Green Energy, Michael Tyas, 2006
What is beauty and how does it relate to ecology? A look at contrasting aesthetic intuitions about wind farms reveals a paradigm shift in how we understand beauty. Our sense of the nature of beauty cannot be separated from our sense of the beauty of nature.
1. Modernism's understanding of nature is autistic, and so are its concepts of beauty. As our views of nature change, so do our ideas about beauty.
2. The "nimby" (not-in-my-back-yard) response to wind farms asserts that they are a) ugly, and b) are so because of their industrial look. The aesthetic response to wind farms asserts that they are a) beautiful, and b) are so due to their ecological rationality. These are not merely subjective preferences, but conflicting perceptions of the nature of form.
3. But isn't the perception of beauty inherently subjective? "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," that mechanically-repeated cliché, makes a false assumption about the metaphysics of modernism. Beauty is not in the eye, or the brain, of the beholder. Given our modernist understanding of matter and physical reality, we cannot make sense of values — aesthetic, ethical, epistemic — as something inherent in the world. As modernists, we are all crypto-materialists when it comes to value, no matter how "spiritual" we would like to think of ourselves. This is why our political-economic system functions as if nature lacked value. If something lacks inherent value, then it doesn't matter ethically if it is destroyed.
4. Beauty is a feeling, but feelings are objective and more precise than "thinking." Feelings are not irrational reactions, but highly evolved ways of gathering information, knowledge and meaning from the environment. What we call thinking — linguistically-mediated inferential reasoning or reflection — is cumbersome in comparison to the countless ways our mind/body reads, and is read, by the ecosystem. Information is everywhere and there are countless ways of picking it up. The feeling of being grounded and centered which people often experience when finally alone with nature is not "subjective" but rather a keen cognitive awareness of the geometry of life around us.
5. The modernist way to account for the objective basis of beauty — to the extent that it has any objectivity — is the design philosophy of functionalism. "Form follows function" means beauty is a quality that indicates a utility or efficiency of the form as a means to an end. Functionality is enhanced by maximizing efficiency. That is why the enemy of functionalism is ornamentation. Functionalism is the aesthetic of the tool and of the machine. For these reasons, functionalism cannot explain why the wind farm is beautiful for ecological reasons. It can only explain why it is beautiful as an industrial tool (or symbolically, as a modernist sculpture.)
6. "But the wind farm looks like modernist sculpture!" Exactly. And that's precisely why so many people are against it. They don't want the ideology of high modernism disrupting the very different order of the natural world. The metaphysical kernel of truth in the nimby response is: modernist functionalism is an anthropocentric aesthetic of the machine, because it equates value with human interests, and it is mechanistic because it sees natural systems as mechanisms to be mastered, rather than as dynamic, non-linear systems which cannot be controlled. Functionalism is anthropocentrism.
7. The aesthetic response indicates a connection of beauty to ecology: something is beautiful due to its ecological rationality, not its mechanical functionality. Construed ecologically, beauty is the perception of wholeness. Wholeness is an objective property of nature and natural systems. The wholeness of a structure is the degree of life it has, where life is understood as a feature of structural geometry, not biology. The more life a thing has, the more wholeness it has, the more it is harmonized within itself and with its environment.
8. Modernist aesthetics cannot account for such an idea. Ornamentation can often increase the life of a structure, and hence contribute to its wholeness. In this sense, ornamentation is essential and 'functional'. But that just shows that modernist functionalism is wrong, or that it is only partially correct as a theory of beauty. In nature, there is no distinction between function and ornamentation. The opposite of wholeness is not ornamentation but fragmentation. Ugliness is the perception of fragmentation. Alienation is a form of fragmentation.
9. Form follows function actually is an ecological principle, but not the only one. A more coherent design philosophy must situate the functionalist principle within a larger set of principles. Some others are:
Nature runs on (contemporary) sunlight.
Nature uses only the energy it needs.
Nature recycles everything.
Nature rewards cooperation.
Nature banks on diversity.
Nature demands local expertise.
Nature curbs excesses from within.
Nature taps the power of limits.
10. To conclude, what at first looks like two subjective impressions of the same visual image turns out to be two different understandings of order in the world. Both perceptions have truth in them, but not because they are "subjectively valid." Rather, they are both sensitive to the structures of wholeness in the world and to ways that this wholeness can and has been ruptured by human intervention. Differences in aesthetic judgment here reflect different understandings of our current ecological situation and what to do to recuperate a living harmonization in the world. I would argue that the preponderance of evidence supports the deeper truth of the aesthetic response to wind farms. Although they can exhibit aspects of ugliness, wind farms are objectively beautiful.
Justin Good received a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Boston University and has taught at the University of Connecticut and Emerson College. His book Wittgenstein and the Theory of Perception will be published this fall.