Another Question For You!

Thanks so much to all who commented on my last post, regarding the question of whether gardens and designed landscapes belong in the world of “art.”  Opinions were varied, with some suggesting that, “of course garden design is an art, you fool!” and others saying that they didn’t much care what sorts of labels were assigned to the practice of garden design, romping around in the world of semantics is for suckers, man. 

But what came through loud and clear is the passion that so many of you have for the art (or craft if you prefer) of garden-making.

Before I move on from the issue, though, I want to throw a related question out there:

Should there be more serious criticism of landscapes and gardens?

This was a question I hadn’t thought about much until I read an article about “Bad Tempered Gardener” Anne Wareham, a British gardener and writer who thinks that we do way too much fawning over gardens that aren’t necessarily worthy of it. 

I was intrigued by her take on the world of gardening (especially gardening media), which she believes is often patronizing, hypocritical, and childish.  Get this: Wareham has actually been censored by her publishers when she writes critically about certain gardens and designers.  The publishers feel that, not only could her opinions be seen as libelous, but also (gasp!) impolite.

Wow.  Can you imagine art, architecture, or food critics being told, “sorry, your review is just too mean; you might hurt some feelings”?

Now, I hate critics as much as the next gal.  All that parsing, scrutinizing, and condescension makes me nuts (at least when I’m on the receiving end of it).  But you have to admit that until an artform begins to attract the attention of serious critics, it is not taken seriously.  On the other hand, if a host of parasitic, bespectacled journalists descends upon one of your gardens, you know you’ve made it!  Even if they diss your design, their presence means they think what you’re doing is important; it means people are paying attention.

I do see some thoughtful criticism in Landscape Architecture magazine, mostly reviews of large-scale public or commercial spaces, but Wareham is right that most other garden/landscape design magazines are pretty lightweight.  Beautiful pictures, maybe even some good writing, but almost all of it descriptive rather than critical or controversial.

So beloved readers, I ask you to weigh in again!  What say you about this lack of “serious criticism” in garden design?  Do you agree?

30 thoughts on “Another Question For You!

  1. Definitely, some gardens qualify as works of art and merit appreciation as art. Val Easton in Seattle has a book about gardens made by artists. Not the same thing but very engaging, and some of the gardens are indeed art, though the artists who made them are not gardeners, that is, folks who know their plants. Instead they seem to regard plants as a painter does a palette, and chose them for their color and shape. Likewise, bowling balls. I first saw them stacked in pyramid in Val’s book.
    I commend to you John Fairey’s garden in Texas. It is art and the art is also an art of time, as the garden evokes the same awe year round.

  2. Agreed that there is little substantial criticism out there in the mainstream garden press. But you’ve hinted at the answer why in your post: journalists write for these magazines, not trained and experienced designers. Most popular press today is written and edited by freelancers and young, inexperienced people who parrot most of their stories on what they see in their peers’ cutesy design blogs. (You’ll know the ones I mean by their! exclamation! points! everywhere!! and words like ‘squee!’ ‘swoon!’ and ‘adorbs!!!’) So much of the content is driven by advertisers too.

    And ya gotta watch LA mag – they’ll tout anything carrying a ‘sustainable’ label without really looking too deeply into the projects in context or over time.

    • Tami, I’m glad you said that about LA magazine….I wasn’t sure if it was just my imagination. I love the projects they profile — almost always in Jackson Hole, it seems, usually some multi-millionaire’s second home — that almost certainly involved plenty of earth moving equipment, a big house on a big site, but because they use some native grass or use “locally sourced” something or other, it’s “sustainable.” Give me a break. Go ahead, rave about the design, but don’t pretend it’s saving the earth.

  3. Glad you included the “predator” garden ornaments from the Telegraph. I laughed out loud when I saw those and thought about how unsettling they would be in a garden. The moss setting only reinforces the movie reference. Referencing the last post and our comment exchange, it would be interesting if someone created a garden with the intent of unsettling people. Maybe once we cross the boundary of making gardens as places that are pretty and restful into those that are studiously unnerving or ugly then the art world will take it seriously as a medium.

  4. I am a garden designer and a sculptor ..When I started designing gardens 15 years ago ,I thought garden design was as much a creative pursuit as sculpture and installation..I don’t think the same now. I earn from design to help pay for the cost of making art.My art making is about expressing visually ideas that I feel strongly about.There is a freedom to create which is also open to strong critique .Any compromises I make are personal ones ,unlike when designing a client’s garden .As a garden designer I strongly feel that the gardens I design for clients is a collaboration and in the end it must contain the elements that allows the client ownership i.e the garden is a reflection of their thoughts and ideas.

