In the Name of Art

June 9, 2007

in Articles, General Interest

Historically, gardens were used to discuss and evaluate society. Now most gardens are a hobbiest pursuit. Corinne Julius says they can be both. With responses from Chris Young and Stephen Anderton.

Corinne Julius: Viewpoint piece for The Garden, May 2007

What is a garden? And can a garden be ‘art’? These may seem foolish questions, irrelevant to the act of creating or enjoying a garden, but to me they are fundamental in restoring the garden to its rightful place within the arts. Considering gardens as ‘Art’ matters because it can offer new ways of thinking about them, help raise the nature and design of the gardens, and broaden the language used to describe or discuss them. What makes a work of art is a matter of intense debate among philosophers and art historians, but for me it has to do with intention. A ‘work of art’ has a conceptual side, an intellectual framework. The artist has a set of ideas that are exposed in what is created, and the creation asks questions of the person viewing or experiencing it. The created object can be challenging; it may be, but is not necessarily, beautiful. It is often a commentary on the society in which it is created. Is, should or can a garden be these things?

I believe that some can and should be.

Understanding the context

Historically some gardens (that today are highly valued) have been all these things; Viscount Cobham, for example, turned his gardens at Stowe, Buckinghamshire into a beautiful narrative of his political beliefs. The gardens were intended to – and did – make cultural statements that were comprehensible to visitors and cultural commentators. Today few gardens are created with what might be considered such grandiose intentions. Certainly cultural observers, should they choose, can evaluate today’s society through its gardens, even if the statements are sometimes unintentional reflections on the shallowness and transience of our instant contemporary culture. So why aren’t contemporary gardens seen as ‘Art?’ I think there are two groups who reject the notion. Many in the art world display appalling snobbery about gardens. Since the 20th century the creation of gardens has been a populist activity, recognised and promoted as such in the media. Despite movements in contemporary art that investigate the everyday, for some in the art sphere if the common man (or woman) can do it, be it painting or gardening, then it is certainly not ‘Art’.

The preoccupation of many gardeners with plants above all else alienates many artistic observers. It revives the rather outdated arts debate about ‘physical craft’ and ‘intellectual art’, reinforcing the view that gardening is about doing, not thinking. The prettification of gardens is deemed another minus from some commentators: they cannot be serious. This view is compounded by the commodification of the garden in makeover programmes, reinforced by the idea that gardens are just another way of increasing house values. Another damning point against the garden as ‘Art’, for many artists, is that gardens have a utilitarian purpose. The fact that gardens depend on environmental factors means that, for some, the end product is not autonomous: it is always changing and therefore cannot be ‘Art’.

Out of the pigeonhole

Gardens cannot be put in a museum; they cannot be stuck on a plinth in a white space. Contemporary gardens rarely have a philosophical or metaphysical framework in which they exist. If one is attached it does not set out to define the creation of the garden, but is often added later. Cultural institutions reject the garden because of snobbism, the debate over who has created the garden and because (usually) it cannot be sold, carried away and displayed elsewhere.

If this is, in caricature, the arts’ view of the garden, then gardeners can be equally sniffy. Some think that ‘Art’ is the antithesis of getting their hands dirty, so it has no relevance to the garden – part of that very British anti-intellectual streak of which so many Brits are so inordinately proud. ‘Gardens are about plants’ goes the mantra, so ‘Art’ is neither here nor there. Gardens are pretty places in which to escape the modern world; they may be spiritual but they are not challenging, and never should be.

I reject both the arts-world and the gardeners-world arguments. For me a garden should reflect its creator’s brain, his or her world-view. It should ask questions. It should seek to create new forms and welcome new ideas. A garden is a space to think anew, to challenge and hence refresh. By lifting gardens into ‘Art,’ better gardens may be designed. The garden as ‘Art’ may or may not look that different but could give gardeners and commentators a new language with which to discuss them. That debate might provoke a new kind of garden for the 21st century.

Corinne Julius

Responses from the thinkinGardens Committee

Chris Young:

‘I believe some gardens can and should be art and that it is up to the creator, and the viewer, if they want to appreciate the space within an artistic framework. Some people won’t want their gardens to be considered in an artistic context (which is fine), but to date it has often been their vocal opposition to such a belief (in tandem with a limited amount of gardens in the ‘artistic’ vein up for discussion) which has stifled gardens being considered as art. For many complex reasons, the past 100 years has seen the plants become the priority, rather the space within which they grow.

Corinne’s piece misses one fundamental element however – the language of art appreciation. Having written, and read, many garden reviews and descriptions over the years, there is no doubt that for serious debate and discussion to take place, an elevation of language – or at least descriptive language – has to occur. The sometimes banal, and often simplistic descriptions in the majority of the garden press, leads for gardens of considerable design and compositional differences to be described with the same words. Those of us interested in suggesting gardens can be art, need to take a collective responsibility to up the ante in both descriptions, language and honesty. Not only will this benefit those in the garden world, but it might just make our subject attractive to others in the art world.’

Stephen Anderton:

Corrine Julius, in her Viewpoint written for the RHS journal ‘The Garden’ (May 07), is quite right when she says that we need ‘a new language’ with which to discuss gardens.  This does not, of course, mean new words but a new attitude to gardens – what I call the ‘what if’ approach.  We need to see gardeners and commentators and most of all everyday garden visitors wanting to think about how a particular garden works overall, and how it works for them as individuals, and how the garden might be changed for the better.

It is this enjoyment of the potential for change that is so lacking at present, the enjoyment of finding oneself saying ‘that is wonderful, but what if you added XYZ too, wouldn’t it then be amazing’ or ‘God, I hate that, if only they would do XYZ with it or just rip out that bit altogether’.  It’s the freedom to enjoy this kind of critical thinking which so holds back the development of gardens in general, and too often it is because, as one living person’s enterprise, a garden is seen as too sensitive to be criticized.  Both gardener and garden-watcher need to relax and free up their ideas about what can be got from a garden.As Corinne Julius points out, this unwillingness to criticise is partly because many gardeners too easily take offence at the idea that there could be more to gardens (including their gardens, whether they know it or not) than garden ing.

It is such an unfortunate and unproductive form of righteousness, and it fails to notice that serious criticism is not an insult but one of the greatest forms of flattery. In no other art form do people find honest criticism and deconstruction so unacceptable; it is the strangest of ’if you are not with me you are against me’ attitudes; indeed it is a form of righteousness.

In a parallel vein it is interesting to note what Richard Dawkins says about the reaction of the Christian right to his campaign for the logic of atheism: “I believe that what appears as strong criticism of religion is not as strong as people think.  Criticism that in any other field – theatre, book or restaurants – would be comparatively mild.  It sounds outspoken and strident because we are not used to religion being criticized.”So too in gardens: people fail to see how it can be productive, educational, useful, fascinating and, yes, simply fun to look hard at gardens and evaluate them for themselves (for that is what criticism is, no more, no less).  Is it so intolerable for someone to come along to one’s garden and say ‘What if…?’

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