Why new research into the beautiful and the sublime?

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

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

There are things in life – and in the landscapes that remind people of life – that cannot be put to words. The experience of such things and phenomenon is necessarily somewhere in between the real and the imaginary. For me, this is not a problem at all. On the contrary, it is proof of some liberty to interpret life and perhaps even add something of yourself to the larger pool that can be referred to as ‘our daily reality’. As a designer of landscapes this liberty is even the main reason to be able to design anything at all. If I couldn’t rely upon an imaginative liberty when dealing with such grant contexts as ‘nature’, ‘wilderness’ or ‘authenticity’, I would not dare to intervene at all. Frightened because of the unknowable consequences of my actions or interventions. By accepting the fact that I have to deal with this situation by both real and imaginary experiences, I can allow my imagination to seriously flirt with scientific realism.

Nevertheless, the fact that not all of the grand aspects of life can be put to words is creating a handicap. It is strenuous to gain conscious access to possible consequences that my designs will have on both the physical aspects within landscapes and on human perception. In the history of philosophy and art criticism this handicap became a serious topic of discussion in the eighteenth century by for instance Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant (1759, 1790). The handicap of what can and what cannot be put to words was framed by a discussion on the beautiful and the sublime. Even in our current days, this discussion has not been solved satisfactory. It is the opposition between the beautiful and the sublime that dominates all efforts to somehow merge both the real and the imaginary as our experiential field of reference. This dualism rules over an essentially non-dualistic experience. Even today, as suggested in the eighteenth century, science stands for those things real and art may be experimental with those things imaginary.

Designers however face the imperative to bridge the divide, because they are neither full artists nor full scientists. Their position is that of the in-between and this is most effectively true for landscape designers, since landscape as a medium exists in between the real and the imaginary; landscape is by definition both a physical reality and a metaphysical reference to things beyond time and place. It is therefore not surprising that immediately following the eighteenth century discussion on the beautiful and the sublime, landscape critics and designers such as Price, Repton and Gilpin (1802; 1794; 1795) introduced the category of the in-between as they named: the picturesque. The picturesque became the well accepted and pragmatic solution when wanting to balance both beautiful and sublime aspects. Like in landscape paintings, that had proven their value since the sixteenth century, a delicate composition from a framed viewpoint could entice the visitor of a designed landscape with both real and imaginary elements to create a sense of experiential liberty. A concept that could be characterized as a Western type of yin-yang. Not only Arcadian landscapes could be designed by this in-between category, also fantastical landscapes like in paintings by Caspar David Friedrich, or extremely colorful and vivid landscapes as Van Gogh could create or misty landscapes like a William Turner painting and even abstract landscapes like the twentieth century paintings by Barnett Newman or Jackson Pollock.

Painterly techniques – and nowadays photographic techniques and 3D modeling – have helped landscape designers to consciously consider designs in between the real and the imaginary. The category of the picturesque even made it possible to gain access to a wide and appreciative audience. Helping the debate to move away from too scholastic isolation. Is thereby the picturesque not the satisfactory category to deal with the handicap as described earlier? I think not. It may be a satisfying and pragmatic method to perform a magic trick that is appealing. It is however nothing but a method without an underlying theory. It does not resolve the philosophical and artistic discussion of the fact that some things cannot be put to words. Neither can it solve the specific identification of those elements that are real and those that are imaginative. Elements that may appear real, could theoretically be imaginative and vice versa. In other words, the intellectual effort as defined by for example Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant has not been solved as such, it has merely been cloaked and dressed to perform as a desirable character in a play which’s subject still haunts philosophical minds and those interested in the theory of aesthetics. The designerly method of the picturesque has hardly contributed to the philosophical theory of aesthetics.

Therefore my research effort will concentrate on the original discussion of the beautiful and the sublime without too much diluting by a designerly pragmatism. Only after a more satisfactory theoretical framework of the beautiful and the sublime has been described, the designerly pragmatism can be revisited and reviewed.


6 thoughts on “Why new research into the beautiful and the sublime?

  1. Bert interesting subject. Could it be argued that the picturesque is framing the beautifull in such a way that it appears to be sublime, and thus of a god made none human quality. I see the sublime as a moment of awe and the beautifull as a (intentional constructed) moment of pleasure. I wonder hoe to judge Christopher Alexander quality without a name. This is a kind of sublime self evident beauty which happens unintentional. What makes it interesting is that it is a motion without scale. It is more than nice, it is just. It is fitting. Alexanders pattern method is aimed to reach this self evident just quality, regardless of the designer. The sublime is then a coincidental outcome of a design process You could argue that deconstructivist methodology can by chance create similar sublime moments. Howevere, often these are so intentional designed, that it more beautifull than sublime. In his book “Green dream” Wint Maas argues that if a computer could calculate the most sustainble set up, this will have a self evident (sublime?) beauty, bit I am not so sure. At the larger scale of your landscape machines you will find that because of its scale, you get unintentional effects, also because nature and natural processes will influence the final appearence. We may set a beautiull stage, but we have to wait for nature to make it sublime.

    1. Wouter, the self-evident as a marker for the sublime is a tricky one. Self evident smells likes authentic, another mythological term. Both the beautiful and the sublime must be self-evident otherwise they would not be able to create such an impression that we call aesthetic. So even concepts as ‘fitting’ (also very Ian McHargian) is related to this condition to aesthetics and not to the sublime perse.

  2. We may set a beautiful stage, but we have to wait for nature to make it sublime….sublime landscapes make one feel small, that one’s interests and cares are so unimportant in the grand scheme of this planet that we blush at our own pettiness and see that we have so little control. Somehow acceptance of this insignificance allows our hearts to sing….this is the ‘beauty’ in the picturesque movement – the placement of the smallness of humanity within the greatness of a wild ‘untouched’ landscape….as a designer of landscapes and other objects I am drawn to the medium of plants and trees as I accept I will have no long term control over their growth and contribution to a local ecology – natures indifference delights me – I can only plant and hope….as most of us do….may I suggest you try ‘the te of piglet’ and alain de botton’s writing on the sublime in ‘the art of travel’

    1. Thank you Jane, I am familiar with the ‘Tao of Pooh’ and de Botton’s bold writing. And the fact that planting design can make your design perform more uncontrolable is a very good method to study both the beautiful and the sublime!

  3. As I understand it, Paul, you are not trying to define (delimit) the beautiful and the sublime, but instead investigate deeper how these concepts interfere and create conditions to your acting as a designer – is that right? Very interesting – looking forward to the outcomes!

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About paulroncken

Paul Roncken is Assistent Professor Landscape Architecture at Wageningen University and Independent Advisor on Spatial Quality for the province of Utrecht (the Netherlands). His research focuses on integral design of productive landscapes with special attention to the experience of meaning and landscape aesthetics.