An interesting paragraph in the New York Times today, buried in a story about development projects for Governors Island. Here’s the snippet that caught 291’s eye:
As all the design teams recognized, the magic comes from the island’s setting. It is surrounded by the Manhattan skyline to the north, the Brooklyn waterfront to the east and the Statue of Liberty to the west, giving it a remarkable stillness. That is enhanced by the strange juxtaposition of scales. If the twittering birds and briny smell can make the island feel too quaint, the Staten Island Ferry then cruises into view, its bright orange form looming up to make the island part of a bigger, tougher composition.
(Ourosoff, Nicolai, “Competing Visions for Governors Island,” in the New York Times, June 20, 2007)
A straightforward description of the landscape? I don’t think so.
“Landscape” is a dodgy concept, since it can refer to a number of distinct but intertwined things:
- a stretch of terrain (”rolling through the landscape”): the most concrete meaning
- a picture or representation of a stretch of terrain (”he painted a landscape”): a concrete thing that represents something distant or absent and, therefore, not concrete
- a genre of pictures (”the heyday of the landscape was the early 1800s”): an abstract category of concrete things that represent something distant or absent
- the figurative terrain formed by a number of related concepts (”the changing economic landscape”): an abstract picture of abstract ideas
What’s interesting in the paragraph from today’s Times is that the reporter is describing the development of a landscape (definition 1 above), but because of his aesthetic concerns, he ends up unable to keep it distinct from the picture of a landscape (definition 2). His vocabulary gives away his curatorial preoccupation. “Juxtaposition of scales” and “bigger, tougher composition” are terms that don’t belong in nature–they belong in an art gallery.
That angle lends the description a strange sense of distance and detachment. Who, after all, complains that birdsong and the smell of tide flats make parts of the world “too quaint”? Only a metropolitan, someone more accustomed to seeing
what little is left of nature in a museum than in the surroundings. “Too quaint” is a value judgment that seems to demand authorship–something which won’t be imposed on Governors Island until after the implementation of the development plan.
If I were one of the many alarmist commentators who like to talk about the media today, I could probably rail about how photography and other visual media have promoted this kind of detached connoisseurship in place of experience, appreciation, and activism. But I’m not one of those types. I doubt they’re right, and their gloom-and-doom scenarios strike me as little more than good ways to sell their writing.
I imagine that this kind of detached spectatorship, the regarding of nature as art, predates photography by a long shot. My uneducated guess would trace its ancestral forms back through decadent Aestheticism (which argued that everything should be judged according to its beauty, however superficial) to the Romantics (who glorified Nature in art, but only as it appealed to their idealist sensibilities). Like I said, though–that’s just a guess.