Last summer I went to a talk by the writer Rory Stuart about his book: What Are Gardens For? He brought up the question: ‘Is the garden an art form? He suggested that if our gardens are to be considered as art then they should be open to criticism like any other art form. He said that there is a lack of any real critical assessment of gardens amongst garden writers and garden visitors. Anne Wareham in her book: ‘The Bad-Tempered Gardener’ also thinks that to be considered as works of art gardens should be open to honest criticism. She thinks we are all too nice about each other’s gardens.
These two points caused a great deal of animated discussion in my group of gardening friends. We are still not all in agreement about the first point. i.e. whether the garden is an art form.
In his treatise ‘Aesthetics’ Hegel put art into five categories: Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, Music and Poetry. He said that gardening and dancing were imperfect arts and he didn’t seem to think them worth discussing. Well I don’t know what dance enthusiasts make of that but I certainly take issue with it. How could he so cavalierly reject The Alhambra, The Gardens of the Moghul, Versailles and Japanese gardens as imperfect art? And nowadays, of course we have examples such as Sissinghurst, Giverney and Ninfa to name but a few.
And what about your garden? And mine? Most of us are obsessive gardeners but are we artists? I feel that your garden is a picture created by you and even if it doesn’t appeal visually to me it is still a form of art because you selected those colours and shapes and placed them in a form that you thought pleasing. Just because you are working with living material rather than paint or marble doesn’t mean that it isn’t art. You have created it. A flower by itself, however lovely cannot be called art because it is a natural thing. But once you have placed it in your garden with other plants and composed a picture which you find aesthetically pleasing then of course that is art. It is multi-dimensional, not just spatially but it also has the added dimensions of scent, time, weather and the seasons. I have read that some people maintain that because gardens are inherently unstable and are subject to change and deterioration then they cannot be called art. The idea that art, once made must remain static and unchanging is, I think a poor argument.
Not all gardens are art though. They don’t all aspire to be. Many gardeners are more interested in amassing a collection of plants like a stamp collection and make no attempt to arrange them artistically. Some people (usually men) arrange all their plants in neat rows and dedicate hours to lawn care. I don’t think you could call their gardens art. But most gardeners try to create beautiful pictures with their plants. Of course, we can’t all produce masterpieces, anymore than any other kind of artist can.
If we allow some gardens to be art we have to let in the conceptual gardens which have crept into Chelsea and Hampton Court. These are the ones which are supposed to mean something and make us think. They often have few plants and lots of hard surfaces. I suppose we have to be tolerant of these installations even if we don’t like them, if we want gardens to be accepted as an art form. But I do resent the suggestion once made by Cleve West that conceptual gardens are more like real art because they don’t rely so much on living material and so can focus on a feeling or a theme. Now that begs the question of what art is and what its function is and we are getting into deep water. We can’t get into the semantics here as to whether a line of bricks or an unmade bed are art. But perhaps we can accept the definition that art is the expression of human creative skill and imagination. And a gardener who works hard to create a beautiful picture using colour, shape, texture and form is surely conforming to this definition.
Now on to the second point; if a gardener displays his garden as an art form should it be open to criticism like any other form of art? In theory I suppose it should. But gardeners are kindly people and we can generally find something to admire in a fellow gardener’s garden, even if it is not to our taste. Most of us would be reluctant to criticize someone else’s beloved garden because to do so would be hurtful and unkind. And who are we to criticize someone else’s work because it doesn’t fit in with our idea of aesthetic perfection?
I would be very glad to hear other bloggers’ opinions. There are artists and extremely talented photographers whose blogs I read and who read mine. Come on now tell me what you think. Is the garden an art form?