A Defense of the Picturesque, by Roger Paden

Although Ruskin claimed that “no word in the language, exclusive of theological expressions, has been the subject of disputes so frequent or so prolonged as the word ‘picturesque,’” in contemporary writings on the aesthetics of nature there seems to be near universal condemnation of the picturesque as an approach to environmental aesthetics. Carlson, Saito, Callicott, and olston have criticized this view as “arts-based,” “two-dimensional” (superficial), “dependant” (non-autonomous), and “shallow.” Hargrove proves this rule with a backhanded complement, the picturesque on his view had the virtue of being a “transitional” stage between an arts-based approach and a more adequate, scientifically-based approach to the aesthetics of nature.

In this paper, I offer a defense of the picturesque against these charges. First, I argue that the notion of the picturesque is a complex one that evolved over time, and that this evolution is one reason for the disputes that caught Ruskin’s attention. The criticisms of the above mentioned environmental aestheticians have focused only on the very first stage of this evolutionary process, and so cannot be applied to the later stages. Second, I argue that the picturesque should not be understood simply as an attempt to project an arts-based aesthetic onto nature, but it should be understood as an attempt to develop an aesthetics that is appropriate to nature. Third, I argue that the mature aesthetics of nature developed by theoreticians of the picturesque is in fact an appropriate aesthetics of nature and properly understood provides a reasonable account of the aesthetic value of nature. The notion of the picturesque, therefore, should not be dismissed, but should instead be used as a guide to further work in the aesthetics of nature.

I will illustrate and, in part, argue for these points through a consideration of the changing nature of landscape painting and landscape gardening.

As Carlson has connected environmental aesthetics with environmental ethics, I will close with a
few remarks on the ethical implications of a new conception of the picturesque.

Roger Paden, George Mason University, USA

Harvard Citation Guide: Paden, R. (2012) A Defense of the Picturesque, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 20 May 2012, Available at: https://isparchitecture.wordpress.com. [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

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