. Surely not all work that embraces or reflects anthropocentric values are rigid, geometric, conceptual forms…???
Is it fair to say that much of (at least western) art has been anthropocentric in focus? And if so, then the characterization needs to be much broader. There is much that celebrates life in art that emerges from an anthropocentric focus, and it strikes me that the forms and generative impulse is much broader that you suggest.
Dear Amara: My intention in citing ‘anthropocentric’ and ‘ecocentric ‘ is not to ‘polarize’ but to ascertain the expanded parameters of relationships available to 21st century humans – made possible by technology/science on the one hand, and ecology/environmentalism on the other. Suzaan referred to the pair as ‘bifurcations’. Another useful term is ‘archetypes’. My hope is that naming these extreme positions will assist us in making wise choices when we mix-and-match.
Good points, Amara. I concur!
It strikes me that traditional art (painting, drawing, sculpture), which often celebrates the sensuous, formal elements of line, shape, color, etc. can challenge our more consumerist/capitalist and superficial notions of beauty. My intuition (and I think there is scientific research to back this?) is that such beauty, found in nature and reflected in art, has a function and is not just appearance/decoration. Fritjof Capra discusses how patterns and relationships are the basis of ecology and how artists have the ability to discern and depict patterns and relationships. Art can help people see those patterns and relationships both in terms of visual appearance (found in nature) and in terms of function, as in seeing the beauty in systems and relationships (the Harrison’s work as an example).
What seems missing in your definitions, Linda, is the emphasis on patterns and relationships, whether that is surface/visual patterns or structural patterns. I agree with Amara, that there is a polarizing tone to these characterizations, positioning humans and the human POV as negative, superficial, destructive. I think this can easily backfire and undermine the aim of encouraging people to recognize the narrowness of seeing the world only through our human eyes. We need to be guiding people to understand their connection to nature, that we are also animals and part of nature. Such polarizing I think leads to the opposite.
As a final project in my Fundamentals of Design class, I had each student design a “Council of All Beings” card. On the front of the card, they could draw/paint an animal, plant, or feature of nature (mountain, river, water, etc.). On the back, they were to write a short paragraph about the “being” in first person–assume its identity and speak from its perspective, including the experience of that being in relation to the human world. Many students said they had never thought about what an animal or plant might be experiencing from its perspective. Hopefully it was eye-opening for them.
Dear Ann: May I propose the following distinctions:
As you state, “Beauty FOUND in nature is ecocentric”. However, beauty IMPOSED is anthropocentric. Thus, patterns and relationships derived from observations and interactions are ecocentric, but precise grids, symmetry, and geometry aren’t.
You attributed “negative, superficial, destructive” to anthropocentric beauty. Anthropocentric approaches facilitate human-to-human communications; within this context they are positive, resonant, and constructive. Dave also points out their role in revealing “universal interconnectedness.”
Basia’s recent post is worth a second look as well. Perception. I esp like the above “critical reflection on art, culture and nature.”
If you buy the deemphasis on Beauty, then perhaps your categories have to have different headings?
In the end, since we are human beings, our perception (aesthetic) is what counts to us. Even our concern for fellow life forms can only be perceived (and judged) through our human perception.
Mary Jo Aagerstoun
Dear Mary Jo: The definition of aesthetics that you supplied is consistent with my own, but we may not agree regarding its interpretation. I believe the “nature of beauty, art, and taste” evolves in tandem with cultural change. Considerations of ‘beauty’ are not exempt from the profound revamping of cultural conventions propelled by environmentalism. It is fascinating to consider how beauty, perception, and judgment are being reformulated to serve these new values.
Thank you for inviting us into your process. This is very interesting and at first glance seems complete. I like the idea of separating anthropocentric vs ecocentric valuations but have to think about your separate points for a while. Intuitively however, it seems problematic to me to presume “we” know what the earth needs. Who is we and what is our authority?
I suppose my first question is, if the real issue is our dependence on an interdependent world, do the points you list truly, humbly answer to that interdependence? Knowing your lifestyle, I know you’ve given that a lot of thought but I need time to consider the extent to which your ecocentric list reflects that reality, or even, without a thorough exegesis of that lifestyle, what the philosophical underpinnings are of your presumptions. For example, what exactly does this mean: “modifies events that are vital and productive,” or, in this context, what do you mean by “function”? Also, in terms of the rapidly evolving field of ecosystem analysis, particularly in terms of anthropogenic change, what does this mean: “interactions that protect and enhance ecosystems”? Finally, based on the previous questions, it is unclear to me what you mean by, “A formal expression of ecocentric values: evolving forms based on interactions between materials, conditions, and forces.”
It seems to me that you would be hard pressed to authoritatively answer these questions without input from some very controversial scientific disciplines, particularly biogeography- controversial in so far as there is little theoretical agreement, often contested credibility and would require some very complex summaries of the histories of the arguments to make sense to the average reader who might lack that specialized education, without vastly misleading over-simplifications. Do you mean to wade into that can of worms and if so, exactly how?
