Everyday Green Aesthetics (2019)
by Mateusz Salwa

Everyday aesthetics has been a well-established field of philosophy for more than a decade.1 So has ecological aesthetics.2 These fields are not distant from each other, sharing a number of issues and being included in the agenda of environmental aesthetics.3 Nevertheless, they are studied together much less frequently than one would expect, and consequently the idea of everyday green aesthetics is still waiting to be fully developed. There are at least two reasons to do so. First, the nature that people most often encounter is rather plain and hence passes unnoticed as a neutral background for their everyday life (Marder 2013, 3—4). Their aesthetic concepts, rooted mainly in their experience of art, make it hard – if not impossible – for them to aesthetically appreciate the exact opposite of scenic nature. As a consequence, even if everyday nature requires daily maintenance, it tends to be treated as unworthy of extraordinary care or protection which is otherwise limited to rare species or spectacular sites. Showing that this ‘dull’ nature deserves attention and suggesting that itcan be appreciated may positively influence people’s wellbeing because it may broaden the array of things people find aesthetically rewarding. This consequence is backed up by another, which is at the same time the second reason for developing everyday green aesthetics. As Yuriko Saito rightly notes, aesthetic experience may play a crucial role in creating what she calls ‘environmentally active citizenry’ (Saito 2007, 203). Thus, discovering the aesthetic values of everyday nature may foster a more respectful attitude toward nature on a day-to-day basis. As people tend to care more for what they like, the aim of everyday green aesthetics is to persuade them that there is a lot in everyday nature to be enjoyed.

Everyday nature is heterogeneous, and it spans from uncultivated wild areas to hyper-cultivated vertical gardens, from pleasure grounds to urban farms.4 Thus, if aesthetics is to successfully fulfil both of the aforementioned aims, it has to account for this variety. There is, however, an issue that seems to be of primary importance here, and which underlies all the possible perspectives on everyday green aesthetics. Any possible discussion of how different greenery may be aesthetically appreciated is perforce based on the assumption that such an appreciation is indeed an appreciation of nature, no matter the extent to which the appreciated nature has been influenced by human intervention (Budd 2002). Even if aweed sprouting from the cracks of a concrete footpath belongs to a species invented in a laboratory and grows because people inadvertently brought it there on their soles, it is reasonable to think of it in terms of nature, i.e. as something that is fundamentally different from human creations such as the concrete and the footpath. There is no point in reiterating arguments proving how debatable the notion of nature is. For the sake of the present argument, it is enough to identify nature with an animate or inanimate other-than-human sphere. The basic issue of green everyday aesthetics is then to show how to aesthetically enjoy this other-than-human nature, so ubiquitous that people hardly even notice it. Or if they do, they deem it a nuisance.

Even if everyday nature sometimes makes a noticeable impression — for instance, in the form of hyper-trimmed lawns in front of houses, shrubs pruned in fancy shapes or green walls made of hydroponically cultivated mosses — such a reaction expresses an aesthetic appreciation of the human artifice required to produce these green forms and not of their vegetal matter. Nature as an other-than-human sphere remains an invisible background for people’s activities. There are, however, places where everyday nature is intentionally brought to the foreground. These ‘other spaces’ (Foucault 1986) are gardens.

In fact, gardens are places where people living in a more and more urbanized world most often have an occasion to experience nature without leaving their daily environment. Michel Conan is right when he states in his introduction to the volume Contemporary Garden Aesthetics that:

[g]ardens have been more numerous and ubiquitous in contemporary western cities over the last fifty years than at any previous time in their history […]. One may say that gardening is one of the very few arts that has been practiced on a large scale by amateurs […] Gardens are places that we enjoy as part of our dwelling in the world. They belong to our everyday life, and they impinge upon it. This is true of home gardens and of public gardens where we withdraw for a moment of leisure during the day, or of any of those gardens that we enjoy as a part of our walks to work, to a shopping mall, or even to a museum; but it is also true of the historic gardens that are visited during their holidays, even though it is not immediately apparent that these visits belong in the same way to their everyday life. […] Gardens are undoubtedly about everyday life, at the same time that they offer moments of aesthetic enjoyment.
(Conan 2007, 3–4.)