  5. This is a tricky one indeed. Landscape design could definitely use some serious (hopefully educated) criticism, as well as criticism of the critics. Don’t dish it out if you can’t take it in return. I don’t want to read some cranky old coot in a stuffy magazine telling me how wrong something is if he has a hidden agenda or an axe to grind about the artist/designer.

    Related to your last post, I think “art” is really “art” if the artist doesn’t give a damn what anybody thinks about his or her work. It doesn’t have to be good art, it could be total crap, but to him, it’s art. The artist gets an idea and has to pour it out of himself, no matter what the consequences or opinions might be, almost without even thinking. I think “design” is inherently created to please people or solve a problem. “Art” is inherently created because the artist must express himself. As soon as you start trying to please people, you’re designing for them, not creating art for them. Just my 2 cents.

  6. Hum, if you’re going to call what you do to a garden “art”, expect to be paid for it, and welcome praise, then you should be open for criticism. Lots of folks initially hated Van Gogh’s work but given enough time that changed. Now if you call what you do in the garden “hobby” (what I do!), do it for free, and don’t expect any praise, then live and let live and keep the criticism to yourself 🙂

  7. I think garden criticism is often just an excuse for garden snobbery. One designer/gardener is so eager to have their taste/choices deemed superior that they have to diminish the work of others, even if that person is only their neighbor. I’ve seen professionally designed gardens that I thought were hideous. Like all art, garden design will vary by the gardener, and won’t be appreciated by all. But it doesn’t have to be! As long as it makes the gardener happy, who cares what anyone else thinks? Other opinions become irrelevant to everyone except the person providing the opinion. When gardening becomes a platform for pretension, it isn’t gardening anymore.

  8. Mary – an excellent post! And the article referenced was also quite thought provoking. Anne Wareham obviously has strong opinions—and obviously a strong back as well, having to keep a 4-acre garden under control. From the article’s photos of Anne in her garden, I realize that I’ve seen many images of her Veddw House Garden (likely taken by her husband) in quite a few different gardening and planting design books and publications over the years. I just never knew of the connection until reading your post, thank you.

    Quite honestly, I have never given much thought to the lack (actual or perceived) of serious review and criticism of garden design, even though as a landscape architect, perhaps I should. Unlike major civic, public or institutional landscapes–which because they often accompany a substantive architectural construct may receive some critical commentary as a side note to the building(s)–gardens often take years to grow into a maturity substantial enough so that when they are photographed for the color glossies, they appear lush, full and gloriously vibrant. Pretty pictures obviously sell magazines, and most of us can only travel to these gardens via the writers’ words and the photographers’ images. By the time we see these gardens–by the time the work is really ready for a true critical assessment–the garden architect/designer may be long gone, even to the other side of the grass. That’s not to say objective criticism lacks relevance, it’s simply more a reflection on the time-immediacy of contemporary garden magazine journalism, plus their collective desire to show off or highlight what they consider the most outstanding or splashiest gardens they can find. It’s no wonder then that articulated opinions tend to be consistently positive, even to the point of excess.

    I do agree with Anne’s opinion, “Too many people just plonk plants together in a garden without thinking about how they fit together in an overall shape,” and that gardens get filled with plants like some houses get filled with bric-a-brac. Also her point that a vestige of the Victorian plant collecting times still dominates much of the British gardening sense—when the world was your empire your garden might as well reflect this—one from here and one from there, regardless of climatic range or soil type or any other associative property. “The British collect plants and they inflict them on their gardens, leading to a lack of coherence and a lack of beauty.”

    There is probably no community of gardeners and garden builders more passionate and opinionated than the British, and so I’m sure her statements and her book did tweak a lot of folks and probably put more than a few noses out of joint, thus the worry of her editors about someone taking offense. I’m not sure just how seriously offended someone might become, but if Agatha Christie was still with us, the suspicious death of a garden critic might be a plausible enough premise for a ‘Miss Marple’ mystery.

  9. I have so enjoyed reading all these wonderful thoughts and questions….Am in the thick of garden world here in NY since spring has sprung so early….chances to ponder this theme amidst the pruning and sore back today…Gardening that comes from passion…whether it’s “pretty” or not…. is art to me. There are so many different reasons to garden…impressing the neighbors is perhaps the easiest to dismiss yet one that also helps many of us create the gardens at home that do make “our hearts sing”. It is such an ephemeral art form; so easily lost to time and new home owners….and yes, there are many compromises made as part of the collaborative process. At same time there are garden spaces I’ve experienced that resonate in such deep and powerful ways….is that a universal experience for all viewers? Probably not, yet more thoughtful critiques than “fluff pieces” would be a blessing! I do suspect that my strongest critiques will always be shared with fellow garden travelers as we wander thru gardens together…and saved for publication til after my death!

