Environmental Aesthetics

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The term environmental aesthetics can apply to a variety of quite disparate sorts of casesaesthetic appreciation of natural environments, of works of art situated in nature, of works of artfor example, landscape paintingsthat are of or about nature, of works of art that take nature as their medium, and of gardens, a special category that seems to straddle the divide between culture and nature. In each case the philosophical challenge is the same: to determine the proper object and mode of appreciation. While these issues have not been definitively decided in the case of art appreciation, it remains helpful to use that example as a counterpoint against which an account of environmental appreciation can be constructed.

Nature Appreciation

Nature scenes and natural items figure in our culture's most clichéd examples of aesthetic appreciation. Images of sunsets, rainbows, flowers, and baby animals are the stuff that enrich greeting card companies. But nature appreciation is also addressed by aestheticians and serious philosophers in the Western tradition. Immanuel Kant's examples of free beauty in Critique of Judgment (1790/1987) were natural itemsflowers, birds, seashells. Beautiful items, Kant believed, provided a source of disinterested pleasure, their form alone triggering a pleasurable free play of imagination and understanding.

Nature appreciation is, of course, not confined to the beautiful. Kant's contemporary, Edmund Burke, indicates this even via the title of his 1757 work A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1968). According to Burke, our attention is elicited not only by natural items that are small, lovely, and delicate, but also by those that are large, awesome, and terrifying. Surprisingly, such experiences are sought out. Kant concurs, offering the starry heavens, mountain peaks, and deep chasms as examples of the sublime. Certainly, nature is as much a repository of infinity and power as of delicacy and beauty.

Convinced that these two poles, the beautiful and the sublime, do not exhaust the grounds for aesthetic appreciation, eighteenth-century writers such as Sir Uvedale Price (17471829) and Richard Payne Knight (17501824) posited a third aesthetic category, the picturesque, situated midway between the beautiful and the sublime. Though the picturesque was initially defined as a species of beautythat sort that would look pleasing in a pictureit soon came to be identified by an independently specified set of characteristicsroughness, sudden variation, and irregularity.

Additional factors of various sorts shape our nature preferences. Some are beliefs of which we are aware. Consider Thomas Burnet's (16351715) theory of the broken world. Promulgated in 1681 the theory impugned mountains as blemishes visited on the previously perfect (smooth and spherical) earth in payment for humankind's Fall. In her classic study Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory (1959/1997), Marjorie Hope Nicholson documented the changes that allowed Romantic poets to embrace mountain scenery. Less accessible instincts and emotions may also affect our attitudes toward nature. In the 1970s Jay Appleton formulated prospect-refuge theory according to which we all have a hard-wired preference for the savanna-type landscapes that afforded our long-ago ancestors crucially valuable opportunities to see yet not be seen. And in addition to such shared influences, we have each accumulated a vast store of personal experiences and associations that contribute to our landscape preferences.

Contemporary Philosophical Debates

Ronald Hepburn (1972) is often credited with ushering in the current era of environmental aesthetics with his article "Contemporary Aesthetics and the Neglect of Natural Beauty" (1996/2004). Hepburn there pinpointed two crucial differences between the aesthetic appreciation of nature and the aesthetic appreciation of art: (1) The objects of nature appreciation are often unframed and unbounded, and (2) we are often immersed in those objects. Hepburn's rehabilitation of nature as an object of aesthetic appreciation has been welcome and effective. But it may be that in crafting his argument, he was focused on a particular subset of examples: macroscopic rather than microscopic objects of appreciation. We can savor entire panoramas: lofty mountain ranges, vast seascapes, all the sorts of scenes Donald Crawford (1938) calls postcardesque, but we can also zoom in on tiny focussed delights: an alpine flower; a polished pebble; a single, wondrous insect. These are neither unbounded nor capable of immersing us. In addressing such objects we seem to adjust our focus at will; this may well counter the standard practice of the art world where conventional modes of appreciation are in place for each type of work.

Present-day philosophers have taken up Hepburn's challenge and examined the scope or proper objects of appreciation, its theory-ladenness, and the supporting roles of association, imagination, and emotion. Arnold Berleant's (1932) 1991 theory of engagement proposes an approach to both nature and art in keeping with Hepburn's insights. Berleant emphasizes the participatory aspect of aesthetic experience, the reciprocity of perceiver and object in the aesthetic field. By contrast, Allen Carlson (2000, 2004) has built a distinctive theory of nature appreciation by rejecting at least part of the analogy between art appreciation and nature appreciation. Carlson argues that treating nature as a set of scenes or a collection of discrete but absorbing objects (e.g., the way we treat painting or sculpture) ignores just those hallmarks that were shown by Hepburn to set nature apart as unbounded and enveloping. Yet Carlson maintains that nature appreciation must be informed by some body of theory that plays the role that art theory and the history of art play in art appreciation. Carlson proposes that science fills this void in the case of nature appreciation. Thus geology, physics, astronomy, earth science, biology, and botany can all play a role in informing our appreciation of nature.

