In the spring I visited a garden. It doesn’t matter which or where. It was perfectly adequate as a garden apart from having no seats. But it left me cold. And I realised that that is the thing which probably always comes first – the emotional response. Judgement follows. As Paul Morgan now explains.
Anne Wareham, editor
“Just in case you missed it, I’ll say it again. Gardens are not art.”
Well, well, well. In the Australian vernacular, that’s what we call a Big Statement.
When he looks at ordinary people’s gardens, what Robin sees is “far from something that can be considered art”. Sorry to say, but that sounds just a tad elitist to me, like saying that unless you participate in the Premier League or the Olympics you’re not playing sport. Just because it is not aesthetically pleasing to Robin, doesn’t mean it isn’t art. To my mind, one of the great things about gardening is that it is one of the most egalitarian and accessible forms of creative expression on offer to humans. Barriers to the accessibility of artistic practice are largely internalized. They are attitudes. People will tell you, ‘I can’t sing’, or ‘I can’t draw,’ and so forth. But very few will tell you ‘I can’t plant a plant.’ People feel comfortable having a go at gardening with a minimum amount of technical knowledge or skill.
However, the accessibility of gardening as a form of creative expression does not address the aesthetic question at the heart of this long running debate as to whether gardens are art or not, nor Robin’s central argument that gardens are better thought of as stories rather than art. Unfortunately, aesthetics is a branch of philosophy, a field which I find is far too abstract and removed from hands-in-the-dirt material world of gardening for my liking. So I am not going to reiterate the philosophical challenges to this idea that gardens are stories. For those interested in the abstract nuances of philosophical argument, I recommend the gardening philosopher, Mara Miller’s excellent book, The Garden as an Art, in which, this idea that gardens have a narrative structure, that they are stories, is well and truly debunked.
This is not to suggest that gardens do not have a story or stories associated with them. They always do. But that is a very different thing from being a story or even telling a story. Story is what good garden writing is all about. For example, I was familiar with the Japanese pruning style, Niwaki, before reading Robin’s article, but unaware of the social history of Japanese gardening in northwest America. I found that part of Robin’s essay regarding this history enlightening.
However, these narratives are not gardens. They are interpretations. As Robin notes, “sometimes you need an interpreter to help you understand”. These narratives are also translations of the multisensory experience of the garden itself into the linguistic structure of language. As Mara Miller points out, with all due respect to Wittgenstein, gardens, unlike so much of human experience, are not linguistically encoded. Stories associated with gardens help us to make sense of our direct experience of the garden, of being in the garden. However, it is important to recognise that the meaning-making of narrative is fundamentally different in nature from the experience of being in the garden itself.
I have found it more helpful to look beyond philosophy to science, specifically neuroscience, for resolution of this argument. Meaning is constructed in the neocortical regions of the brain, in evolutionary terms the more recent parts of the brain, unique to humans. This cognitive processing of experience in the neocortex is very different in nature from the processing of experience occurring in the body and lower more primitive areas of the brain the brainstem and limbic region. Please allow me to explain without getting too technical.
The eminent neurobiologist Antonio Damasio has demonstrated that emotions are changes in an animal’s physiological state that occur in response to changes in the environment. Stimuli arising in the sensory organs (skin, eyes, ears, and so on) alert the organism to change. Changes that affect the organism’s well being are identified, triggering emotional states, whole-of-body responses. These holistic states integrate all domains of physical and mental activity occurring in response to change. They are evaluations, as to whether a change is good or bad for the organism’s homeostatic state. They also identify the level of importance of that change. If a threat is sensed, it triggers a flight/fight response throughout the body in preparation for protective action. If support of homeostatic equilibrium is sensed, the body is mobilised to take advantage.
This whole-body evaluative reaction is coordinated in the limbic system and brainstem, the most primitive brain area, responsible for regulating basic life functions such as respiration, heartbeat and temperature. These emotional states are very different in nature from cognitive processes occurring in the prefrontal cortex where linguistic meaning and narrative are constructed. Unlike the more primitive parts of the brain, the cortex functions like a computer processing discrete bits of information (cognitions) sequentially, largely independent of the body. Emotions are holistic states incorporating physiological and mental processes that cannot be meaningfully reduced to their constituent parts.
In humans, emotions occur below the level of consciousness. Damasio makes the important distinction between emotional states and feelings, which are perceptions, cognitive representations of these whole body emotional states, and of which we are aware. Only when emotions emerge into conscious awareness as feelings do they become available to the cortical areas of the brain for cognitive processing into language.
Relatively speaking, these body state responses take place far more rapidly than cognitive processing occurring in the cortical brain regions. Also, cortical processes have much less influence over emotional states than vice-versa. Charles Darwin studied this phenomenon by heading to the puff adder enclosure at London Zoo. Despite extensive cognitive preparation assuring himself that he was well protected by a glass screen, Darwin was surprised to find he had jumped back several feet as the adder smashed into the glass attempting to strike him. These physiological responses are far quicker and more powerful than our rational cognitive processes.
This diversion into neurobiology is a prelude to pointing out that our aesthetic responses to gardens are fundamentally emotional, whole of body responses to sensory stimulation, not cognitive responses to stories. The cognitive process of meaning-making is an add-on that happens after the aesthetic response, and is secondary to it. If I feel moved by a garden, its associated story doesn’t matter a great deal. I have been moved. This is not to say that meaning making does not influence aesthetic response. It is a two-way flow. Indeed, meaning making is part of how an audience participates in the experience of any art. We each bring our own unique history to the meaning making of the art experience. Damn, I did want to avoid getting bogged down in these wretched philosophical arguments.
The bottom line is that you do not need to know the details of Vita Sackville West’s life to appreciate Sissinghurst. You are probably better off not knowing that Capability Brown’s landscapes were created off the back of profits gouged from the slave trade and the dark Satanic mills of the Industrial Revolution. One does not need to be familiar with the Buddhist symbolism of certain rocks to appreciate the beauty of Japanese gardens. And while I am there, what the hell is Ryoan-ji’s story anyway?
Robin argues that gardens are not art because they are stories. I have tried to show that gardens are not stories. As to whether gardens are art, well that is a different matter, much harder to argue. As many have noted previously, this really depends on your definition of art, which sucks us back into those turgid philosophical debates. Rather than waft away into those abstract philosophical realms to answer this question, I prefer to retreat to the hollow ground of unverifiable opinion drawn from personal experience. I do think of gardens as art; that I am expressing a creative impulse in the act of gardening. I also think of gardening as a collaborative art form, where I am collaborating with a creative impulse inherent in Nature. But that’s another story.