Gardens and Plasticity

Gardens and Plasticity


David Fenner


If a garden can be a work of art, and if we rank art forms according to the plasticity of the media employed, with ‘plasticity’ referring to how much control an artist has over the shaping, molding, or forming of the media in which the artist works, then The Garden (capitalized to indicate the kind) ranks very low. In contrast, I argue that we have good reason for celebrating The Garden as an art form, since artistic success with a garden that rises to the level of being a work of art entails having to master a set of skills that typically dwarf what must be mastered to manipulate the media of more plastic art forms.

Key Words
Archibald Alison, garden, gardens, Immanuel Kant, plasticity


1. Introduction

Two of the pioneers of contemporary garden philosophy, Mara Miller and Stephanie Ross,[1] devote some of their earliest attention to exploring, in detail, reasons why The Garden (capitalized to indicate the kind) struggles to be regarded as a bona fide art form today. Questioning whether The Garden is an art form is a recent phenomenon. Ross explains that in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, The Garden’s status as an art form was assumed. That is not the case today, and it may be in part because of the treatment of philosophers like Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel that aesthetic regard for The Garden began to wane.[2] Kant held the view, as most did in his world, that The Garden is an art form, only he believed it is not a particularly good one.[3]

Painting, as the second kind of formative art, which presents the sensuous semblance in artful combination with ideas, I would divide into that of the beautiful Portrayal of nature, and that of the beautiful arrangement of its products. The first is painting proper, the second landscape gardening… (It seems strange that landscape gardening may be regarded as a kind of painting, notwithstanding that it presents its forms corporeally. But, as it takes its forms bodily from nature — the trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers taken, originally at least, from wood and field — it is to that extent not an art such as, let us say, plastic art… Hence it bears a degree of resemblance to simple aesthetic painting that has no definite theme — but by means of light and shade makes a pleasing composition of atmosphere, land, and water.) The latter consists in no more than decking out the ground with the same manifold variety (grasses, flowers, shrubs, and trees, and even water, hills, and dales) as that with which nature presents it to our view, only arranged differently and in obedience to certain ideas. The beautiful arrangement of corporeal things, however, is also a thing for the eye only…  For a parterre of various flowers, a room with a variety of ornaments (including even the ladies’ attire), go to make at a festal gathering a sort of picture which, like pictures in the true sense of the word… has no business beyond appealing to the eye…[4]

Kant wrote these (translated) words in the Critique of Judgment, published in 1790. In that same year, Archibald Alison published his Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste. His view of gardens is much like Kant’s, though perhaps a bit more celebratory at the outset.

[T]he great superiority of [gardening’s] productions to the original scenes in nature, consists in the purity and harmony of its composition… to awaken an emotion more full, more simple, and more harmonious than any we can receive from the scenes of nature itself.[5]

Alison went on to offer a hierarchy of the arts in which The Garden fits. His hierarchy was based on the level of control that an artist can exert over their medium or media.[6]  Michael Lee captures Alison’s thoughts on the matter:

There is another aspect of Alison’s garden theory that should be mentioned… his ranking of painting above gardening as a fine art. In his treatise on taste, Alison puts forth a hierarchy of the arts based on the degree of control that artists have over their materials. Raw nature forms the base line, with gardening quite low because it uses much of this material unaltered… Although gardening is an important first step away from original nature, Alison sees landscape painting as superior because the gardener is constrained by the conditions which nature affords in any given place.[7]

Alison’s scale is one focused on the plasticity of the media in various art forms, and it is with this plasticity that this paper is concerned. By ‘plasticity,’ I refer to the level of control an artist has over the shaping, molding, or forming of the media in which the artist works. The more plastic or moldable the medium, the greater the level of control the artist has and, one may think, the greater the level of precision of artistic expression an artist may achieve. In painting, for instance, the artist enjoys great control, as the only restrictions in relation to the media are (1) how the surface to be painted will accept the paint, (2) what the tools for applying the paint can achieve, and (3) the paint itself, that is, the available colors, thickness, adherence to the surface, durability, and so forth. At least initially, there are clear reasons to justify Alison’s plasticity measure. Here are three.

