Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Appreciation is Interpretation

I have often thought of beauty as something that simply -was-. It was something out there, waiting to be experienced, that would strike my mind and my sense fully formed. This is implicit in how we speak about beauty - when we talk about something being 'striking' or 'breathtaking' we imply an immediate assault on our minds by overwhelming grandeur.

The Corollary of this is that the appreciation of beauty is antithetical to knowledge. It is not that one must be ignorant to admire beauty, but that interpretation and understanding are separate from appreciation. We can be in awe, or we can understand. We cannot do both.

I think this is wrong. Our minds do not passively receive sensory input - they process it based on what we know. If we do not know what we are looking at, we cannot distinguish one thing from another - in a very real sense, we cannot see it. In the absence of knowledge, everything we see is 'that thing there' or 'that other thing' - if we stop to examine, we may notice slight differences between two things, but we will not differentiate the objects as we take in the whole.

I was thinking about this while I was hiking on top of the Allegheny Front a bit more than a week ago. It was a beautiful hike. As I looked around I knew what those bushes were, covered in flowers, on each side of the trail - mountain laurel. And I knew that those larger shrubs, barely coming into bloom, were Rhododendrons or 'Great Laurel'. I knew which trees were birches, and could pick out the pines from the spruce. And because I knew most of what I saw, the plants I didn't know stuck out to me, and I could ask and learn that was a 'mountain ash' and the particular type of pine there was a Table Mountain Pine. Those little points of ignorance were as noticeable as all the plants I knew, because they were an exception.

If I did not know a birch from a beech, if I did not know a spruce from a pine, I do not know what I would see. I suppose I wouldn't see the trees for the forest. And I wonder if there are cases where someone 'doesn't really care for nature' where the cause is not an aesthetic insensitivity, but simply ignorance. Putting an ignorant hiker in the middle of the forest is like sitting down a music novice at the opera, or taking someone who knows nothing of painting to an art museum. If they feel nothing, perhaps it is because they can't feel without first knowing.

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