Finally, how would you credit our comments & questions to your thinking?
Dear Aviva: Thank you for identifying a core issue differentiating ‘anthro’ from ‘eco’ when you state that is “seems problematic to presume we know what the earth needs.” Eco consciousness foregrounds this truism. ‘Not knowing’ guides ecocentric interactions.
The word ‘modifies’ does not refer to altering physical conditions. It is used as a reference to grammar. I’ll correct this confusion.
Regarding function and aesthetics, here is one example. ‘Line’ is anthropocentric when it is configured as a mental invention, e.g. drawn with pen on paper, even if it depicts an object. ‘Line’ is ecocentric when it is situated within the physical world where it functions to enclose and protect (line as border) or transport (line as tube).
In sum, if we insert aesthetics into today’s cultural maelstrom, recreation, organizational schemes, production methods, spiritual practices, and ethical mandates are all included in its considerations. Within this context, the study of ‘beauty’ is particularly rewarding because it signifies whatever represents the highest esteem in all these human endeavors.
Based on your well thought out comparisons, I think my work (I make interpretive panels and displays for trails and visitor centers in parks) straddles both categories. My interpretive panels, in order to be funded by government entities, must have a kind of illustration that is recognizable and accepted by a cross section of park visitors including the sight impaired, scientists, children and government agents with a myriad of ideas about what a plant or animal should look like. My concern, when creating these illustrations, is how much can I push color, texture, line and form to imbue the image with emotional content. Accompanying text is also pushed for emotional content, as well as for the facts. It is this emotional content that makes the deepest impacts. There is a lot more to say, but not being an academic, I am not sure how to express it.
So, according to your categories, my work both serves the needs and desires of humans, privileges appearance (to attract viewers hiking along a trail), as well as promotes responsibility for the welfare of all forms of life, not just humans, and protects and enhances ecosystem functions. I wonder if other’s work does the same, or if there are examples of work that fits into your ecocentric category.
Dear Erica: Thank you for providing an example of the merging of these approaches in your practice.
My own life offers another example. I behave in an ecocentric manner when raising my animals and managing my stream, but I consciously adopt anthropomorphic strategies when I write about eco art. Because writing communicates exclusively with humans, I categorize, generalize, metaphor-ize. To write in the manner of the fluid complexity of dynamic ecosystems would muddle and confuse my readers.
Hi Linda – I’d like to comment on the line about environmentalism first, before turning to aesthetics.
What you say Linda may be true for a specific segment of environmentalism. I think it’s probably quite a specific western, developed-world, popular-consciousness segment. There are other contemporary and traditional cultural contexts in which the same would not hold true.
In addition, unfortunately, I don’t think it holds true in the dominant global culture anyway now in terms of the “policy and practice” segment, either among governments or NGOs. For a time, in the 1970s-80s, there was some of the kind of “reconsideration” you describe, with the “deep ecology” of Naess, Bateson, Berry et al. But if you analyze the evolution of the actual policy and advocacy discourse at 10-yearly intervals, for example from the 1972 Stockholm Conference to the 1982 World Conservation Strategy to the 1992 Rio Conference to the 2002 Johannesburg Summit (and then maybe in advance of the Rio+20 summit in 2012 look at the Aichi targets adopted last year), it has swung completely away from any ethics of “existence value” for the non-human component, to a forced justification (in adversarial arenas) in terms of “sustainable development”, “wise use”, “evidence-based conservation”, “ecosystem services” and (largely monetary) valuation of those services. The environmental movement (of which I am a part) congratulates itself on having found better ways of expressing the critical nature of ecosystems within broader mainstream audiences and processes, in this way. But this has all been done by becoming MORE anthropocentric and utilitarian; not less.
There is another facet of this, touched on by someone else who commented; which is that however hard we try to construct an ecocentric/”intrinsic” or “existence”-value ethical approach to this, it is still us humans that are doing that! On some level we are deriving (moral/spiritual) benefit from doing so – we cannot remove ourselves from the frame, and thus it ends up, on one level, being just as utilitarian or anthropocentric an approach; albeit one I might personally prefer. (I think Capra wrote about that too). This is folded in to the now widely-adopted conceptual framework devised by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment as a form of “cultural ecosystem service”.
So to aesthetics. In between reading your original email, being out for the day then returning home to reply, Ann has raised some of what I wanted to say. I am reminded again of Bateson, who wrote about discernment of patterns, as opposed to the deconstructivist tendencies shown by ecological science over the past 30 years (which is ironic, given that ecology is supposed to be about “systems” and holistic approaches).
Notwithstanding the learned comments which be been proffered here on the question, I personally see “beauty” as a narrower idea than “aesthetics”. Beauty to me is a form of resonance; and sometimes a statement about meaning and the significance of that meaning. Aesthetics is the skill-set and the language of values by means of which such resonances and meanings (and others) can be articulated.