Control of vision and expression. The artistic process likely begins with the first step of any creative project: an idea or an inspiration that leads to an idea.[8] This idea becomes a vision, and this vision leads to an expression of that vision in an object or an event that likely is able to be sensed.[9] One may argue whether the work of art proper is (1) the sensible instantiation of the vision, that is, that the sensible instantiation is the expression, or (2) the vision translated into a planned execution in a sensible instantiation that is the expression, that is, the expression is the ideational vision envisioned for instantiation. In both cases, whether the work in question is sensible or is idealized as about to be sensible, there is a translative act that occurs between the vision and the expression. The vision is a mental entity; it is a concept, an idea. The expression may be an object/event or an idea, but if an idea, it is one that has already begun to be shaped into a plan for sensible instantiation. If I am accused of hairsplitting, I understand. The details of the mechanics of moving from inspiration to sensible instantiation is less important than that there is some such process and this process includes translation from idea into physical manifestation. On this view, the greater the proximity between those two, the greater control the artist possesses. And, the greater control the artist possesses, the more that artist may claim that the physical manifestation of his, her, or their vision is the work of art as envisioned and planned.

An artist who throws paint on a canvas must live with where the laws of physics make that paint go. There is even less control if the artist rolls people in paint and then rolls them over canvases, or if the artist employs an elephant or an ape to apply the paint, or even if one runs a “factory” in which people employed to instantiate works of art on behalf of the artist actually create the works. It would seem that a single painter in front of a single well-prepared canvas, with a full range of paint colors, a full range of tools with which to apply the paint, and a full range of technical abilities, is the artist who has the greatest control and can, thereby, claim the least distance between vision and instantiation. On this view, the greater the control, that is, the greater the plasticity of the media to be controlled, the greater the praise for a successful, valuable instantiation.

Clarity of technique. As it is common to praise artistic technique, and as it is those works of art that incur the least distance between idea and instantiation that have the best claim of capturing artistic visions (if, indeed, it is this that we care about), it is these works we might hold in the greatest esteem as works of art, especially if they are artistically meritorious as objects/events in the first place. On this view, the greater the control, the greater the plasticity.  And – again, on this view — the greater the plasticity, the more deserving of praise is the artist who creates a great work and whose command of technique thereby shows through.

Nuance of technique. The greater the plasticity of the media, the greater the chance that an artist with good technical command will be able to instantiate a level of artistic delicacy and detail that would be unavailable to an artist working in another medium. The sculptor who works in soft stone or stone with many facets that breaks easily will not have the sort of control that one who works in, to take the most obvious example, Carrara marble. Carrara marble is known to hold very fine detail and a shiny polish; its clarity and whiteness, at least historically, facilitate detail being seen. Had Michelangelo worked in a different medium, his reputation 500 years along may not be what it is. Working in media where aspects of the media dictate what is possible, like a pronounced woodgrain; heavy costuming in dance; thick accents among actors in roles that do not call for them; the need for a work of architecture to house an airplane; printing where the press is imbalanced; or cooking where ingredients are very limited or one only has an open fire, results not only in the loss of visibility of technique but can also result in the loss of technique itself.

2. The limits of plasticity

Let us accept ex hypothesi that The Garden is an art form. As mentioned, this view was that of Kant, Alison, and even Hegel (although Hegel did not have kind things to say about The Garden), in addition to being the common view at that time in Europe, Persia, India, China, Japan, and many other countries. Miller was the first to offer a contemporary book-length treatment on the philosophy of gardens. While her focus was on how The Garden and other art forms differ both in their properties and how they are regarded by the art world today, she writes that gardens exhibit what she occasionally refers to as an “excess of form.” She connects this to Susanne Langer’s description of “organic form” that is at the heart of Significant Form,[10] which Miller takes to be “the characteristic feature of art.”[11] But we will not argue the point that The Garden is an art form here; we will take it as a supposition.

If The Garden is an art form, there is no denying that it is not a particularly plastic one. Every garden is composed of two distinct but necessary components. First, there is human artifice, where nature is shaped to the designs of the garden designer or landscape architect.[12] This is not to claim that the contents of gardens are exclusively natural; gardens commonly contain artificial items like hard pathways, benches, fountains, and so forth. But a garden that contains nothing natural – and we might go so far as to say “nothing living,” if even only as components of a broader garden complex or a context for the non-living elements – is arguably not a garden. Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas, and Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England, are not gardens. Neither are those coffee table-sized Zen dry landscape “gardens” that come with tiny plastic rakes; they are gardens only in a metaphorical or perhaps derivative sense.

This leads to the second necessary component of a garden: nature. Two of the essential characteristics of nature are change and the fact that plants will only thrive in certain conditions. These two characteristics likely are enough to put The Garden at the bottom of the plasticity scale. No matter how careful the garden designer, as soon as their garden is installed it begins to change. Plants start to move under the power of phototropism and lean in the direction where their roots find water and nutrients. Some plants flower almost immediately; others take their time. Some leap into growth; others seem static. Change on a larger scale is easy to witness over the seasons in all climates but those very close to the equator, and even those tend to change size rather fast.

