Our common understanding of (landscape) aesthetics: frequency related

Kevin Weir – the flux machine (click to make it animate)

One more thing about the sublime. What we can learn from pondering about the sublime is how often we expect to encounter a sublime experience. It is from this frequency that most people start to explain what the sublime is, in accordance to their own experiences. The general assumption of people I speak, as I explain about my topic of interest as a scientist (the sublime and landscape experiences), is that ‘the sublime’ is something rare and overwhelming and therefore an exceptional category with equally exceptional qualities. They start to fill in the blanks about what they actually ‘know’ about the sublime, by the demanding precondition that whatever it is, it must be exceptional. Whereas an encounter with a beautiful experience is expected to happen much more frequent. Preferably even as an everyday event. A day without beauty is a wasted day.

There is however no reason to assume that the sublime is that exceptional. This is more the result of a historically engrained interpretation, deeply influenced by the romantic eighteenth and nineteenth century ideas on wilderness nature. The expectation of being in the wilderness – with an educated urban mind – and really sucking it in, has become foundational to the general expectations surrounding the sublime.

‘live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan—like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” (Thoreau, 1854, pp. 73, 74).

A perhaps simple and too obvious conclusion could therefore be, that ideas on aesthetics are not so much content related, as they are frequency related. The more frequent, the more integrated and casual the characteristics of aesthetics; and the less frequent, the exceptional and seemingly impossible. Frequency of experience allows the spectrum of aesthetic ideas to become practically related to a common sense of everyday or once-in-a-liftetime experiences. This limits our understanding of aesthetics gravely. We only have to think about the example of research and medication regarding very rare diseases. The more rare, the less interested pharmaceutical companies are to develop insights and improve treatments. As long as the sublime remains the rare and exceptional ‘Weltschmerz’ related aesthetic category, it will suffer from intellectual research and development.

In my research on the sublime and landscape experiences I have studied descriptions of the mechanism of sublime sensations and have discovered that this mechanism is meant to explain how imagination and sensations are related to each other. This is a revealing field of research that has been deeply neglected by both art-historians, psychologists and designers. We might have gained much knowledge over the past decades about the ecological coherences within the living systems that make up this planet we inhabit; but we have largely neglected the development of knowledge on the mechanism of our own human experiential digestion.