Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Are Gardens Art? (A Rambling Discourse on Philosophy of Gardens)

Chloris at "The Blooming Garden" asks a question that a number of other (mostly English) gardeners have asked in the past few years: Is Gardening an Art Form?

My immediate answer was: of course! At their highest level, gardens certainly must be art. What gardener hasn't stood in a beautifully composed garden and marveled at the skill and artistic vision of the gardener who made it?

But it's true that gardening is different than the traditional arts recognized by philosophers: Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, Music and Poetry; as Chloris mentions.

Google tells me that art is:   
"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" (my bold)
Some gardens might indeed meet this definition. But perhaps "primarily for their beauty or emotional power" is not often met, since most gardens have a practical design purpose.

Wikipedia says:
"in modern usage the fine arts, where aesthetic considerations are paramount, are distinguished from acquired skills in general, such as the decorative or applied arts." which are: "industrial designgraphic designfashion designinterior design and the decorative arts ... (and) architecture and photography."
Perhaps gardening is a decorative or applied art? Architecture, interior design and garden design all try to solve problems of space, making a place both more functional and more beautiful.

A few thoughts:

Some reasons that gardening should NOT be considered an art:
  1. Gardening is usually not intended as an artistic expression. In order for something to be art, it must be intended as such. Most people garden for other reasons: to grow vegetables, to collect rare species, to beautify our surroundings, to solve design problems with our yards, to have flowers for our tables and our souls, to mimic the gardens of people we admire so as to mimic their "lifestyle".
  2. Gardens are temporary and rarely outlast the gardener.
  3. Gardens are always changing and don't look the same from one day to the next. How can they be art if they're never the same, or what was intended?
  4. Gardening is a skill, like architecture is a skill. Although some architecture might be considered art, architecture is a licensed profession that serves a practical purpose (can architecture be art if the roof leaks or the building collapses, killing people?). Most architecture results in office buildings and big-box stores, not great artistic statements.
  5. Gardens provide a use: they are usually a setting for something, such as a house or public building, or they provide a pleasant space for a homeowner or public garden/park visitor.
  6. Plants do not always (or even often) cooperate with the gardener, growing in the ways intended by the gardener. Plants grow of their own accord, not because we make them (although we have improved many plants to be more floriferous, hardier and more disease-resistant). But if we don't control our medium, how can we be artists?
  7. Art should be recognized as art apart from any knowledge of the artist. But would we admire Sissinghurst so greatly if we didn't know the romantic story of Vita Sackville-West? What about Pearl Fryar's topiary garden in South Carolina -- how can we fully appreciate his fantastic and improbable garden without understanding his humble life?

    Pearl Fryar's topiary garden in Bishopville, SC (wikipedia)
  8. Gardening, like interior design, is subject to trends and fashions, and many gardeners simply want to have a fashionable garden surrounding their fashionable house, so that others will admire their taste.
  9. Most gardens of merit are "inspired by" (or have set pieces directly copied from) other gardens. Many beautiful gardens have White Gardens (including mine), double herbaceous borders and formal boxwood-edged beds. Are these arrangements simply standard "materials" of gardens, or are they derivative design? And does art need to be original for it to be art?
  10. Many gardens are meant to mimic nature, and nature is not art, because it is not designed and executed by the human hand.
  11. Yet other gardens are made to show that we can conquer nature. Is this "reactionary art," or are we simply improving our surroundings?
  12. Just because something is beautiful or inspiring, doesn't mean it is art.
  13. Do gardens inspire real feelings like art, or simply admiration of skill or joy at the beauty of living plants?
  14. Do gardens express and widely communicate the ideas or feelings of the gardener? Or are they simply beautiful plant-filled places that we enjoy?

Reasons that gardening SHOULD be considered an art form:
  1. Gardening uses, as Chloris mentions, the same artistic principles of colour, shape, texture and form.
  2. Just because something is just a hobby for most people doesn't mean it can't be art for some people.
  3. Yes, gardens change over time, but so does much art: Paintings degrade and lose their color; so do sculptures -- ancient Greek sculptures were often brightly painted when they were made, but are they not considered art simply because their appearance has changed over time (a lot longer time)?
    Is this not art, even though it appears
    different to us today than it did when
    it was first created?
    Winged Victory of Samothrace
    (flickr, jay8085)
  4. Gardens may not be permanent, but what art truly is? Ikebana (what we call "the Japanese art of flower arranging" but what apparently really means "flowers kept alive"), developed as a Buddhist expression of the beauty of nature and is clearly considered by many to be an art. And would a beautiful sculpture in ice be considered art, or would it have to be made of stone to count? What about paper mache or another more temporary medium? As long as a garden is documented in books and photos, the ideas and feelings behind it can still be accessed by others long after the garden and the gardener are gone.
    Is this art? Many think so. (wikipedia)
  5. Few gardeners can make a great garden; it takes horticultural and artistic skill (and not a little money and time), just as few artists can make great art, which takes talent, technical skill and artistic vision (and time and money to develop skill).
  6. Gardens, like art, have been used for sacred purpose, just as art has. An arrangement of trees or rocks was a sacred thing and meant something to pagans thousands of years ago, as well as in eastern art more recently.
    Ancient yew tree at St. George's Church,
    Wiltshire. (, Miss Steel)
  7. We don't make gardens simply for their utility. Growing plants in a creative arrangement that expresses our idea of beauty is something more than simply growing vegetables to eat them or maintaining a lawn and plantings for the value of our houses. 
  8. Other cultures have considered gardening to be the highest of arts: Japan and Islamic cultures, to name two.
  9. So many artists have also been gardeners that the two must surely be related, at the very least.
    Great artists, great gardens.
    How could this be anything but art?
    Monet himself said: “My garden is
    my most beautiful masterpiece.”
    (Claude Monet in his garden, 1922.)
  10. There are certainly styles of gardens, just as there are styles of art, and both follow trends.
  11. Art moves people to feel something, and great gardens do this too. They at least inspire feelings of what is good and noble in humanity and nature.
  12. Does this not inspire us to nobler thoughts and deeds?
    Nishat Bagh Mughal Gardens, India (wikipedia)

  13. I would wager that the majority of humans, upon seeing a garden such as Giverny or Nishat Bagh, would recognize it as art, even if some philosophers don't. Doesn't that make it art?
In the end, does it matter if some philosophers don't consider gardens to be art? To what end would that help gardening or make gardeners feel more respected? If a number of influential gardeners decide that gardening is an art and develop standards with which to judge it artistically (as some are), then perhaps that means some gardens are art, albeit a distinctly different kind than painting or poetry. Perhaps the highest of the arts.


  1. This is brilliant Beth. I am so glad that you felt moved to write something on this theme. Your argument is so well thought out and well expressed. I really enjoyed reading it. I think it is great that so many people are joining in the discussion. Nice to find your interesting blog too.

    1. Thanks for visiting, for your very kind comment -- and for your great blog! I'm so glad you have brought up this interesting and provocative subject and stimulated so many responses.

  2. The gardens showcased here definitely fit my criteria for art. The topiary garden is a living masterpiece. I loved this post!

    1. Thanks so much for reading it, Karen. I'm glad you liked it (it was pretty long for a blog post, I admit, but such a topic is so complex that I just couldn't make it any shorter...) I'm glad you were able to slog through it!