As a heretic among the ecological scientists I trained with, I have maintained that an aesthetic response to the environment can be a very accurate way to reveal some generalized truths of form and function, or of universal interconnectedness. Instead of knowledge, based on collected facts or reasoning, this is understanding, based more on intuition. Our sense of how things in nature come to be arranged the way they are; the constraints that operate, and the way the dynamics of an organism interact with the forces of its environment, gives us an understanding about how things like wind, growth, fluids and so on behave. Even with abstract or asymmetric forms and patterns, we can have a strong sense of what seems “right” or “not quite right”. This is directly relevant to strategies for environmental sustainability, and being able to understand whether we are working with the grain of the realities of nature or not; and whether we are in tune with its limits to tolerance of change or not. And it’s possible that we cultivate this better with aesthetics than we do with science (which is why I so often plead for “ecoart” to be as good at the “art” as it is at the “eco”).
Anyway thanks for the question, and for all the stimulating views on this – most interesting.
Dave, you attributed ‘deep ecology (moral/spiritual)’ to ecocentric beauty, but excluded utilitarian considerations. I believe ecocentrism frames sustainable strategies by integrating “existence value for non-humans” into policies and procedures. Are utility and inherent value contradictory? Can gaining a sense of “how things in nature come to be arranged the way they are; the constraints that operate, and the way the dynamics of an organism interact with the forces of its environment…” also be pragmatic?
Also, you rightly observe that both systems strive to serve the interests of humans. The policies and practices we summon on our behalf of our interests are at issue here.
I yearn for inclusion of a notion I do not often hear within the conversations, that maybe we humans are not only interconnected with all of what lives on Earth and maybe beyond, but also we are in oneness with all of existence. The difference, to me, between interconnectivity and oneness is that interconnectivity may imply discrete entities, beings, and systems that need each other, whereas oneness, to me, means also existing as one true living and breathing system, with a deemphasized sense of boundaries, with no or fewer edges where one being stops and another begins than it looks to the eye, and involving a collective consciousness, and dare I say it, a world soul.
Oneness and direct experience or awareness thereof brings us another step closer to recognizing our intrinsic intimacy, which might be missed with only interconnectivity consciousness; in experiencing oneness we begin to know even more deeply that our actions affect all of life, including the lives of those people, beings and things we most cherish, and this can have a positive impact on our choices. I perceive this oneness as something entirely discoverable through science, even though at this point it is mainly discussed in metaphysical inquiries and practices such as mindfulness, which is of course ancient yet becoming an enormous contemporary movement.
World soul, a concept that I believe is embraced in ecopsychology, certainly by Joanna Macy, is an aspect of oneness. Through world soul (and through individual soul) I propose that we experience more than simply our humanity, which I believe contains a great deal of intrinsic compassion and capacity to coexist in harmony with other beings. (I don’t mean to say that discrete systems don’t exist, or that we don’t have self-agency — we and other animals and plants are certainly discrete entities while also being in oneness.)
Through soul, we also may experience the sublime, or rather the sublime may bring us to our soul. I present this outside of questions of god/goddess or some all knowing entity. The all knowing entity may be us, together. Anyway, I don’t believe any of us would be as drawn to art if art did not offer the possibility to touch and feel and express the sublime.
And the sublime is intrinsically transformational, by definition and by import — it brings or can bring an altered state from which we have an opportunity to evolve, possibly an inevitability to evolve, whereby some who experience the sublime through art (or anything — love, for instance) may become more enlightened, may be touched, may be inspired, may get in touch with emotions, as Erica Fielder points out, and/or with moral/spiritual implications, as Dave Pritchard touches on. Not universally of course, but thankfully in many cases. Art can express and speak to the individual and world soul, which is an expression of our oneness, and can be a powerful instrument of transformation.
We know this or we probably wouldn’t create our respective arts, but I am suggesting that beauty can have a central role in the equation. Beauty, however defined or encountered, is a part of accessing that place of transformation. And therefore beauty is important — not critical to — but important to consider as a possible means of reaching people and co-creating (with audience/participants) transformative experiences that may be critical to our physical survival. Yes, perhaps mostly human, but of course mostly humans are the ones destroying livability on the planet, so mostly we are the ones who need to transform.
So although I realize that we all strive to transform the crises we are seeing, I want to elevate the role of transformation within whatever we want to have happen to repair, remediate, replenish, rejuvenate, recreate, re-envision, this planet and its inhabitants. Whatever can transform our behaviors, mindsets, paradigms, unhealthy patterns, dysfunction, etc. can be instrumental. There are many ways art can transform, and again, I don’t propose that beauty is the main or only ingredient to generating transformative trends. But it is a valid choice in any art that intends to support sustainability, through beauty’s potential to express, awaken, provide access to, and help us become more aligned with world and individual soul and our oneness which in turn can help lead us to becoming and creating more life affirming existence.
You are welcome to post this anywhere, as is or with thoughtful editing. At any rate, thank you for reading this.
And thank you for the inspiration you provide in many ways, through your work and through your lived dedication to harmony with the planet. I have been moved by what I have learned about what you do and what you offer.