Just as it seemed that Hepburn's proposed hallmarks characterized some chunks of nature but not others (the macro rather than the micro), so, too, it seems that Carlson's theory works best for a certain subset of cases. Viewing the Rocky Mountains or the Grand Canyon, a Yellowstone geyser or a rampaging tornado, it seems that our appreciation can only be enhanced by knowing the forces that shape these expanses and events. Science here provides knowledge of origins. It is less clear that scientific knowledge is helpful in appreciating things that are small, or ordinary, or the sites of local, ongoing, yet invisible processes. Is my aesthetic appreciation of a forest path, of red maples in fall or of a spider's web glistening with dew enhanced by knowledge of the decomposition of leaf mold, of the loss of chlorophyll, or of the extrusion of spider silk?

Carlson's theory has generated a voluminous secondary literature. Among the challenges raised is the exact nature of the theories he urges appreciators to call uponscience only, or science mingled with common sense. Other critics challenge the exclusivity of Carlson's approach, suggesting that the appeal to scientific theory is one way to appreciate nature but that it can coexist with other ways. In this vein, Noel Carroll (1993) argues for the role of emotional responsiveness, insisting that it is often appropriate for people to be emotionally moved by natural scenes and events. Emily Brady (2003) argues for an expanded role for imaginative response and distinguishes four different kinds of imaginative activityexploratory, projective, ampliative, revelatorythat are summoned up by nature. The first is a playful examination of form and its attendant associations, the second a deliberate exercise of seeing as, the third an inventive contextualizing that takes us beyond the perceptual image, and the fourth an arrival at aesthetic truth. These, too, seem compatible with the appeal to sciencefor example, one might wander through a forest in spring, imagine it ablaze with fall reds and oranges, and acknowledge the mechanisms that would bring this about.

In her book Aesthetics of the Natural Environment (2003), Brady sorts various accounts of nature appreciation into cognitive and noncognitive camps. Since Brady basically elides the cognitive with the scientific, her taxonomy classes theories that appeal to association, imagination, emotion, or nonscientific information as noncognitivist. Thus she deems Hepburn, Berleant, and Carroll noncognitivists, along with Cheryl Foster (1998) who argues for an ineffable aspect of nature that she calls the ambient; Thomas Heyd (1956), who champions the ascription of various narratives to natural goings on (the narrative is also how Foster labels the approach opposed to the ambient); and Yuriko Saito, who believes that nature appreciation should include a moral dimensionwhat she calls appreciating nature on its own terms.

The foregoing discussion has not touched on one profound, underlying problem, namely, the identification or definition of nature itself. There is good reason to think that there is no unsullied nature to be found on our planet. All nature has been intermixed with or affected by culture. Malcolm Budd (1941) believes we are always able to abstract from such mixed cases and appreciate nature as nature even when, say, viewing an animal in a zoo (2002). The degree of mental/imaginative activity required here to arrive at an all-natural, intentional object of appreciation could be considerable. The water flowing from my kitchen faucet is natural only if I abstract away the changes wrung in the city treatment plant, or better yet, imaginatively travel back to the rainfall that was its source.

Art in Nature/Art from Nature

This last topic of mixture lays the groundwork for considering cases where art and nature blend. The most innocuous in the continuum of such cases would be sculpture gardens and sculpture parks where works of art are simply arrayed in a natural setting. The effect would be very much that of an outdoor museum. Works of art in a sculpture garden can each be appreciated on their own. Additional insights arise from their juxtaposition.

While designers of a sculpture garden would of course take care to place each work in a setting conducive to its appreciation, there is no reason to think the arrangement could not be juggled just as curators can shuffle the order in which objects are arrayed in a museum. There is, however, one important feature that comes with outdoor exhibition. The works of art are viewed against an ever-changing background. Light and temperature are no longer controlled, as in a gallery, and the viewing experience is constantly affected by ongoing natural cycles: night and day, changing seasons, passing storms.

