Are gardens art?

Great landscapers of the past, building the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon, or the sublime Versailles, I am sure would have answered “Yes” without hesitation. A walk through Vaux-le-Vicomte, Powerscourt, Ryoanji, the Alhambra.. evokes the same response of awe and joy as any work of art, a feeling that something with passion and soul has been created.

The garden at Powerscourt

 

art1

noun
the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
Pleached trees
So it was interesting to see the RHS  set up “The Debate – Are gardens art?”  at Wisley in June with a panel of experts including Professor David Cooper, author of  “A Philosophy of Gardens ” which discusses the position of gardens – art or nature? As all gardeners know, Nature will have its way and no garden remains the same through time … so is it a living piece of art? Unlike a piece of sculpture or a poem, gardens do not remain static, but should this preclude them from art status?
French gardens Monets garden at Giverny

Then throw the rise of Conceptual gardens at Garden Shows into the mix – they certainly provoke a response … they may be art .. but are they gardens?

At the heart of this debate is Anne Wareham, creator of Vedww and  The Bad-Tempered Gardener, who has campaigned to see gardens restored to their place amongst the art and culture of a nation. She believes that if they are to be an art form, then they should be open to criticism too.

Chantilly

The debate will run and run – Comments I’ve seen on Twitter range from “My garden is to be enjoyed, not prepared as a piece of artwork..”  to ” gardens – expressions of art through beauty and nature”.

French gardens Vaux le Vicomte

I await the written report from the RHS debate “Are Gardens Art?” with interest, though apparently it concluded “emphatically that they are”. (Andrew Wilson).

French gardens Giverney

Meanwhile, enjoy your garden this weekend … whether it be Nature or Art which wrought it!

 

24 thoughts on “Are gardens art?

  1. Nice article, which I’ve reblogged. For me gardens can be appreciated in many ways, but they need to have the hand of a designer (by which I mean any conscious act of creating a space or placing a plant or man made object) to be considered as ‘art’. Some ‘unintended’ (or perhaps ‘untended’ gardens that are ‘left to themselves’) may be attractive but if they have no conscious design elements do not for me count as art – they are pure ‘acts of nature’. ‘Design’ in this context can be a process of evolution over time (involving lots of small scale decisions about plant placement etc.) just as much as a ‘complete’ design produced for a client or show. Just as there are different levels of knowledge and understanding of other art forms, so there are about gardens and their design and development. I guess that the major distinctive feature of gardens as art is that we as designers are working with a medium (nature) that has a ‘mind of it’s own’ – as well as working in four dimensions of course! Hope this is a helpful contribution to the debate 🙂

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    • Thanks Nigel for your insightful contribution, exactly what I was hoping for. I do agree with you that conscious design elements are what elevate a garden to art. Let the debate run …

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  2. Is it Art? Are Gardens Art? Gosh – how brave of the RHS to stir up this particular hornet’s nest. They’ve obviously got some switched on PR/social media types on the payroll knowing that pushing this button will certainly raise the RHS’s profile. I totally agree with Nigel’s comment above – it is about intervention and intent. But I would just add a couple of extra points – does the gardener/designer call themselves an artist? And, does the wider ‘art world’ (collectors, dealers, critics) consider any specific garden as art?

    Great post and artful photography! 😉

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    • In repy to Agnes, I don’t think it matters whether the designer calls themselves an artist or not, the garden they design can still be art. Your point about the ‘art establishment’ is interesting; I guess that garden critics are a specialised form of these experts and maybe we need to encourage greater cross fertilisation between the two? Perhaps we should get some art critics to do critiques of gardens and reframe or reinvent garden shows as art shows?!. The Open Gardens scheme run by the National Garden Scheme is similar to a scheme called ‘Open Studios’ that promotes visits to arts and craft studios around Norfolk (and probably elsewhere)- perhaps the NGS would benefit from some more searching interpretations/ descriptions of the gardens on show?

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      • Thanks again Nigel!
        Good points!
        What is it about gardens – and gardeners – that we steer away from criticism…
        I would wholeheartedly support more “searching interpretations” of gardens, perhaps not the back garden open occasionally for charity, but perhaps a full critique of Show Gardens .. why display a medal if the full criteria for awarding or denying it are not available (“it fulfilled the brief”!) and shown in the Show notes.

        Now what was the question … are gardens art?

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    • Many thanks Agnes … good to get an artist’s (and a gardener’s) perspective.
      Your comment about the switched on PR types at the RHS made me smile. I too was surprised to see mention of The Debate.
      Good point about the dealers/critics. In fact, Anne Wareham’s frustration, at her garden Veddw,has been the uncritical observations of visitors _ “Very nice.. now what’s that plant called?” and believes we, in Britain and Ireland,should be more rigorous/critical. The hue and cry at some Garden Shows when a popular garden isn’t awarded a Gold Medal is an indication of the bile that descends on anyone who might pop their heads above the parapet.(as Wareham did about East Ruston – a garden she loved but offered some critical observations).I wonder if anyone from the wider “art world” would be brave enough .. I believe even Brian Sewell declined.

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      • Gosh – I’m surprised Brian Sewell declined. I guess it was just too far from his natural territory. I think gardens, especially Show Gardens and professional gardens (opened to the public on an almost daily basis) should be subject to a professional critique. This ‘meeting its own brief’ business has always sounded a little suspect to me. For most professionals it’s about meeting the client’s brief, surely. Of course, an innovative interpretation of the brief can scare the horses, but that is perhaps where a garden design does become art.

        When I went to visit East Ruston, the big idea was the dry riverbed. I thought it was fascinating and visually stunning although quite harsh. I live in ‘dry’ Norfolk and garden on virtual gravel, but the dry riverbed looked more like it would belong to New Mexico than East Anglia. I suppose context and contrast would be two points to add to the ‘garden as art’ mix.

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      • Having lived in “dry” Norfolk, I enjoyed visits to East Ruston though felt unsure too about the trendy “New Mexico” riverbed, with its skeletal bridge. Visually stunning, as you say, but a jolt contextually. But I applauded them for doing something less predictable in a typical country garden setting. Not quite sure what Anne Wareham’s criticisms were … will have to look them up!

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  3. Art!
    The best gardens are a creation, expressing the soul and passion of the one who created it, taking different style and form.
    I think about each garden bed that I design with a painter’s eye. Just as the painter mixes the paints and isn’t always sure what it will look like on the canvas, so a gardener mixes the colours and textures of plants, without knowing exactly what they will look like as one.

    That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!!

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  4. The concept of Art versus Nature has been central to garden thinking since the Renaissance; and there has been much discussion about the difference. I personally think that some gardens are Art but some others not. Not every garden is art, nor do they all have to be, but many are with the intentions behind the design being to create something that is pleasing to the eye but maybe provoking in some way.

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    • I quite agree Christina, some gardens clearly are Art – they have a conscious intention to be so; Concept gardens too, challenging perceptions. But gardens don’t need to be Art …

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  5. Getting back to the definition of art… the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination… producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power….
    It seems that the key ingredients are “human skill and imagination” and that they can be “appreciated… for their beauty or emotional power.” In essence, to be made and to be appreciated. Those are generous requirements that allow nearly all gardens, even lightly-managed wild areas, to be included in the parameters of “art.”
    Perhaps we, who clearly see and value the beauty of gardens, need simply to be more secure in our creating and appreciating of them? We need the spunk of the painter who flatly states at a dinner party, “I am an artist” ?

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    • What a wonderful response and thanks for your contribution to the debate.I would always like to feel that gardens I create have a functionality but also something beyond beauty, perhaps “art”.

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