Are Garden Designers Artists?

Art? Or merely Design?
The Highline, NYC

When I’m not working, cleaning dishes, or yanking weeds, I like to kick back with a stiff drink and contemplate the differences between Art and Design.  I’ll admit, before I began my study of landscape design five years ago, I really did not have much exposure to the world of design — certainly not visual design anyway.  Except for one desktop publishing course, my college English courses were almost exclusively studies in poetry, fiction, and drama, all squarely in the “artsy” realm of language known as “literature.”

So which gardens (if any) are the equivalent of “literature”?  When does garden making move from mere Design into the heralded world of Art?  Certainly professional landscape designers and architects have to accommodate client requests and respond to a project’s “program” — do these constraints automatically preclude the designer’s work from being considered Art? 

Well, yes, pretty much.  If you go by some commonly accepted definitions of Art and Design, that is.  This brief article, by North Carolina artist and designer Michael Brady, outlines some of the differences between the two, which I shall summarize and ruminate upon forthwith.

1. Purpose — Art is its own end; Design is utilitarian.  In other words,  if you’re working for a client, you’re not making art.  So even though every fiber of your being might want to proclaim that the Highline, or the gardens of Villandry, or the rain garden you designed for your kid’s elementary school, is a work of art, according to this criterion it is not.  The designers were merely fulfilling a set of needs outlined by clients.  Doesn’t matter if the client is the City of New York, a French finance minister, or Runnynose Elementary School.

2. How they are Made — “Artists generally have assumed that the product is a work of their mind and spirit first, and only secondarily serves the purpose of the commission.”  Seemingly, the inverse is true of designers, but I think this one is kind of fuzzy.  For example, do you think Thomas Church was merely serving the desires of the Donnell family when he designed their iconic pool and gardens?  Is this a work of Church’s “mind and spirit first” or does the fact that the design’s main feature is a swimming pool (presumably requested by the Donnells)  disqualify it from the realm of art?

Donell pool and gardens, designed by Thomas Church.

Another interesting statement made by Brady is that designers tend to just “arrange ingredients” whereas an artist is far less limited.  He argues that many of the components of a design may already exist and that the designer’s job is to bring them together to best meet the needs of the job.  For a landscape designer,  I suppose the site itself would qualify as an inevitable “ingredient.”  A landscape design cannot exist independently of its physical environment, which ties the hands of the designer. The designer’s creative vision is going to be limited by the site from the get-go.  Okay, so LeNotre and Capability Brown were less limited, since they couldn’t steamroll the entire world to accommodate their designs, but you get my point.

3. How They are Judged: “Art is judged in terms of beauty and truth, of insight and revelation…”  Of design, Brady says, “Ultimately, a design must fulfill its primary job of packaging or illustration or instruction, and no amount of aesthetic glamour will substitute for its failure to do so.” 

Blech.  I hate the sound of that last statement, but I suppose it’s true.  If you don’t meet the client’s needs, your design will be unsuccessful.  It reminds me of an episode of Landscaper’s Challenge I watched a long time ago.  The client that week was a young family in California, and the homeowners expressly told the three designers who were competing for the job that they wanted this massive cactus removed so that their little girl would not be impaled while she was playing.  One of the designers completely ignored that request, and in fact made the cactus a centerpiece of her design, saying how “special” it would be if their little girl grew up with “Grandfather Cactus” watching over her.  Dumb!  Of course she didn’t get picked.

(Now, that’s not to say that you should never try to change your client’s mind, but that is a topic for another post….) 

4. Audience Expectations.  I had some issues with this one.  Brady quotes Beatrice Warde, who said, “at some point, the goblet of design must become transparent, allowing viewers to gather the intended information, rather than be absorbed by the designer’s layout.”  Now, if we’re talking about the design of public spaces, I could see Warde’s point.  A well-designed public space might offer an assortment of seating options, it might guide visitors to a certain location,  it might hinder crime or accommodate foot traffic…in cases like this a good design often will be transparent; visitors will not be conscious that they are in a designed space at all.

Private gardens are different, though, aren’t they?  I mean, the designer is still trying to create an experience for the visitor, but since it’s often an aesthetic experience, doesn’t that draw more attention to the design itself?  For example, isn’t design on display here in this Jekyll-inspired perennial border:

Or here, in these sculptures at the Getty Center:

Bouganvillea "trees" at the Getty Center

5. Materials.  In this area I think that landscape design can certainly qualify as art.  “A work of art,”  Brady argues, “makes a point in reveling in its materials.”  Nobody revels in their materials more than landscape designers.  Whether its stone, water, leaf, or bark, landscape designers are passionate about the tangibles of their designs.  In fact, many designers so revere plants that they bristle when people use the term “plant material,” horrified that plants could be perceived as the equivalent of bricks or CMUs.   I can’t imagine this level of obsession to materials in any other visual artform.  Paints?  Come on!  Marble? Steel? Wood?  Maybe.   

