Garden Design as Art?

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Can garden design be considered an art-form? Half asleep the other morning, I caught a fascinating debate on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on a call for garden design to be upgraded from the lifestyle pages to the culture section. Christopher Woodward, director of the Garden Museum in London (but interestingly from a wider arts/architecture background) had raised the issue, and faced art critic Louisa Buck, a jurist on the 2005 Turner prize. Woodward argued that garden design has everything and more art can offer in terms of conveying wider truths about this world; Buck took the view that whilst artists making gardens was art, garden designers making gardens was garden design. It was all a matter of intention and context.

The concept of art as something which an artist says is art now has almost a century’s worth of coverage, ever since Marcel Duchamp’s Fountaina found ready made urinal, was declared art and submitted to a New York art show.

But I thought Woodward made rather a strong case for some garden design to have wider coverage in the arts sections. It seemed to me quite conceivable that a visionary garden designer could create a garden with intent to express an enduring truth, and that the resulting garden could be an artwork. He may well see himself as an artist in this endeavour. But because he doesn’t call himself an artist, and presents his artwork in the Chelsea Flower show, it’s not seen by the critics as art.

Sometimes I think we are in danger far too much of allowing labels to get in the way. Even if not all gardens in the Chelsea Flower show are art, why shouldn’t we find an artwork or two amongst the exhibits? And even if a designer doesn’t call himself an artist, why shouldn’t his expression of higher truths through plants not be regarded as art? It’s too easy to point to Land Art as the artistic version of gardening and dismiss gardens created outside that particular genre.

But Radio 4 had more to contribute to my thinking that day. A couple of hours later in Woman’s Hour, I listened with delight to a discussion about the Japanese garden at Tatton Park in Cheshire which celebrates its centenary this year. This particular garden is arguably one of the finest examples of a Japanese garden in Europe, and I can remember the vivid impression it made on me when I visited it a number of times as a child. I have been intrigued by Japanese gardens ever since, and when I have visited Japan, visiting gardens has been a high priority. The images above are created from photos I took on a visit in 2006. The spirit in which such gardens are made, the contemplative and aesthetic experience they create and their wider references to Life make them integral to Japanese culture. They are high art indeed.

Buck is right when she talks about art being a matter of intention and context: but the irony is that intention and context is itself a product of a cultural paradigm, and in other cultures elsewhere, the nature of what art is can be very different indeed.

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2 responses to Garden Design as Art?

  1. Woodward argued that garden design has everything and more art can offer in terms of conveying wider truths about this world

    Must art convey truth?

    Buck took the view that whilst artists making gardens was art, garden designers making gardens was garden design. It was all a matter of intention and context.

    And if the intent and context is lost on the audience? The audience can discount the creator’s intent and context (how much authorial intent really matters in interpreting a text)?

    Does the manner in which people experience a garden also factor in to its aesthetics as “design” or “art” ?

    Has the field of architecture reconciled this debate? A building can be art. “Interior design” can be art….or is it only art when it’s labeled “production design” for a film, TV show, or play?

  2. gillianholding – Author

    I quite agree with what you say about intention and context being lost on the audience. That’s why it is a rather unsatisfactory definition of what art is; unless of course what it is only matters to the artist.

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