The promised review of the Royal Horticultural Event at Wisley. Thanks to Helen Gazeley for the review, Suzanne Moss for organising the event and Charles Hawes for the photographs.
And here is a recording of the entire proceedings. (warning- it’s over an hour long…)
Anne Wareham, editor
Are Gardens Art? This was the question posed to the panel and audience at the debate chaired by Andrew Wilson,
held at RHS Wisley on 28th June.
Noel Kingsbury kicked off by stating his position: that we’ve always seen individual plants as art objects; that breeding is an art form; that creating a garden requires, not only the technical knowledge of how to grow plants, but the artistic ability to combine them. Plants, he regards as his materials, much as a sculptor regards his stone and chisels. I think we can safely say that Noel considers gardens as art.
Anne pronounced herself bewildered by the question. Proceed by the current thinking—that if you say it’s art, it is—then obviously a garden is art. The involvement of all the senses and the play of light, and an offer of food for the mind are most definitely a recipe for art. But, more to the point, is garden-making worth serious consideration as a means of expression? If it is, it needs to takes its proper place within our culture and be properly analysed and critiqued as art.
Kathryn Aalto—garden designer, historian, writer and speaker—took a small step back. Gardens are often refuges with a purpose of protection and respite. Gardens as art must have the intention of being art.
David E Cooper, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Durham University weighed up the question in a way that promised dissent, possibly bloodshed, if opinions became too heated.
He examined the similarities between art appreciation and appreciation of a garden. Gardens have a practical function: they interact with the natural environment; activities take place in them—games are played, vegetables grown, relaxation enjoyed. These additional functions are not incidental to appreciating them. To concentrate purely on the aesthetics is not to admire a garden as a garden, and we should beware the danger of looking at the garden as art: the need to find meaning in a design, a reduction in the importance of beauty. “I suspect,” said David, “that the garden nowadays appeals to many people because it is unlike most modern art works in being a location of beauty.”
The fact that David’s introduction had to be halted while torrential rain hammered on the roof was politely ignored by all present, though clearly a Sign.
But I found David’s analysis deeply attractive. Compare gardens with some of the extremes of furniture design. A chair might be very easy on the eye—minimalist and sleek—yet very hard on the bottom and therefore useless for its purpose. A garden that merely looks good is a picture of a garden, not to be explored, rather as a Greek temple in a Brown landscape proves disappointing once you enter its rank and dripping interior.
What was soon agreed was that intention is important, a point stressed by both Anne and Catherine.
This struck a chord, too. Intentionality lies not just with the creator, though. Look at every every garden open to the public. The garden becomes art for those who are inclined. To those who wish to get some air, find space for their children to scream, or scoff some cake, it’s merely a pleasant venue.
It seems strange then, as Noel a trifle bitterly pointed out, that some gardens are automatically considered art, especially by the media: Derek Jarman’s seaside plot, Little Sparta, the Garden of Cosmic Speculation. Is it that they are created by artists and so are respected by the art elite in a way that gardens created by garden designers are not? Or are they, as David pointed out, less gardens as art, but more gardens as Art Gallery? (We’re back to a pleasant venue again.)
The problem, it seems to me, is that gardens involve gardening. They involve knowledge of some quite rebellious materials; they involve ongoing care, they involve seasonal adjustments. Noel argued that every act of garden maintenance is an aesthetic decision and, in time, you create a tapestry of decisions.
I personally think that this where gardens meet art, while not merely being art. It applies artistic principles in its use of colour, texture, shape, scent, perspective. Comparing it to a different art form, a garden is an unfinished novel. It might make it to final draft, but that’s still a step from published tome. The problem, from an art appreciation point of view, is that this is arguably where gardens are Not Art. They are never finished because they never (unless rather more Zen than garden) stay still. Nor can we ever get away from the fact that some people just want a cool, green place to drink coffee, the finer aesthetics be damned.
The debate ended on a vote: Are Gardens Art? David’s advice was not to answer (advice that this particular audience member followed) on the grounds that there are too many different sorts of garden to consider.
The fifty or so in the audience mostly ignored him, coming down strongly on the side of Gardens as Art, with only a couple of hands staunch in their defiance.
But I rather agreed with the voice in the row behind me. “Well,” she said, “some are, and some aren’t.”
Was she right?
Helen Gazeley website ‘Weeding the Web’