I will close with one of Brady’s more contentious statements: 

The difference between art and design is in the way we look at them. Design is meant to be looked away from and art to be looked at and into. Design graces our lives with the aesthetic presentation of useful and beneficial things, and art graces us with representations of things to ponder and perceive. Art and design are closely related but nonetheless separate. It is a good thing to keep them straight.

Please comment!  I would love to know what you all think!

19 thoughts on “Are Garden Designers Artists?

  1. What do I think? I think I took about six courses in aesthetic theory in college that were not as insightful (or succinct) as this post. You rock, Mary G! Thank you!

  2. You sure cut to the chase, Mary. Great post. Brady’s distinctions are too cut and dried. Many artists and composers (and garden designers) of the past worked for patrons (clients). Bach? Didn’t he have over 20 mouths at home to feed? Boy, he needed money. So he paid attention to what his clients wanted, but he got paid too. That music’s not art?

    • Bach had 20 children??? Did not realize. Yes, I know many composers used to have pretty steady employment with the royal courts. I like that scene in Amadeus where the emperor tells Mozart that his song has “too many notes.” Talk about your client cramping your style! But anyway, you’re right that the article I cited was fairly simplistic. That is about the highest level of complexity I can tackle right now, though, what with the beautiful weather outside and actual garden work to do! :o)

  3. Bristled a bit at the inclusion of “Auntie Bea” and her crystal goblet speech here. I don’t think you can equate typography and the design of a book to the design of a garden. A book is an information storage device, just not one you plug in or download. I have yet to walk through a garden that is as big of an intellectual trudge as Moby Dick or Ulysses. That isn’t saying that it’s not possible, it’s just not the type of experience we have come to expect or demand from gardens.

    • Susan, I wasn’t familiar with her essay until now and didn’t realize it was in relation to typography. Maybe it’s a bit of a stretch to apply it to landscape design. Hmmmm…I wonder what the garden equivalent of Ulysses would be? Better yet: the garden equivalent of Finnegan’s Wake. Ooooooooooh…..

    • Come on Susan! We’re in the information age. Everything can be reduced to bytes and pixels! Except for smell, touch and taste. Maybe we still need gardens after all!

  4. Reminds me of the distinction between high or fine art (painting and sculpture) and the decorative arts (anything useful) in art history which always struck me as artificial. A Cellini sculpture was no less fabulous because it was on a salt cellar. Frankly, I think it’s a matter of skill. I’ve seen some crappy art, and some fabulous applied art.

  5. I agree with James Golden’s point that Brady’s distinctions are too cut and dried. Not only that, after reading his complete article–written while he apparently had his artist’s hat on–I got the impression he’s trying to split definitional hairs in order to be either contentious or simply draw attention to his “own insightful artistic brilliance.” Brady’s contention that, “…many artists chose to stand apart from worldly life in order to critique it, to forsake the programs of patrons in order to set their own programs, to discard the public moral code to promote a different code…” is a good, short, explanatory synopsis of the downward spiral that ends up in the shock art of Andres Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’ or Damien Hirst’s tank art pieces incorporating dead and sometimes dissected animals – cows, sheep or a tiger shark – preserved in formaldehyde. (Of course in Hirst’s case, he’s laughing all the way to the bank.)

    At least in a Brady-run world (where artists create without thought of remuneration) we could trade in the National Endowment for the Arts for a new National Endowment for Design. Sorry Mr. Brady, but I’ll happily stand with the designers.

  6. Remember – it wasn’t too long ago that photography was not considered “real” art. I hate to be so cliche – but isn’t art/beauty in the eye of the beholder? For me – it’s what makes my heart sing. Of course having some background in the principles of design and the history of art can only help in that endeavor.

  7. Trained as a sculptor, in creating a garden I feel challenged to create a work of art that is exquisite to all of the senses, functional, harmonious with it’s environ, as well as challenged to survive it’s environment. Your examples are excellent, particularly the sculptures from the Robert Irwin Getty Garden. A contemporary artist and a member of California’s “light and space” movement, Irwin’s practical and philosophical decisions shaping the making of this major artwork are wonderfully documented in a book by Lawrence Weschler. In a series of walks through the garden, they discuss everything from the sculptural relationship of the garden materials to the existing structures, choice of plant materials, gravel textures and colors to the lighting fixtures. Irwin playfully describes the creation of this “sculpture in the form of a garden aspiring to be art”, as he blurs the boundaries between contemporary art and the modern garden.