There is no doubt that gardens are art in the sense that they are very often designed and taken care of in such a way as to render the nature in them spectacular and hence aesthetically appealing, e.g. through careful selection of flowers, cultivating prize-winning pumpkins or composingsophisticated views. Nevertheless, there is always a place in gardens for vegetation which is not that attractive and, in all likelihood, would have passed unnoticed, had it been experienced elsewhere. The importance of gardens for everyday green aesthetics lies precisely in that even unattractive nature gets the attention of those who cultivate gardens as well as of those who merely visit them. Thus, gardens may be said to be spaces where the epiphany of nature takes place (Cooper 2006, 129–154).

Not only do gardens allow people – as Conan writes – ‘to dwell in nature’ (Conan 2007, 4), but they do so in a way that is unique to gardens. The uniqueness stems from the sort of experience only gardens offer. This experience is particularly interesting for everyday green aesthetics as its analysis shows what an aesthetic appreciation of nature in all its everydayness may consist of. Because of the experience offered by gardens, they are also places where everyday green aesthetics can be put to practice, which may result in a heightened level of ‘ecological literacy’ (Orr 2011, 251– 261). In fact Wendell Berry (2012, 79) claims that there is no better way to get involved in caring for the environment than gardening. In other words, gardens are philosophical places, as Rosario Assunto (1988), an Italian garden philosopher (discussed below), used to say, meaning that they are places that favour both philosophical inquiries into the relationship between humankind and nature and thus leading an eco-friendly life.

Needless to say, the experience of a garden is manifold, but it is unanimously agreed that it has a strong aesthetic dimension which makes it an aesthetic experience above all. It is no wonder then that gardens have been recently analysed by a number of aestheticians.5 In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to claim that we have recently witnessed a birth – or a revival, if we think of its 18th-century origins – of garden aesthetics. Its agenda covers three main questions (Cooper 2009): how should gardens be aesthetically appreciated: as artworks or as natural environments? What do gardens mean, and what meanings may they convey as partly artificial and partly natural places? What is the relationship between art, i.e. human activities, and nature in gardens?

The first two questions have received considerably more attention than the last one. They in fact refer to the unclear status of gardens as artworks, whereas the third question touches upon the ethical dimension of gardening. Garden aesthetics may be seen as an attempt to go beyond the traditional limits of aesthetics conceived of as philosophy of art. However, in the case of gardens the burden of tradition is surprisingly heavy because even if the environmental dimension of gardens has been perforce acknowledged, the dominant approach analyses them in terms of art- centred aesthetics, treating them as ‘cultural objects’ (Hunt 1991) defined by the designs, meanings and intentions behind them. Very rarely are they conceived of as human created natural environments or – to use Malcolm Budd’s (2002, 7) term – ‘human affected nature’. The fact that gardens are ‘all too human’ environments makes them of rather little interest for environmental aestheticians who seem to take it for granted that gardens should be appreciated in terms of their design and not in terms of a ‘natural order’.6

One of the consequences of the somewhat reductive approach that treats gardens as if their design were all there is to be appreciated is that scholarly attention is mainly paid to gardens created by artists or designers, while everyday gardens tend to be overlooked. If yards or garden allotments are discussed, they are analysed as expression of different social or political practices. They are also discussed as ecosystems or communities consisting of humans and other-than-human beings. From these perspectives, aesthetic experience seems very often to be irrelevant – as if these gardens could not offer it.7 It is, however, enough to go through a number of personal literary accounts of cultivating vegetables, preparing compost, weeding, etc., such as humorous Karel Čapek’s The Gardener’s Year (2013), more serious Michael Pollan’s Second Nature (1991) or Jim Nolman’s Why we Garden (1995), to find out that gardening implies an aesthetic experience of nature. It goes without saying that this sort of experience has little or nothing to do with an aesthetic experience of any art, and instead it resembles the experience analysed by environmental aestheticians who in one way or another claim that an adequate aesthetic experience of nature amounts to experiencing nature qua nature, i.e. as something which is not art.

