One default is that a good aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ence is a broth made up of the pro­por­tion­al com­bi­na­tion of more or less palat­able things, pre­pared with love and time. You are sip­ping it, or you aren’t. It is sim­ple and self-evident.

But then, in this fall­en world, we find most of our aes­thet­ic encoun­ters are messy. We are sift­ing through excess, laps­es, the indi­gestible; push­ing meat away from bone and gris­tle. In such cas­es, our role in aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ence is to seek out and high­light what is wor­thy; at the peren­ni­al risk of feel­ing as though we are miss­ing the right thing. For years I dili­gent­ly marked up every doorstop in the West­ern canon, from The Faerie Queene to Remem­brance of Things Past, under­lin­ing any­thing just or juicy or wild as though I was try­ing to launch my own Bartlett’s. Tak­ing this atti­tude means see­ing an expe­ri­ence of the arts as a bus tour through an unfa­mil­iar city, where you chat between points of inter­est, let­ting your eyes blur in the mean­while. You assign your aes­thet­ic aware­ness to the same fac­ul­ty that pulls you out of sleep at a mean­ing­ful sound; when some­thing trips your sen­si­bil­i­ty you note it down, and then pass out again. 

If this is your atti­tude, even­tu­al­ly you will be tempt­ed to reduce it all into the minia­ture-golf ver­sion, the con­densed high­lights. You will even won­der why all the tedious in-betweens are there; couldn’t we get it all down into a Lit­tle Red Book?

Ide­al­ly, of course, the shin­ing moments are a first way in to the worth of the whole; and even when some ele­ments keep stand­ing for­ward from the rest, it is under­stood that they are set jew­els, mount­ed for best effect. But I keep think­ing it’s inter­est­ing to plumb the cas­es where there is an inti­mate rela­tion­ship between the remark­able and the flux it is embed­ded in. This seems par­tic­u­lar­ly true of a land­scape archi­tec­ture that can go for­ward past the pic­to­r­i­al and into the eco­log­i­cal, not dic­tat­ed by a series of show­pieces. I was struck recent­ly, look­ing close­ly at Roset­ta Elkin’s work, how she relays the aes­thet­ic worth of a prac­tice-based land­scape through images of close-up expe­ri­ence – hands in earth, tiny plants, plain things in a field, a min­i­mum of bokeh. While not not com­posed, the images say that the worth is not to be found in the composition.

What strikes me in many aes­thet­ic fields is the insuf­fi­cient nature of the osten­si­ble works of art in of them­selves; the way that they depend upon a milieu. Most of the music of my youth is not worth much when iso­lat­ed from pack­ag­ing, from fly­ers, from con­certs, from prac­tice ses­sions, from scenes, from cat­a­log copy; which is not to say that the worth found in the con­junc­tion of all of those things was an illu­sion. The music, the osten­si­ble rea­son for it all, was only the flower of a larg­er aes­thet­ic organ­ism bent on repro­duc­ing itself. The anti­quar­i­ans turn­ing up the mate­r­i­al cul­ture of the time again do some­thing that the nth relis­ten can­not do. 

Like­wise, sport is non­sense if reduced to a list of achieve­ments, what appears at first as the point the rest of it points to. That is sim­i­lar­ly down to the inter­est of sport being spread out through an entire media ecosys­tem; but here I’m struck at how you miss the pro­found­est parts if nev­er phys­i­cal­ly present. That could be the fact of phys­i­cal pres­ence in the sub­limes of a crowd, but I think it’s actu­al­ly more grand in the every­day. Going to children’s soc­cer games for the first time, I soon got struck by how the dif­fer­ence between kinder­garten­ers and pro­fes­sion­als estab­lish­es a space of under­stand­ing. Chil­dren play­ing soc­cer do not just present a trav­es­ty of soc­cer done prop­er­ly; in their strug­gles we can see the whole activ­i­ty of soc­cer in anoth­er light. We can see them bunch at the sides and around the goal, for instance, and begin to under­stand why play­ers spe­cial­ize, why rules are drawn the way they are; but equal­ly we can feel the expe­ri­ence of play­ers, child or adult, in nav­i­gat­ing the sport’s sys­tem. And so we can see the pos­si­bil­i­ties of soc­cer more clear­ly, not only the menu of pos­si­bil­i­ties we see exe­cut­ed by those at the high­est lev­el, with a hair’s breadth of focus or luck to decide the results, but the sheer breadth of the pos­si­ble field.

From the van­tage point of land­scape, I can see that this as the eco­log­i­cal field that the remark­able shares with all of its neigh­bors. I can intu­it from fur­ther back the set of inhab­i­tants, the space they nego­ti­ate togeth­er, the set of pos­si­bil­i­ties they incar­nate. That is true in a lit­er­al way; that, say, the hum­ble and impos­si­bly rare monks­hood at the base of the cliff is and can only be a crea­ture of the talus, breathed to life by a puff of air welling out from a crack. But it is also true in any per­cep­tu­al ecol­o­gy; that a neat­ly made bridge, put with­out fan­fare on a side trail, fair­ly glows when sur­round­ed by twen­ty min­utes’ worth of sim­ple beech­es and leaf litter.

(October 2023)