restricted access Excursus: Natural Beauty / Art Beauty
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PART III MODERNITY, NATURE, AND DYSTOPIA 191 EXCURSUS NATURAL BEAUTY / ART BEAUTY I used to be able to embrace all this and feel like a god in its abundance! How the magnificent creatures of this infinite world came to life in my soul! I was surrounded by titanic mountains, abysses lay at my feet, waterfalls tumbled down steep slopes, rivers flowed beneath me, and forest and mountain resounded with it all. . . . Something has been drawn away from my soul like a curtain and the panorama of eternal life has been transformed before my eyes into the abyss of an eternally open grave. JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE, THE SORROWS OF YOUNG WERTHER (1774) NATURAL CONTRADICTION In common parlance we locate nature beyond history; yet the concept of nature, culturally constructed, is necessarily historical.1 Accordingly, as a concept, nature is located within the parameters of the very thing to which it stands in opposition: nature, in a dyadic relationship with culture, represents itself as a problem. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno argued that our historical relation to nature is one of conflict. As they put it, “What human beings seek to learn from nature is how to use it to dominate wholly both it and human beings.”2 They argued that the fundamental forms of domination organizing modernity had their roots in the primordial efforts of humans to survive in a nature—primordial totality—that they feared. Ironically, fearing nature expressed not least a fear of the human, to the extent that people are not only in nature but also of nature; hence, the othering of nature othered the self from itself. And yet human beings lament the very separation from nature upon which their identity (the sense of being human) is ultimately grounded. Thus, by the principle that Adorno and Horkheimer articulated, the designation of national parks, which first occurred during the heyday of the industrial revolution—signaling triumph over nature—directly responded to our fractured relation to nature. That is, the setting aside of small and as-yet “untamed” geographies signified less a nostalgic return to nature than a material acknowledgment of the permanence of the damage done to it. In the same 192 • M O D E R N I T Y , N A T U R E , A N D D Y S T O P I A way, contemporaneous salvage anthropology in essence picked among the graves and ruins to remember what “advanced man” had destroyed to become advanced. At the end of his life, in Aesthetic Theory, Adorno staked out in detail his position on natural beauty, which he regarded as the defining issue of aesthetics and a good deal more besides. Our longing for nature—for example, ecological regard and wilderness preservation, but also and in particular art, in Adorno’s argument—is a projection of a lack.3 The concept of nature in essence protests its relationship to culture, or as Adorno put it, “The concept of natural beauty rubs on a wound.”4 Art is called upon to answer for natural beauty, in effect to substitute for it. Art—wholly artifactual, that is literally unnatural —perpetuates the attack on nature;5 yet art does more, for it acknowledges the natural beauty that the human subject has otherwise degraded yet nonetheless desires in its nonextant “perfect” state. Art reflects on this fact. Art, Adorno says, “want[s] to keep nature’s promise. . . . What nature strives for in vain, artworks fulfill.”6 Adorno once commented, “Whenever nature was not actually mastered, the image of its untamed condition terrified.” This, he said, “explains the strange predilection of earlier centuries for symmetrical arrangements of nature”7—think French landscape design with its severe topiary or, in England, the aesthetically contrived naturalism of Stourhead or Stowe, where “raw” nature was severely reorganized to appear, so to speak, more suitably natural. In other words, once human beings imagined they had mastered nature, it became their lost friend, only to be reimagined and sometimes fetishized.8 ORDER (ALIVE OR, PREFERABLY, DEAD) Western art has long been taxed to visualize the cultural complexities of the human relationship to nature, response to which was characteristically riddled with contradiction. By the seventeenth century, hence at the dawn of modernity, representations of the domination and othering of nature were already legion, though the costs were aesthetically disguised . (The Romantics would later reconsider the matter in different light, as suggested by the epigraph above.) I want to pause here to...


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Subject Headings

  • Music -- Philosophy and aesthetics.
  • Modernism (Music) -- History -- 20th century.
  • Opera -- Social aspects.
  • Motion pictures -- Social aspects.
  • Sound recordings -- Social aspects.
  • Nature in music.
  • Nature in motion pictures.
  • Puccini, Giacomo, 1858-1924. Fanciulla del West.
  • Fitzcarraldo (Motion picture).
  • Days of heaven (Motion picture).
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