The argument about what is good art relies to a considerable degree upon the idea of meaning. Art critics, musicians, theatrical producers, scholars of literature and so on frequently dispute and disagree. What, the critic asks, is the intentional meaning of this work? How ought it to be interpreted? The answer lies in an attempt to construe the work of art in a way that makes it intelligible and as interesting as possible. We therefore have good reason to acknowledge a sound basis for the aesthetic judgement of works of art, and to deny the contention that it is all a matter of subjective preference. So we speak easily and confidently of beautiful faces and physiques, landscapes, sunsets and so on. How are we to accommodate the aesthetic appreciation of nature within the framework of art criticism based on evaluating an intentional meaning in the mind of its creator?

In some historical periods nature as an object of aesthetic judgement has occupied a central place, at others it has been almost wholly ignored. In the eighteenth century, for instance, nature was taken to be the pre-eminent object of aesthetic evaluation and what we call 'art' only secondarily so. It was British writers and philosophers –notably the Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson – who first took the appreciation of nature to be the purest form of aesthetic attention. Their central idea was that aesthetic delight arises from a certain sort of 'disinterestedness', that is to say, an attitude of mind which distances itself from the object with respect to personal, economic, moral and religious involvement and strives to look at nature in and for itself. In this respect writers came to develop a distinction between 'the beautiful' and 'the sublime'. To appreciate the sublime in nature is to apprehend its power and majesty while distancing ourselves from the sense of fear and foreboding in the experience of dramatic landscapes, snowstorms, thunder and lightning, violent winds, spectacular sunsets and so on. On the other hand, to appreciate 'the beautiful' in art involves studying the artist’s intentional production of the 'delightful' with words, paint or music. Nature has no such guiding intelligence behind it, and consequently in nature we can only apprehend the sublime.

However, to appreciate nature properly, it is arguable, we have to be engaged with it by seeing ourselves as part of it. It is a mistake to draw a distinction between the human mind and the natural world, such that the first merely contemplates the second, because human beings are themselves part of nature. Removing ourselves us from the natural world within the privacy of our own minds does not allow us reach across the boundary between the human and the natural. Yet it is precisely in crossing this artificial boundary that a proper appreciation of nature is to be obtained.

In order to bridge the gap between art and nature there arose an alternative conception that forged a connection with the idea of `the picturesque'. Defining beauties of the natural world as picturesque in order to them available for aesthetic appreciation, is to interpret them as pictures in the making. In other words, we can appreciate nature aesthetically in so far as we can view it as a series of pictures such as an artist might paint. Accordingly, landscapes are aesthetically appreciable in just the same way that pictures of landscapes are, in terms of harmony of colours, shapes and perspective. However, this eliminates the very thing that could be thought to constitute an appreciation of nature, namely its independence of human intervention and invention.

If a landscape is only aesthetically appreciable in so far as it has, like a painting, harmony, perspective and so on, these things are secured by painting them or, at a later date, capturing them photographically. The landscape painter and the photographer bring to the vista of nature a way of viewing it. In the end, what is appreciated is not the natural landscape itself but this painter's or photographer's way of looking at it. Indeed the unification of art and nature in the picturesque finds its ultimate expression in an art form that has not been mentioned hitherto, landscape gardening. It is no accident that the great period of landscape gardening was also the period in which the idea of the picturesque was most influential in aesthetics. But the objective of landscape gardening is to convert the natural. The landscape gardener uses nature and natural properties as an artistic medium. In this way, landscape gardening places intentional meaning centre stage once more. Even in a medium that uses the processes of nature itself, nature is not the ultimate object of aesthetic appreciation after all. We need to be able to explore and investigate its properties. This, after all, is just what we aim to do with works of art, and what gives substance to the idea of aesthetic judgement. This exploration of nature is covered by the term `environmentalism',which may be taken to mean an understanding of the world in terms of the concepts of interrelatedness and interdependence. Its basic thrust is that a proper understanding of the natural world, of which we are ourselves a part, must take account of ecology, the science that defines the interconnectedness of seemingly independent living and non-living features of the world.

In summary, an aesthetic understanding of art it is knowledge of the artist's intention, the history of painting, music, literature and so on, and the conventional problems and devices with which artists work. When aesthetic appreciation requires more than merely savouring the beauty of the landscape out of doors, it is depicted in a painting or captured in a photograph and thereby becomes the subject of a work of art. With respect to a view of say a shingle beach, the counterpart is our scientific understanding of the ecological interconnection between the tides and the plants and animals that have evolved to colonised a soil free mass of heaped and shifting pebbles. Similarly, we come to appreciate and understand landscapes, lakes, woods and the like by seeing their internal natural harmony, a harmony which close and careful scientific study will reveal. This harmony derives from features independent of human action and intervention. The aesthetic in nature is an independence from the creative purposes of human beings. However, it must be remembered that this only applies to landscapes and habitats encountered live. As soon as a picture is taken, even for scientific purposes, an element of nature has been selected in the viewfinder and the print in the scientific journal becomes art-work'

There can be a kind of beauty about scientific theories, especially those which bring a huge range of physical phenomena within a relatively simple law. Mathematical proofs can rightly be described as having beauty and elegance. Moreover, this beauty is part of their attraction; it is what compels our attention, and persuades us to continue to explore them even in the face of subsequent snags and difficulties. But their significance lies, not in their beauty, but their scientific and mathematical power. This power may prompt a sense of wonder at the astonishing sweep of understanding that they suddenly present. But the beauty and the wonder are essentially secondary. Truth rather than beauty is of primary importance.

An ecologically informed appreciation of nature uncovers the remarkable interconnectedness of things, the striking equilibrium in which the great diversity of nature, of land,climate, animal and plant life is held. When we stand in wonder, this is at most a by-product of the scientific understanding we have achieved. On this account, the aesthetics of nature is peripheral and does not enter directly into our understanding of, and judgements about, nature in the way that it plays a central role in our understanding of art.

Faced with the aesthetics of nature being peripheral to the scientific understanding underwriting it, some seek another alternative: they become nature mystics, to whom nature appears as the repository of transcendent values. However, this does not substantiate the idea of beauty in nature for much the same reason that the appeal to an ecological underpinning cannot do so. The aesthetic becomes secondary, in this case to the spiritual or religious, and it does so because nature is used as a means to spiritual enlightenment. In a very similar way music has often been thought to open up access to God, but the fact that it does this is not an adequate explanation of the value of music as music. Similarly, though we may take spiritual inspiration from natural landscapes and prospects, this cannot be an adequate explanation of their value as a kind of art.

Nature and the environment can provide the materials for the fashioning of art images, either indirectly through literature, painting and photography, or more directly through landscape gardening and the like. While all these are important additions to our artistic repertoire, each of them results in works of art precisely because it subjects the world of nature to human intention. What cannot be available to us is a source of imagery that , supplies. In this sense, nature itself, unsullied and unrefined may be beautiful, interesting and inspiring, but it cannot in and of itself, like poetry or music, supply something aesthetic to the mind.