The Garden: Art, Dalliance, or Both?

Gardens have long been places of sanctuary, respite, joy and connection. They’ve soothed and sustained human souls, inspired great creativity, and continue to connect us to the earth in a way few other creative pursuits can. They’re a human construct and expression, a conversation with the natural world, but are they art?

First, a definition. Art, according to the Oxford Dictionary, 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.’

A garden can certainly fit in here. Although, some argue that gardens can’t be classified as art because they’re as much based in nature as humanity. As all gardeners know, nature is a wild thing. Sure, you can prune, shape, design, plant, and sculpt a landscape until the cows come home, but at the end of the day, despite human delusions of control, Mother Nature always has the last say. There is nothing finished about a garden, and whilst they’re a human construct, they’re equally a natural space.

But I’m not particularly interested in whether or not gardens fit into a dictionary definition of art. What interests me are the implications of describing gardens as art, or not.

According to English garden designer and historian, George Carter, in the 17th to 19th centuries gardening and garden writing, were as important culturally and intellectually as writing on the fine arts and architecture. ‘This reflected the high cultural status of the art of the garden,’ he says in his essay The Garden as Art (2005).

In the last century the garden, its making and appreciation have been downgraded from the realm of fine arts to a more practical, horticultural rather than artistic, pursuit he suggests.

His essay is specific to the United Kingdom, but I would say his assertion rings true for Australia too. Although, perhaps here garden making was never really seen as belonging in the realms of fine art in the first place? Perceptions of gardens in Australia were predominately imported by colonists in the 18th and 19th century, and more recently reflected notions of garden making styles and ideas from the mother country, rather than any true Australian style. This has changed significantly in the last few decades, thankfully, but I guess our history of garden making has often lacked a little genuine historical context, given our past propensity to undervalue native plants, landscapes, and indigenous perspectives.

The gardens of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.
Piet Oudolf's garden and studio in Hummelo, Netherlands

Gardening nowadays is most often viewed as the everyday man/woman’s weekend hobby. It’s not generally spoken of as an art form, and although I would suggest the language around the topic is rather anti-intellectual, the lack of discourse around gardens as art means there’s little fear of criticism or judgement for the backyard gardener. Gardening, in this way, is accessible, easy, and doesn’t require much conceptual thought. This is not a bad thing – anything that encourages people to roll their sleeves up and get their hands in the dirt is fine by me.

But garden making can also be an incredibly rich pursuit, drawing on knowledge from a broad range of disciplines – art, cultural responses to landscape, symbolism, design, horticulture, botany, and soil science to name a few.

The two schools of thought – gardens as hobby, and garden as art – are different and I think should be treated so. Suggesting that all gardens should be art smacks of elitism, but the same can be said of the more prevalent view (in Australia, anyway) of gardens as a mere dalliance, a weekend hobby. This approach has the potential to devalue great gardens as follies, and their makers as mere tinkerers, which could hardly be further from the truth. Great gardens contribute to our culture in a raft of important ways – and I think it’s important to recognise this, by seeing great gardens as art. Not only does this place a high value on the space, but also opens the door for deeper conversation and dialogue around the cultural importance of gardens.

Garden designer and writer Michael McCoy says gardens are most definitely art, but is more than happy for them not to be called art. ‘If MONA’s rotting animal carcasses can be considered art (and I’m not implying a personal opinion), then surely it’s up to the critics to argue how gardens are NOT art’, he proposes. On the other hand, ‘the longer gardeners and garden designers can remain free from the appalling and ultimately devaluing jargon of the world of art, along with its current tendency to judge the quality of any of art work on the artist’s written or spoken rationale rather than on what the work itself says the better’, he says. ‘Let’s leave gardens to speak for themselves. Personally I’m happy to fly forever under the art-label radar.’

English garden maker and writer Anne Wareham has different ideas on the subject. ‘We need garden critics and garden criticism,’ she argues in her essay Where Have all the Critics Gone? (2005):

No art can thrive without the serious discussion and dialogue which criticism offers: it raises standards, informs, educates and promotes intelligent debate.’

She speaks in her essay of her own garden Veddw in Wales and the making of it in the absence of criticism: ‘I have had to make my garden in isolation, with no dialogue with my peers… I felt for most of the time that I was working in a void and that this must affect the quality of what I make.’ She now asks visitors to her garden to tell her of two things they think could improve it.

The absence of criticism of other gardens, not just her own, has limited her understanding of design and expression within a garden, she suggests.

In gardening, as for all pursuits, there are different levels of engagement, meaning, and knowledge. For some gardening is a hobby, for others a chore, for others a political act, an artwork or an expression of a life philosophy. A shift away from lumping all gardens in the ‘hobby’ category, towards exploring the idea of gardens as art can only be a good thing for our culture’s ongoing conversation with the natural world. If viewing gardens as art means valuing nature more, then I’m happy.

George Carter and Anne Wareham’s respective essays quoted in this text were from Vista: The Culture and Politics of Gardens, edited by Tim Richardson and Noel Kingsbury, 2005.

Jardin Majorelle, Marrakech, Morocco
Artist and farmer Alison Dent's garden in Gulargambone, NSW