It seems then that there are good reasons to go further in the direction suggested by environmental aesthetics, beyond an art-centred perspective. That is not to say that one should dismiss the fact that gardens may be appreciated in terms of their design, meanings or functions. Rather, it is tantamount to seriously considering that what is to be appreciated in gardens is nature. From this point of view, whether gardens may beapproached as full-fledged works of art or not is of little importance, but what is crucial is the fact that they offer an aesthetic experience to theircreators and the public as artworks do.

The idea that gardens are works of art, not so much because of their design or skilful maintenance but because they engender aesthetic experience has been developed by Assunto (1988, 1996). Even though there are no links between his theory and environmental aesthetics as such, and his philosophical idiom is totally different from the one used by Anglo- American philosophers, their conclusions nicely supplement one another, especially where gardens are at stake (Salwa 2015). Assunto’s theory is noteworthy as it is probably one of the most systematic philosophical accounts of garden aesthetics. It is not devoid of highly debatable points, but discussing them would be beyond the scope of the present article. Avery short summary of his thought has to suffice.

Assunto named his theory a ‘philosophy of the garden’ (filosofia del giardino), as his principal aim was to describe the ‘Idea of the Garden’ and thus to answer the question ‘what is a garden?’ At the same time his intentions were broader – he contended that the idea of a garden was a useful point of reference in environmental thinking. Following in the footsteps of his philosophical masters, Plato and the German romantic philosophers, he believed that it is possible to define the essence of garden and that such a definition should account for the fact that this essence, despite being trans-historical and trans-cultural, has only a historical existence i.e. it exists only through its various historical embodiments that changed over the centuries following different aesthetic ideals. He claimed that people designed gardens in reaction to their innate need to create a natural environment which would correspond to their ideal of nature. Medieval gardens, French Baroque ones or English landscape parks werethus reflections of a singular idea of the garden, in the sense that they were supposed to be embodiments of the ideal nature. It is true that they differ, but it is so only because they follow different ‘garden poetics’ which are expressions of different ways of imagining what ideal nature is like. In other words, for Assunto, gardens are places which are made of real nature in order to present in vivo ideal nature. Thus, apart from other functions, gardens serve as places where real and ideal nature may and should be contemplated. This means that in gardens – even those which, prima facie, seem to epitomize human dominance over nature – art in fact is at nature’s service.

Describing the Idea of the Garden and its historical vicissitudes, Assunto offered an ontology of gardens, defining conditions that a place has to fulfil in order to be a garden. His definition is rather peculiar as it is at the same time open and closed, and it refers to objective as well as subjective factors. On the one hand, he claims that gardens have an essence which make them ‘absolutely other spaces’, on the other he does not list the properties that a place has to have in order to be a garden. The essence of the garden is then not defined by the look or its economic, social or political functions. It is, rather, defined by the attitude with which it was designed, set up and with which it is cultivated and used. So, the differentia specifica of gardens lies in all sorts of garden practices. Having in mind its double character, Assunto named it esteticità (the aesthetic) and associated it with aesthetic experience.

He identified aesthetic experience with contemplation. As has been mentioned above, gardens are places where nature is contemplated whenever gardens are designed, cultivated or visited. In other words, he claimed that gardening was an art, by which he meant that gardens should be appreciated in the same manner in which artworks are and that gardening required not only technical skills but also a particular attitude. In both cases a contemplative approach is needed, and it results in the beauty of the garden or its esteticità. Thus, a gardener cultivates nature in a garden in such a way as to make it beautiful, and a visitor or user of a garden is supposed to discover the garden’s beauty and have an experience of it. Contemplation does not, however, amount to an approach typical for a distanced observer. On the contrary, Assunto contended that people should always be physically and sensually engaged in gardens, and yet such practices should be contemplative. He simply identified contemplation with a disinterested attitude, i.e. an attitude which allows one to see things as they are and to respect them for what they are. Therefore, insofar as nature in a garden is contemplated, it is treated as a goal in itself, which means that cultivating a garden differs from cultivating a field on a farm in that it does not treat nature solely in instrumental terms.

