Saving Gardens from Art

The internet harbours staggeringly wide range of crusaders, desperados, and Broad-Band Supermen. Mix them up with some perverts, narcissists, stalkers and fantasists and you have the plankton of the great online Sea, even giant websites like Facebook and Ben’s Garden are built on the energy flowing from these tiny insignificant digital archetypes. Of the various Online Justice Leagues striving to rebuild the world as a better place the one currently hanging out Thinking Gardens is to me the most interesting.

Readers of the online UK garden media will be aware of their essential argument. That some gardens are serious artistic pieces and deserve critical recognition as such. The garden as art is a rare beast, but it exists, and at Thinking Gardens they argue that art-gardens need all the trappings of established art – including a new critical language and crucially a press willing to critically review gardens without having to resort to ‘and they sell lovely teas on Thursday afternoon’-isms.

A noble aim, keep fighting the good fight comrades! However, I take a functionalist view of art. If an object exists to be appreciated aesthetically, then it can be called art. My favorite mug shows a lovely picture of a Yorkshire terrier sitting on a tartan rug. I’m not really certain if I can call it art or not. My attitude towards the mug at any one time defines whether or not it is art. If, as I sometimes do, I place it on my piano and invite guests round to discuss what the mug is trying to say, its art. Shit art, but art. If I happen to be drinking tea from it – it’s a mug.

Thinking mugs

All that is needed to turn something into an art form is a group of people willing to engage with it from an artistic angle. If you have a set willing to aesthetically digest the subject, to discuss, dissect and squabble about it, you can call it art. Since beauty can no longer be regarded as an artistic criterion (nice one Picasso) interaction is all we have left. Gardens, mugs, urinals and soup cans; they’re all floating in the same leaky post-modern boat.

The problem though, with turning an object into art, is that you then can’t drink tea from it. For the critically artistic garden observer all the wonderful utilitarian things that people use a garden for are trashed. Playing Frisbee, stolen kisses, eating picnics, smelling flowers and (perish the thought) gardening, not part of the creative vision so out they go . Most people do not visit a garden, be it theirs, their friends or a publicly opened garden, to engage with it as a work of art. They go for a nice day out. Historic gardens are appreciated not for the inherent statements they make, but for the insight they give into the period of their construction, and for their staggering scale. There is an aesthetic element to the engagement, but it is the same X-factor that people are looking for when they visit a stately home. The building is appreciated aesthetically and architecturally but it is not a work of art. It is a magnificent building designed for a purpose, for people to live in, just as the magnificent garden was designed for the Georgian equivalent of Frisbee – strolling.

Legitimate Art

I am happy that gardens can be appreciated as art, but there is no need to evangelise  the garden media. Niche subjects enjoy niche circulation. People buying twee mail order mugs from the back pages of The Mail on Sunday Magazine don’t want to know about its profound but often overlooked narrative statement on the Battle of Boscome, they want to know it has a nice picture and holds hot fluid. People who read the mainstream gardening press want to know which gardens have nice flowers on bank holiday weekends and whether they sell cream teas. Cultural agendas cannot be forced on the unwilling, let the happy majority enjoy tips on frost resistant fuchsias and interviews with the television gardeners. Ignorance is bliss and most readers enjoy their blissful garden visits as they are. Gardens can be art but I’m afraid that the darker recesses of the internet will remain the proper place for their discussion as such.


Scenes Gardeners From a Gardeners Life

Easter weekend has past, and as tradition dictates, I have suffered my first horticultural injury of the year. I will now not stop bleeding until December the 16th , when I like to throw a pissy fit and go inside for three months. This season’s opening wound was particularly impressive-  I (nearly) broke my nose with a spade.

Like so many of the ills that affect man, the root of my injury lies in the sin of vanity. I allowed myself to live through others eyes, and as is fitting, was (nearly) disfigured for the privilege. You see, I have had a spade ever since I became a gardener, it is one of the building blocks of the gardening profession. Some might say that without the spade gardeners would simply be the planets hairdressers, and that it is the spade that makes us the planets brain surgeons. My spade was made of two parts, one was made of shiny metal, such as you might see on the back of a spoon, the other was made of black plastic, like the bumper of a cheap car. Crucially these two bits were joined together, it is this that gave the spade its excellent qualities.  These two parts are still joined together, the spade has lost none of its spadeness, it’s still the same spade that used to dig up a car tyre last week, it’s still the same spade that I slightly melted while having a bonfire last autumn, and it’s still the same spade I can see leaning against the wall as I type. So why then did I choose to buy a new spade? Vanity! Horrible venal vanity.

Ben's Garden Pond

I decided my spade looked cheap. I said to myself ‘Ben you’re a professional gardener’ I said ‘you are the planets brain surgeon and you deserve recognition as such’ I said ‘your spade looks cheap! its holding you back! You need a new spade!’. So I bought a new spade. Like my last spade, and I’m sure like many of your spades at home, this spade was made of two parts – again giving it excellent qualities. Once more, one was metal, the other though, was ash. Good solid expensive rural looking ash, it reminded of the longbow, or that famous spade that Little john used to knock Robin Hood into the river, most importantly it reminded me of money and success. This is the spade that David Beckham probably uses.

Solid Spadework

So when I somehow got the blade of my new spade tangled between my legs while moving in a shuffling crouch down my hallway (don’t ask), it was not cheap, light, bumper friendly plastic that struck the side of my nose – it was solid ash striking with the force of Merry Old England.  

Let this tale be a lesson to all you vain self loving gardeners. Repent and be forgiven. Buy floral patterned designer hand trowels from the V&A and be smashed to a thousand pieces by the forces of the cosmos.  As for me, In the words of Sir Anthony Bartleby: I am hurt, but I am not slain; I’ll lay me down and bleed a while, And then I’ll rise and fight again.


As an amusing aside that completely defeats the point of the above post I’d like to tell you about an incident today that made me vainly glad of my new ash spade. This afternoon I arrived at a clients house where I’m trying to create a woodland garden. Parked in the driveway was a huge hulking great van/truck belonging to a local gardening services company. Two tree surgeons had been doing some felling in the garden, and were packing away thousands of pounds worth of sthill motorised gardening gadgets. They had earrings, ropes, chainsaws, tattoos, muscles, leaf blowers, stubble and wood chippers. I don’t even have a van. I have a purple girls bicycle that I cycle around southwest London and a travellers rucksack – from the top of which all manner of tools poke. I also have a little blue cycle helmet that makes me look like a cheerful Japanese anime mushroom. Were it not for the top of my ash spade bobbing about behind my helmet I fear that to them I would have looked a complete amateur.