Andrew Wilson on “The love that dare not speak its name”

July 9, 2007

in Articles, General Interest

Comment on Anne Wareham’s article on beauty and gardens

Just some thoughts:

The main problem is one of subjectivity which relates in turn to our experiences of life – memory, location, travel, happiness etc.  An unhappy experience for example is unlikely to leave us feeling warm when something reminds us of that memory.  I also find it interesting that familiarity can either breed contempt or a great love affair.  I for example do not feel a warm glow when I think of my home town but others do.

In my design work I love the contrast between the organic (planting) and the built form (paving, construction etc).  The clean lines and obvious geometry of the latter are not to everyone’s taste and whilst I see beauty in this contrast, others want the simply pretty.  Who is right?  I am able to describe this beauty and analyse it, perhaps even pass it on to others through education but is it better, more beautiful because of that?

Light as you point out can reveal beauty in almost anything as it creates what might be loosely described as atmosphere – again the contrast between light and shade.  The presence of these characteristics is often what creates beauty rather than a distinctive measure or proportion.  I pointed out the other day to my students that the fact that a majority of people find the Golden Mean or Section a beautiful proportion does not mean that it is necessarily the correct proportion – the opinion of the minority is overwhelmed but not without value – what is their idea of beauty?

We live in a society in which the majority rules, constantly canvassed for opinion, chasing the most fashionable must have.  Some find the mini skirt a beautiful thing whilst others are appalled – when in fashion, is it any more beautiful because more people wear them?

I often talk to my students about the concept of quality – descriptors such as good, ugly, bad, beautiful, nice etc are often used but what do they actually mean?  Good is generally a positive message, bad negative, – nice perhaps is tolerable but in aiming for the best, the most beautiful, they are inadequate as they fail to describe any detail or show any depth of analysis or criticism.

Having said all of this – I did start a PhD looking at aesthetics and preference in the garden – there is a fair amount of research work in the landscape design field and I was aiming to find out if the same responses applied to the garden.  Sadly I didn’t get as far as the direct research which might have revealed the answers to your thoughts. Mystery, legibility, order etc it seems all play a part in our responses to a location but these responses are instantaneous, completely instinctive and therefore not immediately recognisable – first impressions and all that.

I don’t agree necessarily that conceptual art is confusing or not beautiful but what I do think is that we as a race are unwilling to spend time investigating, unraveling, thinking even about what stands in front of us or lies around us.  We race to the country because it is beautiful but can’t be bothered to fight developments which destroy or change it – people often appreciate the art and beauty of the landscape but do not see any art in garden design.

I used to take my students to Tate Modern and previously to The Tate when it was a single gallery – I asked them to look at, sketch from, analyse selected art contained within to provide them with a basis for future design ideas.  One student spent 4 hours in there before confessing that there was nothing that appealed to her in the gallery and she had sketched the cover of a radiator.  For her, the cover wasn’t beautiful but it was a safe repetitive pattern when the paintings represented a challenge outside her comfort zone.  To say that something is not beautiful therefore can tell you more about the experience, limitations, blinkered views and potential lack of education of the respondent.

Many people in my experience simply assume that there is a consensus view of the beautiful and the ugly, a black and white situation.  Often these views are expressed by the older generation as they would have been more likely to learn by rote.  Shades of grey however can also be beautiful and allow exploration and thought rather than open acceptance or imitation – some see this as woolly minded liberal speak but again it simply reveals the edge of a comfort zone.

Andrew Wilson – garden designer, writer and lecturer based in Surrey and Chief Assessor for Show Gardens for the RHS.

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