The other factor that impacts plasticity is that living components of gardens only thrive in certain conditions, and so garden designers, or gardeners who come after, are constrained in where they can place the plants in their palette and have those plants endure for the sake of their aesthetic contribution to the garden. Roses cannot be placed under trees. Petunias and marigolds need a dry, well-drained soil. River birches and bald cypresses need water. Moreover, placing petunias and marigolds behind a hedge of boxwood or loropetalum generally ensures they will not contribute the vibrancy of their colorful flowers to a garden’s aesthetic, at least not unless one is right on top of them. So those designing and redesigning gardens are limited in where they can place plants and how they can manipulate their plant palettes to achieve the aesthetic properties they seek.

This second point is made even more pointedly when we recognize that a particular garden will have a certain location among the climatological options, a certain soil biology, and a certain topography that will impact how plants receive sunlight, the garden’s hydrology, and root growth. A garden’s location also will impact what sort of pests the garden may be susceptible to, such as micro-organisms, bugs, rodents, megafauna, and even humans, if the garden is set, for instance, in an urban core or is configured in a way that encourages humans to interact with it. One feels sympathy for the plants at the entrances to Disney theme park rides that are chewed up as a result of the tactile inclinations of many hands.

The garden that does not account for the processes and restrictions of nature will not be a garden, at least insofar as its living components are concerned, for very long. The limitations on plasticity in aesthetic or artistic expression in a garden are baked in deep, and the effects of ignoring nature are felt within the span of a single week.

To be fair, to say that any artistic medium is entirely plastic seems wrong. Regarding painting, paint may only be applied according to the properties of the paint and the properties of the tools for applying it. Pictures created on a computer illustrate this point; the digital medium is far more pliable, and many more visual effects can be created using a computer rather than canvas, paint, and brushes. Regarding sculpture, various stones admit of various levels of achievement of detail, metals have limits concerning malleability and strength, and most sculptural materials are limited in terms of color. Regarding literature and poetry, languages are only as precise as the ontology they capture – how many words for snow do the Inuit have? – and how they parse – are there seven English colors in a rainbow but only six Spanish ones? While onomatopoeia may enhance the artistic presentation of meaning, few words in few languages are onomatopoetic. Regarding dance and musical performance, one is at the mercy of the skills and training of the performers, and on the memories of dance instructors for identity conditions and continuity. In the end, though, it is difficult not to find gardens at the end of the plasticity spectrum.

3. Skill and plasticity

Despite the reasons offered above in favor of ordering art forms according to their plasticity, with “most plastic” at the top, an argument might be offered to suggest the reverse: that a greater degree of artistic skill is necessary (1) for the manipulation of media that are less plastic, when that manipulation requires cooperation with the media rather than detached mastery, and (2) for the visibility of the artistic expression, given the additional skill required to manipulate the medium. The argument could be made that with recognition of the greater degree of artistic skill that must be employed comes enhanced praiseworthiness of the resulting artistic instantiation. Moreover, one could argue that art forms that require this added dimension of skill, on the spectrum of “art-form merit,” are the better. In other words, it is precisely those art forms that are the least plastic that are the more worthy of esteem.

We cheer more loudly for the football team that wins when the field is covered with snow or rain. Passengers clap for the pilot when the plane that was racked with turbulence makes a safe landing. The person who scaled Everest or reached the South Pole with the least supplies and the least assistance is hailed the greatest adventurer. The dog sled team that crossed the arctic tundra in a blizzard to deliver medicine is highly lauded. When the prodigal son who has wasted his inheritance on raucous living finally comes to his senses and returns home, his father rejoices to the extent that his other son, the steadfast one, objects. Had David been a seasoned warrior, perhaps a brilliant archer with a strong bow and full quiver, his defeat of Goliath might not continue to be a retold morality tale millennia later.

While these sorts of situations may highlight the fact that underdogs are our favorite champions, they make it clear that we have imported strongly contextualist considerations in constructing an “anti-plastic” spectrum of art-form merit. In all these examples, the additional praise the results garner is based on the addition of esteem for how the results were achieved. Regarding works of art, what we have added is esteem for the artist, their skills, and very likely their determination. The focus on merit is not on the artistic instantiation alone, but rather, in at least some measure, on matters external to it. The formalist would be unhappy.

But the formalist was already unhappy. The focus on the plasticity of art forms already incorporates considerations external to a focus purely on the object and its properties. For the formalist to be happy, art forms should not be placed in a hierarchy based on the external contingency of how plastic are their media, but rather simply on how great are their representative works of art. Those art forms with the greatest representative works of art should be at the top of the scale, and those with the least great or fewest great at the bottom. Such a ranking would likely accord with traditions and canon: painting and sculpture would be near the top, judging from what populates national museums across at least the Western world, and culinary creation and fashion apparel near the bottom.

