Enthusiasm for the Sublime: about exercising aesthetic awareness and experiential learning, by Paul Roncken

The implicit reason to design an aesthetic landscape is fairly simple. It is to beautify or at least to establish an appreciate response between man and landscape. There is however a vivid series of recent contributions (Berleant, 1992; Carlson, 2010; Meyer, 2008; Saito, 2010) that articulates a distinction between ‘artistic aesthetics’ against something we can indicate as an ‘environmental aesthetics’. The design of landscapes seems at times to be limited by ‘too much wanting in art’ (Olmsted, 1902, p. 51), especially considering our contemporary awareness of pollution, over exploitation of resources, loss of local identities and a general decrease of sensuous competences. The definition of ‘environmental aesthetics’ is used to negotiate all the conflicting experiences of our (everyday) landscapes. Some of these experiences can be more of less controlled by well designed interventions (e.g. Meyer, 2008) others – I suspect – are the mere result of incoherent circumstances or even neglect and demand not improved design instead an improved capacity for the digestion of experiences. Within this debate the implicit reasons to design an aesthetic landscape seems to be expanded to become (1) more explicit and (2) less determined by beautification. The idea to expand the definition of aesthetics is not dependent on an environmental or landscape related context, yet the pragmatic circumstances that orbit the appearances of environments and (everyday) landscapes provide such overwhelming evidence of ‘negative aesthetics’ that we are inclined to include such negativeness in any serious definition of aesthetics. Arnold Berleant for example refers to the idea of the sublime as a ‘negative aesthetics’ that confronts us unprepared and we have not yet developed cognitive and social structures to deal with the inherent changes it provides (Berleant, 1997, pp. 78, 79; 2009). However more truthful a more explicit and less beautified comprehension of aesthetics might seem to critics and philosophers, the mere existence of a ‘negative aesthetics‘ is hardly appealing for designers that need to convince their clients and audience. Designers and clients would rather find an antidote against such negativeness, thereby interpreting aesthetics as the theory to provide them with the principles to do so.

To improve an inclusion of both designers, clients and philosophers in the fascinating discourse on aesthetic categories, I will create an argument that neutralizes the implicit favor for the ‘positive’ or ‘appreciative’ in aesthetics. By analyzing the accumulating idea of the sublime as an aesthetic category (Burke, 1759; Kant, 1951 (1790); Longinus, 2010 (1899); Lyotard, 1994; Weiskel, 1976) I will argue that what is perceived with great enthusiasm by painters, poets and nature explorers (e.g. Macfarlane, 2007; Muir, 1994; Newman, 1950-51) and landscape designers such as Adriaan Geuze and Michael van Valkenburgh (Horn, 2010; Louter, 2003) coincides with a philosophers argument to include both the ‘negative’ and the ‘positive’ in the concept of aesthetics. Any such inclusion questions a dominant ‘appreciative’ response of people amidst environments or landscapes and instead points at a range of ‘exercising’ responses that define (environmental) aesthetics. Such an ‘exercising’ interpretation of aesthetics provides insight in the both the failures and successes of aesthetic interaction and interpretation. My main proposal is therefore to redefine aesthetic categories in terms of exercising positions and their projected educational development. The five aesthetic categories that I propose enable to expand the field of environmental and landscape design by aligning it with the educational categories of experiential learning that have been developed by Dewey (Dewey, 1929, 1933; Miettinen, 2000) and Kolb (Kolb, 1984).

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Berleant, A. (1997). Living in the Landscape: Towards an Aesthetic of Environment. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.
Berleant, A. (2009). Art, Terrorism and the Negative Sublime. Contemporary Aesthetics, 7(2009). Retrieved from
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Carlson, A. (2010). Contemporary Environmental Aesthetics and the Requirements of Environmentalism. Environmental Values, 19(2010), 289-314.
Dewey, J. (1929). Experience and Nature. London: George Allen And Unwin, Limited.
Dewey, J. (1933). How We Think, a restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath and company.
Horn, A. T. (2010). Architects of the Outdoors, the sculptors of Harvard landscapes create sustainable outdoor havens. The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved from http://www.theharvardcrimson.com/article/2010/9/14/landscape-harvard/?print=1
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Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning. Experience as the source of learning and Development: Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
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Lyotard, J. F. (1994). Lessons on the analytic of the sublime: Stanford University Press.
Macfarlane, R. (2007). The Wild Places: Granta.
Meyer, E. K. (2008). Sustaining beauty – the performance of appearance: Can landscape architects insert aesthetics into our discussions of sustainability? Journal of Landscape Architecture, 98(10), 6-23.
Miettinen, R. (2000). The concept of experiential learning and John Dewey’s theory of reflective thought and action. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 19(1), 54-72. doi: 10.1080/026013700293458
Muir, J. (1994). The Wild Muir, twenty-two of John Muir’s Greatest Adventures: Yosemite Association.
Newman, B. (1950-51). Vir Heroicus Sublimis.
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Saito, Y. (2010). Future Directions for Environmental Aesthetics. Environmental Values, 19(2010), 373-391.
Weiskel, T. (1976). The Romantic Sublime. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Paul A. Roncken, Wageningen University, NL


Harvard Citation Guide: Roncken, P. (2012) Enthusiasm for the Sublime: about exercising aesthetic awareness and experiential learning, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 12 June 2012, Available at: https://isparchitecture.wordpress.com. [Accessed: 15 June 2012].

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