  8. Garden Design is like a dynamic sculpture, ever changing, never static which classifies it as ‘art’ to me. When all of the principles of design are involved, the work of art can be enjoyed from many perspectives (be it a child’s point-of-view and very low to the ground, from high above perhaps looking out one’s living room window or from a rooftop, etc. thus giving us that 3rd dimension… And, the ‘seasons’ tell us how dynamic this piece of art is. Be it snow covered with dark twigs emerging, or sun baked radiating on a lovely rippled Echeveria. And don’t forget the rain, the wind…this is all living art in motion. And when it is done right and it feels magical, either by Mother Nature or a Designer, it makes one’s heart ‘sing’ just like Mira C. has stated..and that is ‘Art’.

  9. I love this discussion. I am trained as an artist (which doesn’t necessarily mean i am an artist) and work as a landscape designer. But those are just words. I rarely use or let words define how i see myself. “A rose by another name…” I find painting on a canvas has it’s limits as much as creating a garden. I do approach gardens as if I am painting. The space is the canvas. I imagine and sketch the space in my mind and then on paper. I make a list of all the plants that would possibly work in the space. This i see as my palate. Then I wait for inspiration…sometimes it takes days…a week or more…often i wake in the middle of the night and find what I am looking for…the gossamer thread that leads me into the creation. I do see what he is trying to define and many do have this same discussion about craftsmen. I let my eyes, my heart and my soul tell me what is art…not words! I would love to invite Claude Monet to this discussion. I have been to his home in Giverny several times in different seasons……it is amazingly beautiful as are his paintings!

  10. Amazing – I am always wondering about you lanscape artists and your ability to juggle with words, maybe you really are authors. As the father and grandfather of several artists and even one aspiring landscape artist, and over time friend of numereous of the species (or should that better be cultivar?), I have heard and read tons of descriptions and reasonings and heated arguments for this and that design, all dressed in sometimes very excessive philosophical language. Artists or artisans or handymen and women remember that oyu must know your plants as well as your philosophy…

  11. As others have already said in several ways, much of this is a matter of semantics, wordplay if you will, with the undoubted result that some artists and designers would agree with Brady’s thoughts as expressed through his article, others would smile and shake their heads, while still others might take high offense. Having recently re-immersed myself into some musicals, including Sondheims’ “Sunday in the Park with George,” I’m aware of design very much as an elemental part of many artists’ work from the get go. Regardless of how much background research Sondheim and Lapine did on George Seurat’s life and philosophy, there’s no question that for his work as well as many other artistic movements/styles, design is a crucial part of the work. And the idea that we’re using likely using some existing materials in our work, or that we have input from others as to what kind of materials (media) they’d like to see in the finished piece certainly doesn’t detract from other artists’ creative process, so why should it from ours? Brady may like to keep design and art separate in his world, but in most world’s including ours, I think that the lines can be pretty fuzzy and sometimes even become one and the same. I don’t think it’s a good idea to keep the two separate and straight – there are times when they will be, but part of the finished product is that it’s put out there and then it is the gift of interpretation on the part of the viewer. As always Mary, or at least always thus far, I enjoy your writing, and the different directions it may take, and lead me to. But I must say that I wasn’t much impressed with Brady’s piece and his need to separate design from art and to make sure that we see it the same way as he does. Thanks.

  12. I would like to reserve judgement on landscape design but i was taught early on my career that gardening is a marriage between science and art. On the art side consider plants as a pallette of colour, texture, form and structure. What sets it apart from painting is the element of time. Gardens change throughout the seasons and develop over years, paintings on the other hand are static. In addition as mentioned above many artists take on commissions. Furthermore gardens cannot be defined as merely useful, they are not a necessity like roofing, they are a want, a labour of love.

  13. Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci disqualified for having commisions? Having lived in both academia and reality, most artists still like to eat. Those not living on the dole usually need some funds. I pursue all my landscape design projects with passion, fifty years of insight, sustainability conscious (previously known as environmetal sensibility) and aesthetics. Truth? Much of modern art seems more scam if not lunatic raging. Liked the piece it was thought provoking.

    Steve Gustafson,PhD

Leave a Reply to blackwalnutdispatch Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s