The aesthetic instinct

View from Glastonbury Tor, Somerset, looking north-west towards Wedmore. ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

View from Glastonbury Tor, Somerset, looking north-west towards Wedmore. ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

I just spotted these images of some of the recent flooding in Somerset, taken from Glastonbury Tor.

View from Glastonbury Tor, Somerset, looking south-west towards Street and the surrounding hills. ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

View from Glastonbury Tor, Somerset, looking south-west towards Street and the surrounding hills. ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

It strikes me how beautiful the images are, contrasting with the devastation these floods caused.

Landscape by Jacob van Ruisdael (1628-1682), known as 'Le coup de soleil', possibly a fanciful view of Alkmaar, at Upton House, inv. no. 446731. ©National Trust Images/Angelo Hornak

Landscape by Jacob van Ruisdael (1628-1682), known as ‘Le coup de soleil’, possibly a fanciful view of Alkmaar, at Upton House, inv. no. 446731. ©National Trust Images/Angelo Hornak

We seem to have an instinct to aestheticise whatever we see, even if it is negative and painful.

View from Glastonbury Tor, Somerset, looking south-west towards Street and the surrounding hills. ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

View from Glastonbury Tor, Somerset, looking south-west towards Street and the surrounding hills. ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

When confronted with a flooded landscape we intuitively reach back to the vocabulary of old master paintings, to help us define what we are looking at.

Crossing the ford by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), at Upton House, inv. no. 446672. ©National Trust Images/Angelo Hornak

Crossing the ford by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), at Upton House, inv. no. 446672. ©National Trust Images/Angelo Hornak

Presumably this is a semi-conscious coping mechanism: we want to discover patterns in the chaos, so that we feel we have a chance of creating some order out of it.

View from Glastonbury Tor, Somerset, looking north-west towards Wedmore with the Mendip Hills in the distance. ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

View from Glastonbury Tor, Somerset, looking north-west towards Wedmore with the Mendip Hills in the distance. ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

In this sense art can be defined simply as a sophisticated information processing tool, helping us to analyse positive as well as negative experiences.

4 Responses to “The aesthetic instinct”

  1. deana@lostpastremembered Says:

    Did Trust houses get damaged by the flooding? It looked terribly devastating on the news in the US.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Lots of problems at NT properties, but no major disasters, as far as I know. For the country as a whole it has been pretty bad, though, with some areas under water for six weeks or longer.

  3. Bozena Says:

    What a brilliant (and wise) remark – yes, you’re right! I’ve never thought about it this way, but experienced it myself and I’m sure others do the same. Well, maybe not everybody, which is a pity because it definitely helps.
    One of the best quotes is Zorba’s “what a beautiful disaster!” :)

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks Bozena.

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