Nature in a garden may, obviously, has instrumental value, yet it must never be reduced to it. Gardens are places where nature turns out to have an inherent value which, however, does not replace its instrumental value but accompanies it. This is what makes gardens so different from e.g. urban green spaces which are ‘ecological machines’. Thus, the aesthetic experience of nature implied by the disinterested approach results in particular gardening practices which respect nature’s needs and cycles and it allows one to notice and appreciate them. What is more, it promotes the notion of people’s unity with nature and that they should not abandon or destroy it. In this sense, gardens are also places where people may contemplate themselves and their relationship with nature.

Summing up, for Assunto, gardens are places where a sort of harmony between humankind and other-than-human nature is achieved, and it is based on a non-instrumental human approach to nature which amounts to an aesthetic appreciation of it while also fostering respect toward nature in its otherness. Gardens are considered earthly paradises and as such they offer an ecological ideal of what the Earth should be like.

When Assunto described gardens as artworks and gardening as art, he referred as much to the modern system of the arts as to the broad meaning of tekhnē. If we now focus on the latter, we may see that for him gardens are places created by human hands according to cultural ideals – they are ‘cultural objects’ – but one cannot focus solely on human efforts and overlook the fact that they are made of nature and that they are designed in order to make nature itself, among other things, an object of aesthetic experience. Hence, gardens are places where nature is intentionally pushed to the foreground, experienced as a sphere that is not human and appreciated precisely for this. Borrowing a few expressions from Malcolm Budd, it can be said that gardens are places where humans cultivate, shape and organize nature in a particular way implied by ‘an aesthetic experience of nature as nature’ (Budd 2002, 1–23), and that they are managed in this particular manner in order to make other people have an experience of this sort. As a result, in a human- made garden people may aesthetically experience the ‘naturalness of nature’ (Ibid.) (or what they take to be nature’s naturalness). That does not mean that garden nature is not subject to human intentions; it does mean, however, that humans do not approach it in a purely instrumental way. Garden nature is intentionally designed to be the object of aesthetic experience. Otherwise why would anyone want to set up a garden as a garden and not as a small farm? And why would anyone want to enter it? Is it not the case that people like gardens because they like to be amidst nature, even if nature is limited to their yard or garden allotment?

Assunto was also a garden historian; therefore, he wrote extensively on historic gardens which he used as illustrations and proof of his theory. It is then no wonder that he believed that they were an important part of cultural and natural heritage worthy of protection. Yet, he claimed that in some respects everyday gardens were equally – if not even more – important because it was in them that the Idea of the Garden – in its local as well as global meaning – was currently kept alive in daily practices.

Esteticità, to which he devoted so much space in his writings, has little to do with extraordinary aesthetic qualities of gardens stemming from either their spectacular design or the rarity of their plants. It is rather rooted in their ordinariness, that is in the fact that no matter how spectacular they may be, they are ‘made of ’ nature which may be easily found elsewhere. The esteticità of gardens exists not only when one admires them as compositions, but also when one contemplates single flowers or leaves (which are never the same) or branches heavy with matured fruits, when one contemplates the autumnal decay of vegetal life and its rebirth in the spring, when one opens oneself to various looks and moods of gardens changing with the passage of seasons; in other words – esteticità emerges whenever one contemplates the order, rhythms and cycles of nature. All this provokes a deep wonder before the bountiful and beautiful world to which humans belong, which they partly create and modify, but which is never entirely theirs.

The Assuntian Idea of the Garden is in fact the idea of a human approach to nature based on the aesthetic experience of nature as nature. Gardens are places where the human experience of nature is enriched by the addition of an aesthetic dimension. Assunto is well aware that cultivating a garden is a matter of purely practical skills and that, in many ways, cultivating a garden does not differ from running a farm. What, however, changes tekhnē into art is the attitude with which it is practiced. The same holds true for the use of gardens. It is then the particular human attitude that makes the epiphany of nature possible, and gardens foster both of them. Assunto compared the relationship between gardens and ‘mere’ green spaces to the relationship between poetry and prose. Just as poetry reveals the ‘materiality’ of language which remains hidden in prose, gardens unveil the esteticità of the world. This is their ‘aesthetic function’ (Mukařovsky 1979), which may have consequences reaching far beyond their boundaries. In all probability, once ordinary, everyday nature is aesthetically experienced and appreciated in a garden, it will also be noticed and appreciated elsewhere. Is not a weed sprouting from the cracks of a concrete footpath fascinating and beautiful on closer inspection – much more so than the footpath – because of how it looks and strives for live?

