The Garden as Art

Levens Hall

Levens Hall. © David Wright. Photograph: Bradford University.

My efforts in the cottage garden yesterday could hardly be described as artistic endeavour, but the mundane task of chopping bits of weedy grass from the border edges was sufficiently menial to give me time to muse over the recent post by Chloris on Is the Garden an Art Form?
It is too easy to be predictable and trite with the “well that is a matter of opinion” riposte, or be pompous and classify gardening as artisanal craft. However, I think the question, hoary old chestnut that it is, is still worthy of consideration.
The problem of how to define art has been debated by philosophers, art critics and art historians for what seems to be millennia without anyone managing to agree on a working hypothesis never mind a definition. For example Morris Weitz (The Role of Theory in Aesthetics 1956 ) proposed that “it is a logical impossibility to establish a set of necessary and sufficient conditions that define art”. He argues that previous theories are unsustainable because they do not cover the range of things that we would like to classify as works of art and do not include the concept of art. So according to Weitz a work of art is the product of “unbound, adventurous creativity”. This probably brings us back to the elegant definition proposed by John Ruskin “Fine art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together.”
Any debate on the subject would not be complete without a waspish quote from Sir Roy Strong  “Of course gardens can be works of art. They may be vulnerable and they can be transient, but definitely art. Not all gardens – but then not all paintings are works of art”.
For many gardening is an immensely creativity activity, it can be experimental and intellectually adventurous, but this does not necessarily produce a work of art, despite the artistic impulse that may have inspired the gardener. The process may have intellectual, spiritual and artistic elements, but it is essentially about the doing. We may aim to produce something that is aesthetically pleasing, but I doubt if most gardeners have the intention of creating a work of art, nor is it their raison d’être.
If the cognoscenti chose to declare a garden a “Work of Art”, then of course it (and they) should be open to criticism. Indeed anyone who invites the general public into their garden, whether for profit, pleasure or altruism, should be prepared to have their work assessed. From there it is but a short step to include anyone who writes about or publishes photographs of their garden in this category. Not that I am advocating that we should necessarily move from our gentle and encouraging appreciation of the work of our fellows into strident and deconstructive analysis. Gardening is a very personal activity and each garden is as individual as its creator, so gardeners are naturally very chary about criticising the efforts of their fellows. However, criticism can be constructive and maybe we would all benefit from an honest assessment from time to time. After all criticism is usually just a matter of opinion and can be ignored with a suitable superior air of disdain should we choose to do so.
I would like to see a slightly more cutting edge to garden reviews, at times they border on the obsequious and verge on the sycophantic. Let us call a spade a spade and start to see gardens without the rose-coloured spectacles. When it comes to looking at gardens there are times when we need to use our minds as well as our senses. A great garden combines many elements, it may not be a “Work of Art” but it will contain design characteristics which are intellectually stimulating and visually satisfying. So for those correspondents who wish to express an opinion on the merit of a garden, in whatever media, let us see a little more intellectual rigor and the courage to divest of the emperor of his new clothes.

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6 thoughts on “The Garden as Art

  1. A brilliant analysis Christine! I know the question of what is art is age-old and requires a thesis not a blog. But I think Ruskin’s definition of art is a good starting point. Some people seem to miss the point that art is always man made so a beautiful view or flower is not art. As for the art versus craft question- weren’t the great artists of the Rennaissance looked upon as craftsmen?
    Back to art in the garden; good old Roy Strong, I like what he says .Spot on.
    As for the question of criticism; in theory I agree, most garden writing is sycophantic. Maybe it should be a bit more cutting edge. Having said that, I feel uncomfortable with it. I don’t open my garden to the public any more but I used to open for the NGS and I would have been upset to hear it criticized. I worked so hard to have it looking good. You might as well come and criticize my lovely children. When I visit a garden I can see that the owners have put their heart and soul into it and there is nearly always something to admire.
    Anyway thank you so much for taking up the subject and expanding it. You have written a really interesting and thought provoking post and brought up some important points.. Quite a few people have got involved with the discussion which is great. It proves that we gardeners are not just grubbers in the dirt; sometimes we sit back and think.

    • Thank you Chloris. It is refreshing to have a thought provoking and stimulating post to rattle the grey matter from time. The response to your post certainly had the right effect.

  2. Levens and others are lovely. As much thought goes into the balance and structure of a well designed garden as that of a painting, and of course it could be argued that it requires more thought as the designer is planting for the future. Great post!

    • I’m not a big fan of the “Works of Art” label, it is too subjective to apply. A great garden is a great garden according to personal taste and opinion only. My biggest gripe is the drivel that masquerades as a review in the gardening media.

  3. A very interesting post and topic. I wonder if part of the problem with ‘open’ criticism is that as fellow (amateur) garden makers/nurturers(+/- designers) we’re aware of how much effort may have gone into someone else’s little bit of paradise. And we’re all working with several pretty rigid and big constraining parameters like soil/ altitude/climate/size of plot /available time /financial constraints. We don’t have the classic blank canvas and box of paint colours potentially available to most painters. So we’re naturally more reticent about criticising a fellow gardener’s efforts – at least openly. The same reticence doesn’t hold, for me at least, with the professionals.
    As relative newcomers to the NGS I would concur with Chloris’ comments about criticism of our own garden. But on the occasions when it has happened, I nearly always fume silently and moan when the visitors have left, but once I’ve calmed down I usually discern a rational point has been made, and in many cases this has led to subsequent garden improvements – particularly relating to extra plantings at ‘end of season’ to fill gaps in flower availability. So all in all we feel public exposure is hugely beneficial for garden development – the most dispiriting visitors are those who arrive, walk round chatting to each other, and have seen it all in 15 minutes, which makes you wonder why you bother…
    Best wishes
    Julian

    • Hello Julian thank you for your balanced comments. I appreciate your point about the often unthinking comments people make when walking round “open gardens”, there is no need for snide or cutting remarks. I agree that at times criticism can be hard to take when a garden is the outcome of long hours of hard toil and effort. However, you are right that on reflection it can sometimes be constructive otherwise one must just ignore it as trivia.
      As I think is becoming clear my real issue is with the “professional” garden reviewers who seem unable to be be objective. I don’t want waspish comments, just a balanced opinion.

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