Nicholas Riggle, philosopher, on his cotton branches
GB Tell me why you chose your cotton branches.
NR A few years ago I was walking through my neighborhood in Brooklyn, and I passed a little grocery store that always has a small selection of flowers out front. Among the flowers were these cotton branches. I had never seen cotton branches there before, and I’ve never seem them there again. They struck me as wonderfully beautiful. I love the combination of the hard, dark, smooth branches with the cascades and clouds of fluffy, soft white matter. Their rarity initially drew my attention – it’s unusual to see cotton branches in the city. They seemed rare but so clearly beautiful – I felt like I’d made a discovery.
They’ve been in our apartment ever since. I like them in the clear vase (so you can see the stems). They also remind me of how much my life depends on the natural world. So much of our basic human comfort; warmth, protection, softness, comes from this stuff. I like having it around as a vivid reminder of my connection to nature. (Something it’s easy to forget, living in NYC.) Also, my wife Brett and I used cotton branches in our wedding, so they obliquely remind me of that special time.
They also never wilt or change their appearance. As long as I keep them away from my equally fluffy cat, I expect they’ll be with me for a very long time.
GB This is natural beauty so do you think your branches are universally beautiful?
NR I think it’s easy to understand what I initially found striking about the cotton branches, even if one disagrees. My sense of there being value in the way the branches look is intelligible, given they way they struck me. But I would be surprised if everyone agreed with me. I tend not to have the Kantian sense that everyone ought to agree with my judgments about beauty, though I do think the experience of beauty involves a sense of necessity. But I’d also be surprised (and concerned) if no one agreed with me.
Some cotton branches are ugly, by the way. They have too much cotton bunched up in ugly ways, or the cotton is really dirty, or the branches are gangly and the cotton sparse. But even the ugly cotton is fascinating because it’s such a strange and wonderful product of nature (even if that wasn’t a part of what initially struck me).
GB They’re arranged in a vase in your apartment – so is there an element of interior design? Is there any kind of cultural statement, in spite of them being from the natural world? A fashion for cotton branches?
NR There’s definitely an element of interior design. I think style is important. I want them to convey my sense of beauty. There’s also a sense in which I’m inviting others to join me in finding them beautiful. It’s a special thing when communities form around beauty.
GB Do you prefer them in their natural context or in this context?
NR I don’t think I’ve ever seen cotton in a wholly natural context. I imagine a field of wild cotton would be very beautiful.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
NR We use the word ‘beauty’ in so many different ways. Most worthy of the word, in my mind, are those things whose appearance warrants a certain distinctive emotion – one that gives us a sense of our own worth as somehow connected to the object of beauty. The challenge is to make sense of that.