Additional complexities arise if the works of art exhibited outdoors connect with their setting in some way or other. One site might especially suit a given work on formal grounds. Alternatively, a work might comment on or interact with its setting. More explicit still are works that are about their settings. In such cases we enter the realm of site specificity, a trait made infamous by the controversy surrounding the removal of Richard Serra's (1930) sculpture Tilted Arc from the site for which it was designed. Proper appreciation of site-specific works involves noting not only their formal, representational, and expressive properties but also their contextual properties. Thus the significance of Eero Saarinen's (19101961) Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, would be greatly compromised if it were not situated on the west bank of the Mississippi River marking the beginning of the western frontier brought about by the Louisiana Purchase. Nor would the work have the same significance if its legs were realigned to make the arch a portal for northsouth rather than eastwest travel. The environmental artist Robert Irwin (1928) has codified four varieties of site specificity in his essay "Being and Circumstance." Irwin classifies works of art as site-dominant, site-adjusted, site-specific, and site-conditioned/determined. These four categories sort works whose meaning and purpose can be understood without reference to their site, works that make some concessions (such as placement and scale) to their site, works conceived with a specific site in mind, and finally, works that draw all their cues or reasons for being from their site.

A limiting case of the phenomenon of site specificity would be works of art that take (aspects of) their site as their medium. This would be true of some of the earthworks of the 1960s and 1970s. Michael Heizer's (1944) Double Negative, Robert Smithson's (19381973) Spiral Jetty, and James Turrell's (1943) Roden Crater are works that result from forceful gestures in the landscape; other environmental artists such as Andy Goldsworthy (1956) and Michael Singer (1950) make their art of more ephemeral stuff, taking walks and documenting them, making slight, nuanced adjustments to nature and then letting them dissipate. Both Crawford and Carlson have questioned whether the more bold types of environmental installations stand in an adversarial relation to nature as a result of creating aesthetic affronts.


When we turn to gardens, many of the topics already covered are still relevant. Gardens are in nature and their materials are often in large part natural. Japanese Zen gardens consisting of stones and raked sand are the most familiar counterexample to this expectation. And even more traditional gardens mix natural materials with a host of other components and features: paths, walls, benches, follies, fountains. Moreover, gardens bring to the forefront questions about degrees of naturalness. This has varied over garden history, with gardens that seemed utterly wild and untamed in one epoch coming later to be viewed as staid and artificial. Paradoxically, many gardens that are deemed natural in style achieve that effect through an intensive application of labor and care.

Unlike the sculpture parks and environmental works just discussed, the garden is a bona fide art form with its own history. Accordingly, Richard Wollheim's (19232003) notions of general and individual style take hold in gardening. Many garden styles are labeled in a way that includes a national designationthe French formal garden, the English landscape garden, the Italian villa garden, the Chinese scholar garden. This nomenclature flags the importance not only of cultural influences but also of topographical and climatological ones. (However, gardeners have always tried to trump nature with such aids as orangeries and greenhouses, trade in rare and exotic plants, breeding of entirely new species, and the bedding systemwhich allows several different gardens to succeed one another as the seasons unfold.) In addition to sustaining the notion of different general garden styles, the art of gardening also has practitioners whose individual style is recognizable. Thus we honor Andre Le Notre (16131700), Lancelot 'Capability' Brown (17161783), Gertrude Jekyll (18431932), Roberto Burle Marxe (19091994), and many, many more.

Garden appreciation must respond to this complexity. The sort of scientific knowledge that Carlson claims enhances our appreciation of natural scenes is also relevant to the gardenespecially with regard to the plant species in place and the degree of skill or manipulation required to bring about various effects. Moreover, since all gardens are created rather than naturally occurring, their designers' intentions are always there to be retrieved. These intentions can range from trying to create a sensory delight to vastly ambitious promulgation of meanings. Not many gardens are what Mara Miller (1944) calls grand gardensthat is, those that can claim to be great works of art. But exemplars have been produced in many different cultures. Gardens can convey complex meanings to those who view or walk through them. Through a judicious arrangement of plants, hardscape, topography, water features, statuary, buildings, inscriptions, and more, they can present disquisitions on matters of enduring interest and concern: politics, religion, love, war, the meaning of life, our place in the cosmos. Such gardens can sustain interpretive debates, with appreciators weighing in to defend alternative incompatible accounts of their meaning.

The sorts of garden content just discussed are pursued in much the same way that audiences track the meaning of works of art. Yet important aspects of nature appreciation also apply to gardensespecially the notions of unboundedness and surroundedness called to our attention by Hepburn. Though gardens are literally bounded, Miller (1993) has pointed out an important sense in which they cannot be controlled: since gardens are comprised of living things and are subject to natural forces, they are arenas of constant change. Plants grow; daily and seasonal cycles unfold; calamities occur. A garden designer's intentions are much less efficacious than those of other artists. The end result, as Miller puts it, is that gardens have no final form. There is no practical way to freeze a garden at a point in time and declare that to be the proper object of appreciation. In this regard, gardens truly do occupy a middle ground between nature and culture; wildness and art.

See also Burke, Edmund; Kant, Immanuel; Wollheim, Richard.


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Berleant, Arnold. Art and Engagement. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.

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Ross, Stephanie. What Gardens Mean. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

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Stephanie Ross (2005)