Nature and Perception

I had a really hard time trying to think of something to write about, but one thing that really stuck out to me from our discussion in class (and I don’t even remember who said it) was the idea of art as a second-hand knowledge of nature. I’m kind of fascinated with the idea that artists look at nature and make it “better,” or idealize it in some way, and then people would look at the paintings and create landscapes to look like those images. It creates a distance between people and nature, while still making them think that they’re close to it.

Albert Bierstadt, “Looking Down Yosemite Valley,” 1865

Yosemite National Park, Yosemite Valley, CA

I think that is a really dangerous thing. Even when the differences aren’t that great, like in the pictures above, it still prolongs the idea that nature is supposed to be a grand experience. People get unrealistic expectations of what an experience in nature is supposed to be. I think it leads people to be dissatisfied with nature the way that it is. Either they try to manipulate it in order to fit those standards, or they only can find beauty in the grand, sublime landscapes like those in the paintings. Like Cronon said in The Trouble with Wilderness, “idealizing a distant wilderness too often means not idealizing the environment in which we actually live.” Because the landscapes in our everyday lives rarely look like those perfect ones in pictures, it’s easy to discount what’s there in front of us. Its beauty isn’t exaggerated, and if we get used to those images I think we forget how to find beauty in the everyday things.

In drawing and painting, you learn how to represent things exactly as they are before you learn how to do more abstract works. You have to do countless still-lifes and self-portraits. You have to learn how to train your brain to actually see what is in front of you instead of what you think the objects should look like. For example, a grape isn’t a perfect sphere and an egg isn’t entirely white. Representations of a perfect nature make those images normal in our brains, and a lot of people either don’t know or don’t think about it enough to train their brains to think otherwise. Therefore, nature as we see it around us every day loses its appeal.

I admire Cronon’s dedication to seeing beauty in the “wild places much closer to home.” It’s not easy to appreciate the wildness in the tree you see every day or the vines crawling up the side of your house, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. It reminds me of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain.

Marcel Duchamp, “Fountain,” 1917

Not in connection to nature, but in the fact that he’s challenging our perception of things we see every day. It was pretty controversial in its time as to whether or not it was actually art. I was always fascinated by this piece in art history, because Duchamp didn’t create it from nothing; he just found it and put it up on a pedestal. It was designed to make the viewer stop and think. One thing that struck me from Cronon’s essay and from our discussions is the idea that wilderness doesn’t really exist in nature, but is really just an idea about nature that we created. It reduces a lot of things down to perception. That’s a really hard concept to grasp, but it makes a lot of sense to me.

We tend to think of how separate we are from nature, but if we can learn to appreciate things around us, there is so much more potential for magnificence. You wouldn’t have to get away or escape if your surroundings became your escape. I think people should try to change their perceptions not only for the benefit of the environment, but also for the benefit of ourselves. Maybe it’s just hopeful thinking, but maybe less people would have the desire to get away from everything if we could find refuge where we are.

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About Hannah S.

I'm a Graphic Design student pursuing a BFA at the University of Montevallo with minors in Art History and Math. On the off chance that I'm not doing schoolwork, I love funny tv shows, serious books, most genres of music and all kinds of animals. I'm also interested in environmental issues, coding and programming and making lists for everything.

One thought on “Nature and Perception

  1. There are seeds of a great idea here! The next step is to figure out how to explore these ideas more. What are artists like Beirstadt doing when they paint Yosemite with such attention to detail?

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