  10. It’s a pity we lack serious criticism, or even honest evaluation, of gardens, but the state of garden consciousness in the US is such that there’s virtually no interest in it. And, of course, it’s hard to write critically of gardens if you’re the only person in the country doing it. You make a tempting target. Anne Wareham certainly has learned that, but she continues in the face of rather vicious treatment from some in the British garden “establishment.”

  11. Definitely a good question and I agree with Anne Wareham to a point. I’ve sort of been ruined by working in some really amazingly designed botanical gardens so now when I see a public garden that isn’t up to snuff (and that is unfortunately many of them) I immediately see all the things that are wrong with it and can’t just enjoy the garden like a normal person would.

    But the general public that isn’t as in tune with art or fine gardens will generally be happy just seeing something pretty in bloom. And I don’t know if that is a bad thing.

    Back when I was interning at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden I was working in the perennial garden with my friend Lily who was in charge of it. She was really upset about a large central bed that had gradually taken on a very pink tone (she planted tons of Gauras and Nicotiana mutabilis and there were lots of pink and red coreopsis in bloom) but on one side a clump of Heleniums and Helianthus had come into bloom and were quite jarring with their yellow and orange against the pink theme. She wanted to immediately rip them out. But since they were in full bloom and really healthy plants I convinced her to wait a bit and instead watch the public reaction to them as we worked in the area. Everyone that came through exclaimed how amazing they were and how beautiful they were. It is possible that some people thought they were a mess but if that was the case they were considerably less vocal about it. The plants got a stay of execution until they were finished blooming and could be moved elsewhere.

  12. Language is at best a tenuous dance of communication between individuals. It’s easy to say “an apple falls from a tree”. There’s not so much ambiguity there, though we could dissect and criticize even that straightforward sentence. When language is applied to the big subjects in a logical (not poetic) form, the argument inevitably dissolves into confusing incoherence, like your attempt to decide whether design can be art. Logic fails in such endeavors and we’re left with the old “pornography test”, i.e. “I know it when I see it.”

    That observation is prelude to my response to this second posted question. “Criticism” is ex post facto analysis of a creation that generally disintegrates into the same confusion I alluded to above. We can ask specific questions about a creation, art or craft. For example we can consider where it fits among other similar creations historically. We can talk about use of color, texture, rhythm, scale,….on and on. I’m not sure to what point, but would observe that much of my favorite non-fiction was written by critics. It’s an excellent starting point/pretext to write about some particular thing. I’ve never been convinced that there has been relevant feedback between critics and artists, but good essays (literature?) have been produced.

    As to whether we should criticize (small “c”) particular designs, “God yes”. I’m a nice guy. Ask anyone who knows me, and so I navigate the world trying not to cast critical eyes on the landscapes around me. Most gardens that I see, private, corporate, and public make little or no sense esthetically or practically and so fail as art and craft. Note, I said most, not all. There are a few exceptions and if the failures are to be called out, the successes ought to be recognized.

    P.S. In response to your prior post: Certainly there are gardens that qualify as “Art” just as there are millions that don’t. I suspect the case is similar with painting, sculpture, music, dance, writing. Your educational prejudice toward the latter comes across as clearly as my experiential prejudice towards garden design. When we put ourselves in the position of analyzing objectively, we have to try to be objective.

  13. Wow, I’m kind of blown away by the thoughtful and intelligent comments left by my readers on this topic. Is there an award for Blog with Best Reader Comments? I think I should win it. Thanks so much to everyone who ruminated along with me on these heady topics.

  14. Anne Warham’s experience needs to be appreciated from within the culture of the British who perceive gardens with a more critical eye than other nations do. In Canada and the USA, we design gardens mostly for personal pleasure and are delighted when our work also touches others. In the UK, however, I suspect there remains a tradition that gardens must stand up to the scrutiny of garden experts who judge them to be acceptable or not. A populist mind set in North America does not permit such an attitude to thrive here.

    • I don’t know…that wasn’t the impression I got from the article. According to Wareham, theBritish, for all their adoration of gardens, aren’t that open to criticism either. I thought her message was that gardens are so revered there that you’d better not talk smack about them.

      • I’m not sure that North American gardens don’t deserve to be looked at with a more critical eye either. That isn’t to say you should tell your neighbor that her combination of pink poppies and yellow wallflowers is garish and hurts your eyes but we should certainly be more open to critiquing public gardens and flower shows.

  15. I think that there are tons of gardens that get so much more praise than they’re worth. A certain garden that shall remain unnamed gets absurd amounts of praise lavished on it by just about everyone. I’m not saying the whole place is jank or anything but the vast majority of it struck me as absolutely nothing special. Yes its conservatory was amazing and it has fountains that are unrivaled by anything else I’ve seen but the annual borders were nothing unique and the other gardens were pretty but also very similar to every other garden I saw on the east coast.

