Reflections on Garden Discourse

August 12, 2007

in Articles, General Interest

by Darryl Moore

Reflections - Anne WarehamASSUMPTIONS

The discussion seems to have got off to a great start, with a general agreement that gardens are, or should be, considered as art, and that the relationship between them is a field of investigation worth pursuing. However there appears to be many uncritical assumptions implied in this, which tend to obscure, rather than clarify matters. There seems to be a consensus understanding of what gardens and art actually are, both as ideas and as material practices, without providing any definition of them. Also there seems to be implicit in the idea of gardens as art, that this is an unconditionally good thing. Obviously these are all matters to be debated in due course, but it is surely most important at this stage to clearly frame these debates. It is not a new language that is required initially, but rather it is important to understand the existing languages, which articulate ideas of art and gardens, and the contexts in which they operate.

Quite clearly gardens mean many things to many people. This is a matter needing a great deal more enquiry, in the interests of creating any definitions of gardens. But by posing the relationship of art to gardens, it is quite obvious that very particular environmental arrangements are being addressed. It would seem that any gardens under consideration would actually be of a specific kind, and not the common (or ‘garden’) variety. So clear criteria needs to be laid out to define such parameters, which indeed, is obviously part of the point of these initial discussions. But it is also important that the idea of art should be questioned, as it is neither a simple nor a universally understood concept or practice.

Reflections - Anne WarehamCONTEXT

Too often the idea of art, when used in association with gardens, is an out of date concept with its roots in the Romantic period, and finely honed by the Arts & Crafts movement. This mode of thinking supports the general assumption that art is a worthy value-added activity through its embodiment of eternal and transcendental values. It relates to the age-old philosophical trinity of The Good, The True and The Beautiful, with their associations of higher moral realms, and their status of worth and desirability. This ignores the fact that today art is a contextual, socially determined practice, which is both pragmatic and critical.

Much thinking about the subject also aligns ideas of gardens and art with a historically constructed notion of nature, which is opposed to society and culture. Because of the very material utilised in gardens this often becomes a very confused issue when debated. But nature and society do not designate domains of reality, but instead refer to quite specific forms of public organization. Through the research in both the practical and social sciences we have now arrived at a new commonplace understanding of the symbiotic complexity of the nature/culture relationship. Rather than any quasi-religious notions of the beauty and sublimity of nature, the classification of human activity as part of the natural world needs to be understood as an important framework for any contemporary discussion of gardens.

Reflections - Anne WarehamTHE DISCOURSE OF ART

Art as a discursive practice, does not simply deal with the acts and intentions of its creators, but also involves sets of social connections premised around the spheres of production, presentation and reception. This is done through designated and acknowledged spaces, economies, languages, formats and mediums.

As a discursive practice it is highly structured with both written and unwritten exclusive rules of conduct. Whilst it can be engaged with on different levels, it is neither universal nor democratic. It may appear to offer to everyone the pure possibility of taking advantage of the works on display, but in practice only some have the real possibility of doing so. The attainment of a language of appreciation is premised upon a social structure, which restricts entry through levels of education. An individual’s degree of artistic competence depends both on the degree to which the available appreciation system has been mastered, and also on the degree of complexity or refinement of this system.

This form of competence ascribes notions of status, and affords cultural and social capital, to its practitioners. Such prestige reveals a socio-economic standing, which relates to modes of conspicuous leisure, conspicuous consumption, and conspicuous waste. Despite any theory of origins, which may try to relate art to the realms of communication and species survival, the contemporary practice of art is an historical construction, which is absolved of any such functions, and in fact derives part of its appeal from its very distance from such notions.

Contemporary art practice has at its core a conceptual self-awareness, and uses strategies of self-referencing to question its operation as a system of representation. It critically reflects upon the relationships between the spheres within which it exists. It does this through a continued process of embodying works with the ability to ask questions of its audience and through the context of its presentation.


The implications in attempting to consider gardens as art, when art is considered as this form of specific discursive practice, rather than as a form of transcendental Romanticism, obviously raise a number of questions that need serious consideration.

Will gardens somehow be more valuable or worthier of merit by considering them as art? To whom, and in what way, would this be beneficial? Who will determine and judge the standards? From what perspective will this be done, and on what motivation will it be based?  Who will be the guardians of gardens as art?

Also importantly, who is the audience to be addressed? What requirements are asked of them, what presumptions and existing knowledge will be necessary to appreciate gardens in such a manner? As is quite apparent, there are a great number of the public who have not the slightest interest in either gardens or art. The fact that there may be some relationship between them may well have absolutely no relevance for their lives, as far as they are concerned. Do gardens as art, have anything to say to this constituency? Will it have any effect in altering their perceptions on the environment around them, or their interactions with other people? If it is rather a domain to be addressed to a specific selected interest group, then that is fine, but it would need to be recognised as such, and not fall into the trap of righteously proclaiming some form of universal relevance.

