Strategies to assess aesthetics of worship space

On the left is the grand marble monument to Niccolo Tron, Doge of Venice 1471-73. In the center is Titian's celebrated masterpiece Assumption of the Virgin (1516-18).

Visitors to Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari can easily gain a sense of majestic awe from the environmental aesthetics of this mid-fourteenth century Franciscan church. From its classic Latin cross layout to the three prominent altars and sculptures scattered throughout, the environment clearly points to the Christian faith. How do we assess the aesthetics of such a space? I would suggest that there are at least three strategies we could use to assess the aesthetic environmental qualities of of religious worship spaces such as found in Venice’s religious jewel. However, first questions might be how did we get from the aesthetic appreciation of nature to the aesthetic appreciation of built environments?

Early in the development of aesthetic appreciation of nature, practitioners sought to identify the discipline too closely with the aesthetics of art. The first art-based model, the object model, seeks to be appreciated as an object of nature with little consideration for the surrounding environment. This happens when one takes either takes an object completely out of its natural environment to appraise its beauty or ignores that surrounding environment of an object to appraise its beauty. In attempting to appreciate nature in this way, the aesthete apprehends beauty of an object apart from its natural environment.[1] However the objects exist in a surrounding and that surrounding must inform the aesthetic evaluation. Considering an object apart from its surroundings suggests that the object’s aesthetic qualities in no way rely upon the environment in which it exists, therefore the object could be removed and placed in a different environment and retain its beauty.

The second art-based model is called the landscape model. In this model, the observer of nature distances herself from the scene much like looking at a landscape picture. In this model one distances herself to the extent that they fail to relate to the object’s potential for reality. Collingwood describes the picturesque and the role of the observer: “the beauty of the picturesque is a beauty created by a contrast between the spectator and his object…. Hence, we must, in order to sustain that pleasure, we must sustain in ourselves a feeling of separation from our object.”[2] Criticisms of this view tend to suggest the distancing from the environment forces the observer to see nature in scenes that are artistically composed and have little to do with the holistic environment.[3] In doing so, the observer is cut off from making authentic aesthetic valuations because of his managed perspective and framing of the scene.[4]

Some disagree with a notion altogether that appreciation of nature is a category of aesthetics appreciation. The Human Chauvinistic Model proposed by Mannison maintains that, “only human artifacts can be objects of aesthetic appreciation” because “artistry is an essential component of an aesthetic judgment”[5] He further explains that, “The conceptual structure of an aesthetic judgment…includes a reference to a creator, i.e. an artist.[6] Elliot provides reasons for the authorship concerns as he explains, “an apparently integral part of aesthetic evaluation depends on viewing the aesthetic object as an intentional object, as an artifact, as something that is shaped by the purposes of its author.”[7]

Because of the criticisms against uncorrupted assignment of art-based aesthetics, many philosophers have opted for strategies relating the type of information needed to apprehend aesthetic beauty. Three strategies exist along this trajectory for examining environmental aesthetics. First, the cognitive approach suggests the idea that the aesthete must utilize external material to apprehend beauty of an object. Therefore, for cognitive aesthetics, the assessment of beauty begins when one understands information about it. Next, the non-cognitive approach, as the name suggests, supposes that the aesthete can apprehend beauty through engagement with the object. Therefore as one has an experience with the object, she can make aesthetic value judgments. Finally, the shared environmental aesthetics view seeks to employ elements from both of the previous views. They suggest that apprehension of beauty is not solely related to gaining information about an object, but at the same time, apprehension of beauty is also not only about an experiential dimension with an object. Therefore, this view seeks to value information while recognizing also that one must at some level experience the object to make an informed aesthetic assessment. So we will describe the three aforementioned views further and then seek to explain them in light of our subject, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari.

[1] Allen Carlson, “Aesthetic Appreciation of the Natural Environment,” in Nature, Aesthetics, and Environmentalism: From Beauty to Duty, ed. Allen Carlson and Sheila Lintott(New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 121.

[2] R. G. Collingwood, Outlines of a Philosophy of Art (London: Oxford University Press, H. Milford, 1925), 63.

[3] Allen Carlson and Sheila Lintott, Nature, Aesthetics, and Environmentalism: From Beauty to Duty (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 123.

[4] For a rebuttle of this view, see: Thomas Leddy, “A Defense of Arts-Based Appreciation of Nature,” Environmental Ethics 27, no. 3 (2005). Leddy articulates a defense against the criticism of “appreciating nature through postcards” (307-308). First he suggests that there is a difference between a postcard and a nature photograph, however they are not mutually exclusive with Ansel Adams photographs being used for the former. Second, Leddy insists that, “we need to ask whether this kitsch status makes postcards necessarily bad for nature appreciation?” Third,”we need to bear in mind that postcards form a part of the background through which most of us experience natural beauty.” Fourth, “more complex art photographs of nature operate against a cultural background in which the postcard and the snapshot play an important role.”

[5] Don Mannison, “A Prolegomenon to a Human Chauvanistic Aesthetic,” in Environmental Philosophy, ed. Michael McRobbie and Richard Sylvan(Canberra: Australian National University, 1980), 216.

[6] Ibid.,  212-213.

[7] Robert Elliot, “Faking Nature,” Inquiry 25, no. (1982): 90.


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