Beauty is a dangerous thing.
Maybe beauty isn’t a dangerous thing, but it’s often confusing. It gets mixed up in other things, like land, love, lust, and marketing–you know, the many fabrics of our lives.
I want to introduce a conversation about the anthropology of landscape, because I think it’s important to basically everything, beauty especially. How we think and feel about landscape ties into how we think, feel, and act concerning conservation, human rights, landscaping fabric, and plastic mulch–you know, the many fabrics of our lives.
No pun intended, of course.
For starters, our word for “landscape” comes from the Dutch “landschap“, which was really a way of referring to art that depicted natural scenery. This style of art proliferated in the 1600s as classical landscape art truly blossomed–right when exploration, colonialism, and mapmaking were all taking off.
There was a lot of beauty during this time in history, but also so much entitlement, racism, absurdity, and downright evil. Each side of the coin is worth digging into, to mix metaphors, so I’ll dig into the problematic, absurd side first.
After all, this blog is kind of about exploring the beautiful and the absurd.
The Problematic, the Absurd, the Curious
Around this time, many artists focused on gardenscapes and the land of the wealthy–after all, the wealthy were the ones who could afford to commission artists. Landscape art offered fresh takes on subjects from classical antiquity (temples, etc) and pretty much any location of pastoral beauty.
This style of painting sparked “grand tours” of Europe. Paris, Rome, and Venice were not to be missed, and “grand tours” offered the young elite of Europe a chance to appreciate the “picturesque” aesthetic of these important European sites (Di Palma 2015). The word “picturesque”, originally meaning “painterly”, was now applied to physical stretches of land with plenty of beauty as well as political problems, societal issues, poverty. Simultaneously, the map-making craze that swept across colonial European powers echoed this foreground-versus-background, highly constructed way of relating to the natural world (Hirsch 1995).
In other words, this time in history created our concept of landscape as something that includes a foreground and a background, a viewing subject and a more passive, “beheld” object. It crafted our ideas of landscape as something to be primarily looked at for our viewing pleasure (Hirsch 1995, Bourdieu 1977 in Hirsch 1995).
Beauty has a way of hiding problems. If you can tour Europe in the mad search for the pastoral, maybe it’s easier to ignore atrocities committed on the other edge of the map?
(This has lots of present-day applications: If you can tour the beautiful, Instagrammable landscapes of a country, it may become easier to ignore the social problems or gross structures of colonialism.)
It makes sense, doesn’t it?
I’ve worked in gardening and landscaping on and off throughout the past eight years or so. It’s made me think a lot about how we think about landscape as a culture on the micro-level. It’s easy to see problems in how we think about and relate to land when you think about plastic in the ocean or misinformed tourism.
But I really started thinking when I saw lots of bougie suburbanites wanting the same goddamn variety of juniper shrub to frame their houses, or when I installed another layer of plastic mulch to keep the weeds down and keep things “looking nice” (for present generations rather than for future ones, I assumed, as I watched the plastic fray and spread throughout the yard even as it was installed).
I really thought about landschap as I watched how people prioritised easy annuals or very-easy, non-native perennials over plants whose roots would dig deep, replenish the soil, and promote native ecosystems. (But I mean, I, too, love begonias and not weeding, so I can also relate. I’m not judging, I’m just bummed.)
It’s just sad that it’s more about the foreground and the background than the actual motherfucking ground.
It’s about the view and the status, which makes a lot of sense, given the very heritage of our word “landscape.”
Our culture so often has so little room for other creatures, for future generations, for the environment. So often, the picturesque is preferred over the plethora of present and future life.
I think we can do better.
The Beautiful, the Good, the Hopeful
But (onto the beauty, the good) I don’t think it’s all bad, or all doom and poor-environmental-decision-suburban-gloom.
Because words change and shift in their meaning. That’s what they do: they evolve, and culture changes, and society shifts.
Because I have also so often heard “landscape” as way of describing broader, more complex environments at national parks and museums as a child.
Because many photographers and artists use landscape as a way of talking about pertinent problems as well as stunning subjects.
Because was finding the world beautiful–picturesque, if you will–that first sparked my desire to care for my world, my future generations. Because so many other people say the same.
Because photographers like Robert Rear spend days and weeks tracking the food sources of eagles, chasing birds, studying their habits–all to produce a beautiful picture that is so much more than a picture. It’s about the lives of creatures, our lives, our ecosystems.
Because photographers like Ryan Leith portray the power of sea and stone in Shetland, the ancientness and awe inherent in our earth.
This gives me hope.
And of course, I actually really love a lot of Dutch landscape painting. I devoured that shit at the National Gallery in Edinburgh back in my Scotland days.
Plus, many Dutch families in the 1500 and 1600s just wanted a nice painting of some goddamn trees to put up on their wall. A lot of families weren’t thinking about colonialism or actively intending heart. I’m sure many Dutch mothers would look at the painting as their three-year-old threw a temper tantrum, soaked in some beauty, and took a deep breath. Dude, if you’re dealing with a three-year-old, have all the paintings.
Just please recycle and be aware of your privilege and work towards justice for all peoples and races and stand with Indigenous Nations plz and fucking thank you.
Photography by Lee Friedlander: https://fraenkelgallery.com/portfolios/america-by-car
Landscape, landschap, and art: https://www.getty.edu/education/teachers/classroom_resources/curricula/landscapes/background1.html
The Grand Tour of Europe:
More stuff on landscape, landschap, the picturesque, mapmaking, and how we relate to the earth:
Di Palma, Vittoria. 2015. “Chapter Two: Is Landscape Painting?” In Garth Doherty and Charles Waldheim, eds.: Is Landscape….? Essays on the Identity of Landscape. London: Routledge.
Hirsh, Eric. 1995. “Introduction: Landscape: Between Place and Space.” In Hirsch and Michael O’Hanlon, eds.: The Anthropology of Landscape. Oxford: Oxford University Press.