The relationship with the existing practice of the art world is problematic and simply aspiring to associate with it is not particularly helpful. It is all very well for a respected figure of authority such as Nicolas Serrota to claim that gardens are art, but any kind of art that gardens may well be, has nothing to do with the kind of art that the Tate deals with. The Tate do not display, own, or organise gardens, as any form of art, quite simply because gardens are not part of the particular discourse of art that they partake in. They do not fit into the cultural production and display format that that their discourse of art utilises, and they do not fit into the economics of funding which supports it. The Tate utilises ideas of gardens for thematic exhibitions, as this quite appropriately fits their remit in dealing with works of representation. But as gardens are already tied up with other discursive factors such as lifestyle economies and consumerism, they have no immediate affinity with the museum system. Unless this is acknowledged then no further serious consideration of the relationship between art and gardens can develop.

Another factor to consider is that the art world rotates principally around two poles of patronage, one of private collection and one of public funding. So if gardens are to be an art form then how do they relate to the commodity based, asset accruing mentality, of private collection? Obviously due to gardens fixate nature this is problematic. Alternatively how are they related to public funded concerns with education, entertainment, diversity and inclusivity, whereby if these criteria are not met, funding is not forthcoming? This process operates upon a dynamic which considers only certain works, which fulfil the appropriate politically expedient criteria, are selected for presentation, and are then acknowledged as worthwhile examples of art. This process has a cyclical nature, as these ideas feed back into people’s expectations of what is art is, and what it should be, and therefore help to determine what projects will be funded in future.

It is hard to imagine many garden makers being prepared to sacrifice their individual idiosyncrasies in such a manner. Gardens are tightly intertwined with ideas of national and personal identity, concepts of freedom and the liberty of self-expression. One of the key elements which particularly defines the practice of garden making is surely a notion of individualism, and it needs to be considered what affect this would have in any response to the current arts funding climate.


Because gardens at certain points in history have been considered by certain privileged sectors of society to be works of art, does not provide a basis for making assumptions that they therefore have a right to be considered in a similar manner today, or indeed that they can be.

The English landscape gardens of the 18th century status as works of art, relates to the various social assumptions surrounding landscape and property within the period. The idea was articulated by, and in the interests of, a particular educated and moneyed elite. Whilst ownership of such gardens was a display of wealth and power, the aesthetics, which they were premised upon, related to contemporary ideas from landscape painting, poetry and literature. They espoused a neo-classical sensibility, which reinforced an anthropocentric idea of nature, and society’s relationship towards transforming and possessing it. It is quite clear that the social conditions, which facilitated the production of these gardens, are completely different to the ones that exist today To make assumptions that there is something transcendental in the relationship between gardens and art which can be invoked at any period, is once again another trace of Romantic thought.

Reflections - Anne WarehamFUTURE POSSIBILITIES

Is the impetus in trying to establish gardens as art, simply to enable a form of garden criticism, as seems to often get mentioned? If so, this would appear to be a rather strange form of reverse engineering. Rather than trying to establish a new critical language to utilise in discussing gardens, perhaps it would be more beneficial to examine concepts and terminology from parallel disciplines and their relevance and relationships to gardens. Existing practical and theoretical discourses surrounding gardens, such as garden design, history, theory and horticulture, provide a framework for making associations with a diverse range of other disciplines, such as biology, technology, sociology, geography etc. This should be an open process, which crosses the traditional Enlightenment derived separation of the humanities and the sciences. It should be a relational and contextual process, to enrich our understanding of gardens and explicate the complexity of their relationships to the rest of the environment, our interactions with it, and our interactions with each other. Consequently it is most important to engage in a collective critical approach. Rather than simply thinking gardens, what is needed is ‘joined-up thinking’ gardens.

Obviously making links with art is one aspect of this, but it has to be done with the understanding of how contemporary artistic practice operates, both conceptually and instrumentally. By looking at contemporary aesthetic theories, such as Relational Aesthetics, gardens could begin to be approached as networks of associations, and thereby the aesthetics of social interventions and engagements within them investigated. This could be developed to consider where the appropriate contexts are to present such ideas, and in what manner they could be expressed. Many possibilities already exist within the context of private and public spaces, show gardens, installations etc. They are all available means with which such matters could be addressed if given appropriate consideration.

As we move from the 20th century of physics to the 21st century of biology, perhaps it may even be more relevant to consider, a science of gardens rather than, or as well as, an art of gardens? Chomsky suggested that our ignorance could be divided into problems and mysteries. When we face a problem, we may not know its solution, but we have insight, increasing knowledge, and an inkling of what we are looking for. When we face a mystery, however, we can only stare in wonder and bewilderment, not knowing what an explanation would even look like.

As we come to understand more about the world around us through rendering it more apparent and explicit, then surely it is time to investigate gardens in a similar manner, and upgrade them from mysteries to problems.

Darryl Moore

Daryl Moore Design blog

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