    I also think a big part of it is that in general people are unaware that there are different styles of gardens. For most people they see colors and just go “ooo pretty” and could care less that the tree they’re looking at is a 300 year old plane tree or a cycad that is one of less than 20 of its species left in the world. If they don’t care about what they’re looking at how can they care to critique it?

    I think this ended up a lot more ranty than I meant it to…and I’m not even sure it makes sense. Oops…

    • Hmmm…fountains? conservatory? i can only assume you’re talking about Longwood. Don’t worry…I won’t tell anybody that you think Longwood totally blows.

      Or that it’s “jank.” Thanks for introducing me to that word, by the way. Can’t wait to start using it!

      • The thing is, I don’t think it totally blows. I just think that outside of its conservatory and fountains that it was slightly overrated and everyone is afraid to say so!

        • also in addition to the word “jank” you can also call things janky or jankalicious. It’s a great word.

  16. Two things I learned in Design School: ‘Landscape architecture is not based on fine art.’ It could be said to be an applied art, like graphic design, product design, architecture.

    ‘A design solution is ultimately someone’s opinion.’ So is more critique justified? Maybe by the client who is paying for it, or the taxpayer!

    In my opinion planting design, using plants as your media, is an art of sorts. If it is a personal garden it is a work in progress that never ends. Gardens for clients and the public are less tweak-able.

  17. I personally critique gardens and landscapes all the time because it helps me as a landscape designer to grow in my perceptions,attitudes and consequently applications. When I was a student at Conway School of Landscape Design that was our intro – a trip to Canadian cities to see , critique and discuss design. Wow! was that eye opening!

    I think that a public forum i.e. blogs, publications etc. are necessary and again helpful to both the novice and expert. Do we not look to food critics, art critics, movie and theater critics to help sway us to go visit that restaurant,museum,or theater?

    Finally I really appreciate those individuals such as yourself who are professional writer’s that take the time to involve others , responding to us and letting us have a voice. Thank you ! It gets my creative juices flowing.

  18. I absolutely think we need more criticism of professional garden design. There isn’t any at all now except perhaps in the form of award competitions within professional organizations. Garden journalism as it exists now will never play that role. It’s too tied in with consumerism and cronyism. I wonder what forum could support a real critic. Hard to imagine from where I sit.

    I don’t think home gardeners should ever be subjected to the same standards. That’s a whole different ball game.

  19. (Warning, this is going to be completely disorganized and off the top of my head.) I am torn on this issue. My gut reaction was NO, no more criticism, it’s just a way to discourage people from gardening because they feel they couldn’t do it well enough for critics (okay, maybe I’m projecting). Certainly there are gardens that I think could be considered art, and probably were designed specifically to be art, consciously or unconsciously. However, there are so many types of gardens, built for so many different purposes, that I fear critics who would unfairly judge one for being inadequate in some respect when the gardener had no notion of addressing, much less meeting, that critical standard. Probably my concern comes from a place of non-competitiveness, and criticism by its nature sets one thing against another. When I first became a gardener 11 years ago, I lived in a townhouse community, old places with no association and association rules and wee tiny front yards. My neighbor on my right had a beautifully minimalist landscaped yard, with a tiny immaculent Japanese maple and a few carefully placed rocks. My neighbor on my left had a patch of grass, bordered on all sides by beds edged with concrete blocks, in which he grew ornamental cabbage, vegetables, some annuals, dependent on the season. I loved both of these because they reflected the gardener–what he or she wanted out of that space, what he or she valued–and it encouraged me to build MY first garden in my little patch, without worrying whether I was doing it “right.” I’m not sure where I’m going with these observations, to be honest. Stream of consciousness isn’t always a good thing, I guess. Anyhoo, I just found your blog today and am really enjoying it (and I live down the road in Falls Church)!

    • Hey Potato Queen,

      So glad you found my blog and very cool that you’re local! I know what you mean…I would definitely be hesitant about bringing a judgmental spirit to everyday residential gardens (okay, we can all be privately judgmental but that’s different). I guess I’m talking more about public gardens and maybe even commercial landscape designs — especially if places people PAY to go and visit or that are in the public sphere — I think it’s fair to hold those landscapes up to more scrutiny.

      • Hey, Walnut! I’m glad I found you and am looking forward to reading your archives. You have a terrific writing style. RE: public gardens and landscape designs, sure, I agree, it would be interesting to see more (any?) reviews of such spaces. Actually, it would be nice to see such reviews in the context of increased writing (not criticism) about ANY kind of gardening. Remember when the Home and Garden section of the Post on Thursday was a real section? Now we get one Higgins and one Damrouch (sp?) column on the garden a week and that’s pretty much it. Wouldn’t it be fun if, somehow, gardening became The Hip New Thing and became all the rage like cooking has in the last few years, and gardeners starting becoming rock stars like all the celebrity chefs on Food Network (Grow Network!).

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