Monday, October 28, 2013

Aesthetics of Disaster

Whether desirable or undesirable, wise or unwise, our human-oriented moral sentiments do dictate that we not derive pleasure (including aesthetic pleasure) from other humans' misery, even if it is caused by nature taking its course. Satish Kumar claims, regarding an earthquake, that "there might be some pain, some suffering, some difficulties for human beings, but if you look at the earth as a whole, all natural phenomena have their place." I would have to claim the contrary: although all natural phenomena have their place, their potential aesthetic value is held in check or is overriden by our moral concern for the pain, suffering, and difficulties that these phenomena cause for human beings.

...As long as we are talking about our aesthetic experience, based upon our all-too-human sentiments, capacities, limitations, and concerns (moral concerns in particular), not everything in nature can or should be appreciated aesthetically.
[Yuriko Saito, "The Aesthetics of Unscenic Nature," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol 56 no 2 (Spring 1998) p. 101. See here for context.]

This argument is several different kinds of baffling. One of the most longstanding topics in philosophical aesthetics is tragedy, going back to Aristotle's first book of the Poetics, and the whole point of tragedy is that it is about "pain, suffering, and difficulties" that are not morally deserved (although they may be morally explicable). Tragedy without misery is a contradiction in terms, but the aesthetic value of tragedy is hardly in dispute; and, what is more, the aesthetic pleasure taken in tragedy has generally been regarded as being itself at least closely allied to moral sensibility, again, going back to Aristotle. Thus if the claim is taken to be descriptive (at least of how our moral concerns normally function in aesthetic valuation), it is obviously contrary to a massive amount of evidence, so much that it must be false. On the other hand, if it is supposed to be prescriptive, then the "all-too-human" aspect of Saito's conclusion becomes rather peculiar: how can it be undesirable and unwise to value things as we ought?

That we can appreciate natural disasters aesthetically thus ends up being an obvious fact about human nature: it is not difficult to find people doing so. And to say that we should not appreciate them in this way runs the risk of saying that we should now appreciate many stories, some of which are recognized masterpieces, this way, contrary to what is a very common view in aesthetics, given that stories often turn on "pain, suffering, and difficulties" for human beings. That at least would require some very serious argument, much more than Saito's vague appeal to "human sentiments, capacities, limitations, and concerns".

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