If we look at natural forms as ornamental objects then we will be unable to perceive beyond a surface understanding of nature. In the name of efficiency and profit, man made systems tend to dominate and subjugate nature. These intentions are not always functional, but rather visual. When trees, flowers, and shrubs are planted in the strip malls and lawns of our urban and suburban environments, they are used as decorative and static objects isolated from their natural environments. The man-made environment is restrictive about the kinds of plants allowed, and these plants are maintained and controlled to a large degree. It is worth realizing the ways that our cultural preferences have disconnected us from the natural cycles, restricting us from advancing as a more sustainable society.
We must also realize that beauty is relative and subjective to different cultures, and therefore it is not fixed. As we see in fashion it can change quite regularly, so if we recognize how our visual choices are actually burdening us, we can work to change them. Beauty is subjective, but also influenced by society. The images we absorb visually are transformed in our minds by various influences of personal experiences and cultural values. Through the process of cultural conditioning we create a judgment, or a visual taste. Our visual preferences play a large role in our decisions and experiences.
Why do chefs spend so much time perfecting the appearance of food that will only exist temporarily until it is eaten? Perhaps it is a personal art exploration, or it allows them to charge more for a dish. However the consumer no doubt eagerly receives it because food that is visually pleasing stimulates appetite. If a person were handed a plate of transformed mystery ingredients that resembled what is fed to pigs, or a well-considered plate of beautifully arranged food, he or she would likely be more attracted to look at and eat the latter. A study from Max Planck researchers showed that even the mere image of food is powerful enough to stimulate appetite and influence eating behavior. The study suggests that the abundance of food advertising images in our culture might be a contributor to our national obesity problems.
Grocers are also aware of the power of visual influences on the consumer. Many grocery stores, such as Whole Foods, display produce that exhibit ‘perfect appearance’, disposing anything with minor abnormalities on the skin, or in size or shape, as if these qualities would greatly affect their taste. Common supermarket practices reflect and simultaneously mold the visual preferences of its consumers. Consumers are familiar with food that is provided to them, that look a certain way, and in turn increases the demand for physical perfection. Consequently many million tons of perfectly good and edible food being dumped into landfills each year because the produce do not meet grocery store standards. Such standards are not sensitive to the exciting and random chance that is produced by nature. Fruits and vegetables do not grow in homogenous replicas like tools and toys come out of a factory.
As a culture, we have engaged in many damaging activities based on visual decisions. We enjoy bright, colorful, and vibrant lights, so we live in brilliant energy-draining cities that are littered with light pollution. We appreciate minimal, ‘clean’ environments. Because dirt is considered, well, dirty, we use glass, steel, and concrete to construct our surroundings so that they can be easily sterilized. Our idea of incorporating a little bit of nature into our constructed environments is by planting large plots of useless green lawns. The American lawn is nothing more than another example of monoculture, alongside the great American soy and corn fields that both support our livelihoods and are slowly destroying us through pollution, loss of biodiversity, and unhealthy food.
For artists, visual decisions are often critically considered as an essential component of a professional practice. With great understanding of how people perceive beauty, artists have the potential ability to affect larger cultural perspectives. Artists like Haeg are transforming minimalist lawns into more diverse natural environments that can activate multiple simultaneous functions, from providing visual satisfaction, healthy food and self-sustainability, while providing a more ideal habitat for insects, birds, and other animals. In the Edible Estates projects, artist Fritz Haeg attempts to address the faults of our cultural affinity towards green lawns and our faulty food system by replacing entire suburban yards with edible landscapes. Rather than green grass, his yards were blooming with vegetables and food plants. Haeg’s gardens are thoughtfully arranged by his experience and understanding of compositional elements. He begins his projects by delineating where things will be planted and creating lines for pathways and complimentary shapes. Then he invites the residents and neighbors to help plant. Those who choose to convert their lawns no doubt have the opportunity to develop a closer understanding with natural processes as they interact with their plants.
Kathy Cummings, a Chicago resident who at one time in 2004 received an award from the city for her native-plants garden for being the “Most Naturalized City Garden”, is issued a $640 fine eight years later for having “weeds” that are too tall. The accused weeds were actually Milkweed, an important native plant that is both the home and food source for monarch larvae. The actions of the city displayed an apparent lack of awareness for how healthy and developed native vegetation should look, and their regulations further prohibit the potential restoration of these plants.
It is interested to consider how ancient Chinese culture privileged nature, recognizing man’s insignificant stature. The traditional Chinese perception, influenced by Daoism, is that nature is powerful, vast, and all-inclusive. Every part of it, including water and rocks, has qi, or vital force. In this dynamic vision of nature, it is acknowledged that all parts of the ecosystem influence each other in a profound way, and nature as a whole is superior to the mere human race. The appreciation for natural forces and nature’s creations had great influence on the visual decisions apparent in Chinese gardens. Abnormally shaped rocks and gnarled driftwood were highlighted to display and reflect the powerful influence of nature. “In contrast, old Chinese gardens lack elements which westerners would expect to find; in particular, the formal symmetrical arrangement of the plan (both in its major outlines and in the patterned details of garden bedding and parterres), the artificial manipulation of water in fountains, and the extensive use of grass in lawns” (Thacker 44). Much of the traditional Chinese garden designs were also based off of scroll paintings. They depicted vast mountains and in contrast to Western paintings, in which human figures were the main concentration, the people included in Chinese paintings are depicted as dots in the landscape. Chinese paintings reveal “the pervasive influence of the philosophy of the Tao, involving meditation on the unity of the creation, a creation in which nature possesses a hidden yet real order and harmony … such a concern with the order and harmony of nature is often and clearly at odds with the ways of the world, and the works of men are often considered inferior and distracting” (Thacker 43). However, as China’s efforts have been towards rapid modernization to compete in the current global economy, much of the traditional values towards nature seem to be pushed aside to make way for industrial Western methods.
So of course it is not adequate to claim that as long as we alter our visual dispositions then we will live harmoniously with nature. As we know, our economy, the growing population, and the politics involved are great factors. However, we can recognize and study aesthetics as a valid and influential component in our relationship with nature. it is important to realize how many of our current decisions are in actuality based on visual decisions, and that we can more critically consider how they may be inhibiting our development towards a more sustainable future. Learning from John Dewey, aesthetics are not simply how objects are viewed but rather, “the relationship between the individual and the environment… Rather than a subject-object relationship in which the observer parades before the supposedly beautiful view, we have instead a process, an interaction between the viewer and the viewed, and it is that joint association that the aesthetic experience lies” (Evernden 96).
Glotfelty, Cheryll, and Harold Fromm. The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Athens: University of Georgia, 1996. Print.
Greiner, Michael. “Pictures of Food Create Feelings of Hunger.” Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, 19 Jan. 2012. Web. 08 May 2013.
Haeg, Fritz, and Diana Balmori. Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn. New York: Metropolis, 2008. Print.
Thacker, Christopher. The History of Gardens. Berkeley: University of California, 1979. Print.
Yates, Jon. “Problem Solver: Award-winning Garden Ticketed for ‘weeds'” Chicagotribune.com.
Chicago Tribune, 30 Dec. 2012. Web. 08 May 2013.