Seeing Ethically: beauty and morality in Victorian ideas about nature, by Amy Woodson-Boulton

As I argue in my forthcoming book, Transformative Beauty: Art Museums in Industrial Britain (Stanford, spring 2012), a number of Victorian municipal governments created art museums as a direct response to the perceived moral and physical ugliness of industrial capitalism. They could do so because reformers understood beauty – that is, the experience of beauty through nature and of nature through art – as essential antidotes to materialism, greed, and exploitation, to the degradation of poverty, and to the soot‐darkened industrial city itself. With this remit, often based on close engagement with the works of John Ruskin, these museums were not primarily devoted to art education or art history, but to the idea that art provided beauty, truth and morality as a refuge from the ills of modern society. Professor of education Michael Sadler neatly encapsulated this idea when he gave a talk in the early twentieth century in Manchester: “Those who live in Manchester have their sense sharpened for the beauty and refreshment of unspoiled landscape. We are hungry for it. Through separation from it, we understand what it means to us. And the pictures in the gallery reveal its delights and prepare us for a deeper delight in it.” Here in a nutshell lies the argument of the Victorian museum movement: art is not important for itself, but for the experience it provides, made possible by viewing paintings as windows; further, this encounter is directly related to the daily deprivations of the modern industrial city and something called “nature,” its imagined opposite.

At the same time, other city dwellers engaged with nature in different ways. Vegetarians tried to embrace a “natural” lifestyle while also “conquering” nature and directing their appetites toward moral choices. Meanwhile, big game hunting became part of a new expression of manliness and imperial power, also based on ideas of “conquering” nature and yet also achieving a new closeness with the “natural.” In their memoirs, hunters extolled the “unspoiled” or “Arcadian” beauty of Africa, while at the same time celebrating hunting as a “sporting” fight between equals that helped to distinguish the “civilized” from the “savage” (even as they relied on native guides and trackers). All of these examples reveal a particular conflation of ethics and aesthetics, morality and beauty, in nineteenth‐century culture and thought. This paper aims to bring together these areas usually treated separately as manifestations of anxieties about human agency in, human power over, and human erosion of the natural world. These diverse nineteenth‐century movements were preoccupied with the relationships between beauty and morality, and the questions that developed over the morality of nature, whether in the context of art criticism, the ethical treatment of animals, or the role of imperial hunters in newly conquered lands. These debates can help us understand the profound changes wrought by industrialization, and why ethics and aesthetics continue to be so intimately linked in our own, post‐industrial age.

Amy Woodson-Boulton, Loyola Marymount University, USA

Harvard Citation Guide: Woodson-Boulton, A. (2012) Seeing Ethically: beauty and morality in Vicotrian ideas about nature, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 20 May 2012, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

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