Environmental Studies at Bennington is highly interdisciplinary. This term, philosophy professor Karen Gover is teaching a course entitled “Environmental Aesthetics,” focusing the role of aesthetics in our experience in and attitude towards the natural environment.
The central questions of the class are: what is the aesthetic relationship between a purely sensuous experience and knowledge? Thoreau, for example, extolled the beauty of swamps; ecosystems generally found unattractive. However, we know swamps to be very interesting and important ecosystems. Given our knowledge of why swamps are wonderful, how can we change our aesthetic views of their beauty? How does knowledge influence our aesthetic relationship to things such as conservation or sustainability?
In order to approach this idea, the class has read about the philosophy of aesthetics, which, up until the twentieth century had only to do with aesthetics in art. Because of this, a large part of the class has involved looking at the relationship between aesthetics in art and in nature; examining the characteristics of aesthetic appreciation in art compared with aesthetic appreciation in nature. To address this topic, the beginning of the term was dedicated to reading classical aesthetic literature such as Kant The Critique of Judgement and Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art.
Each class period, a student gives a presentation on a different “environmental” artist. This category is very broad, spanning from works of contemporary artists such as Edward Burtynsky to sculptors such as Donald Judd and Robert Smithson.
Classic American nature writing was covered at length with readings by Muir, Emerson, Thoreau and Leopold, focusing on the role of aesthetics in our experience in nature, specifically in the wilderness.
In discussing these questions, the class touched on various issues that have real-world application in our approach to the environment and to sustainability. For example, the class discussed the importance of aesthetics in sustainable design, both in the built environment and in our relationship to consumerism and green products. Many students also wrote about the aesthetic implications of projects such as wind farms, the construction of which have received opposition from people who consider them to be eyesores.