Assunto’s theory is noteworthy for, among other things, the fact that he developed a garden aesthetics that has a strong environmental inclinationand may serve as an example of everyday green aesthetics. He effectively showed that everyday nature can and should be aesthetically experienced. When he stated that nature should be aesthetically experienced as nature, that is as something which is not human-made (even though it may be – and in fact is – arranged by humans), he was largely in line with environmental aesthetics. Furthermore, he insisted that such an experience was beneficial for the people as well as for their environment. He underlined that an aesthetic experience of nature leads to a positive appreciation of it. However, an aesthetic experience of everyday nature does not amount to experiencing it as extraordinary, as devoid of its usual functions or effects. It rather consists in paying attention to it, which requires a sort of ‘bracketing out’ one’s utilitarian interests. Assunto’s position is then not far from Arto Haapala’s account of everyday aesthetics:

Although we are embedded in the structures of the everyday and see things most of the time through functionality, every now and then we take some distance from the concerns of the daily activities. When doing so, we do not see familiar objects surrounding us as strange, rather we start to enjoy their visual and auditory features.
(Haapala 2005, 50.)

When we do so – Haapala continues – we act as the Heideggerian peasant who:

can from time to time sit down and set aside the needs and demands of the everyday, and enjoy the familiar scene—the fields, the sky, birdsong.
(Ibidem, 51.)

For Assunto, however, ‘setting aside the needs and demands of the everyday’ does not have to imply ‘sitting down’ since such a contemplative approach may perfectly well accompany daily practices. What is more, one aesthetically experiences not only ‘visual and auditory features’, but also relations, processes, etc., i.e. all the workings of nature. They are extraordinary not because they are unfamiliar or strange but because in all their ordinariness they may elicit wonder. Nothing is more reassuring than the belief that, next spring, nature will start its vital cycle once again as it has always done. And nothing is more banal than this. Yet, these natural rhythms are wonderful despite, or rather thanks to, their repeatability.8 Nowhere are they easier to experience than in gardens – every gardener knows it and so does every garden goer.

Arnold Berleant (1992, 98) compared urban planning to gardening, which he took to be a paradigm of cultivating ‘the functional and the aesthetic as inseparable’. Similarly, the experience of a garden may be treated as a paradigm of experiencing everyday nature in such a way that the functional and the aesthetic go together, reinforcing each other. While not disqualifying the use of nature, the everyday aesthetic experience of nature can inhibit the possible excesses of a practical approach to it and consequently guarantee the preservation of both the environment and the human wellbeing that it bolsters.


1 See e.g. Light 2005, Di Stefano 2017, Saito 2017.
2 On that topic see e.g. Nassauer 1997, D’Angelo 2010, Prigan and Strelow 2004, Hosey 2012.
3 See e.g. Carlson and Lintott 2008, Toadvine 2010.
4 On everyday nature as an artistic topic, see Spaid, 2002, 2012, 2017.
5 See e.g. Assunto 1988, Miller 1993, Ross 1998, Cooper 2006, Chomarat-Ruiz 2015, Salwa 2016.
6 There are exceptions, of course, e.g. Carlson 2000, 114–127; Parsons 2010, 165–175, Berleant 2012.
7 Again, there are exceptions, e.g. Laroze 1996, Hitchings 2003, Ross 2007.
8 Cf. Di Stefano 2017, 63–72.


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About this chapter

Salwa, Mateusz. “Everyday Green Aesthetics.” In Paths from the Philosophy of Art to Everyday Aesthetics, edited by Oiva Kuisma, Sanna Lehtinen and Harri Mäcklin, 167-179. Helsinki: The Finnish Society for Aesthetics, 2019.