But this is not what Alison suggested, and given that suggestion and consideration of it, we might have good reason to support the opposite view: that the admittedly contextual matters of artistic skill and drive should appropriately figure into a hierarchy of art forms. If this is true, if the “anti-plastic” hierarchy has merit, then the tables are turned and The Garden takes its place at the top of the list because of the fact that gardens require deeper and more wide-ranging artistic skill than other art forms specifically because of their lack of media plasticity. This is not simply an argument against Alison’s position; it is an argument against Kant’s and Hegel’s and against all who hold today that The Garden is unworthy of the respect accorded to “real” art forms. In what remains of this paper, let’s look at the detail of those skills required by garden designers and gardeners.

4. The skill of garden designing and gardening

Developing a vision. As is likely the case with the creation of any art object or event or any aesthetic object, the creation of a garden begins with an idea. Unlike the case with every art/aesthetic object, the idea of a garden involves certain questions that must be answered before moving forward.

The first question is about the purpose of the garden. Gardens have purposes that are intended and accidental. Garden visitors can bring with them any number of purposes to which the garden they visit can be put – as a place for relaxation, for meeting friends, for passing time, as a venue for playing a sport, for making some phone calls, for eating, for thinking, for writing, and so forth – and gardens may be designed with many purposes in mind. Yet each garden typically has a single, central purpose that defines the idea of that garden. The garden may be “function-forward,” serving as a place for raising food or medicine, religious worship or contemplation, propagating plants for sale, the internment and memory of the dead or an historical event or period, and so forth. Or, the garden could be for the collection and preservation of plants (or even animals), as simply a collection, for conservation efforts or educational purposes. The garden may be a setting for a residence, business, hospital, or school, a collection of sculpture, a soccer field or playground, an amusement park, or even a parking lot or public thoroughfare. A garden could be purposed to showcase one’s wealth or cultural or national identity or heritage, as achieved, perhaps, by creating a garden in a style connected to a particular cultural identity or time period.

It is important to note that by ‘purpose’’ or ‘function,’ I do not mean to beg the question against those who believe that art and aesthetic objects are properly appreciated without consideration of instrumentality. A garden’s purpose can be simply for aesthetic appreciation. The most famous gardens in the world tend to be (1) botanical gardens, (2) cultural style gardens, and (3) “pleasure gardens,” where the purpose is simply to appreciate the beauty of the place or, with more modernist or post-modernist gardens, to appreciate some other artistic virtue. The purpose of a garden sets the appropriate classification of that garden for appreciators. To visit a community allotment garden and complain that it does not possess the aesthetic features of Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania is to not appreciate that allotment garden for what it is. So not only does the purpose of a garden drive the original idea behind the creation of a garden but it circumscribes the identity boundaries in which the garden is appropriately appreciated and compared with other gardens.

Once the garden’s purpose is established, the potential garden creator can begin to think about the garden’s physical features, beginning with ideas about the siting of the garden and its size. Gardens are dependent on the physical features of the land they will inhabit. Most gardens occupy some area of land, but this is not necessary, as a garden could potentially be at the bottom of a body of water (perhaps created by an octopus), within a building of some sort (perhaps a greenhouse or a shopping mall), or even, though this is clearly debatable, portable. Those gardens that occupy land, as mentioned, are dependent on the topography of that land, its hydrology and soil biology, the sort of climate that is typical for that area, and so forth. Some gardens can be extremely small, as we see with pavement gardens that are created within the cracks of a sidewalk, or quite large, like the New York Botanical Garden (250 acres) and the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew (300 acres).[13] Since gardens must be conceivable as distinct places, their sizes are limited to the human proportionality that we employ when we think about what it means for something to be a place. When a garden is very large, it is common for it to be divided into garden rooms. While a garden room may fit human proportionality better than a 300-acre garden, a garden room may itself be too large to be taken in as a single visual field. These sorts of considerations obviously constrain the garden designer and limit the malleability of the media that may be employed in garden creation.

Developing meaning, representation, and expression. If a garden can be a work of art, then it should be capable of being interpreted as any other work of art might be. Is it possible for a garden to possess meaning, to represent, and to express? It is, but to achieve these things in a garden is rarer than we find in works from other art forms, and greater skill must be employed by the garden designer to make these things possible.

When we consider a Zen dry landscape garden – a Japanese karesansui garden – we find that visitors commonly take the major stones to represent islands and the gravel or sand to represent water, with wider fields representing seas or oceans and narrower fields rivers and streams. Occasionally we might find the gravel or sand mounded so it seems to represent hills or mountains. The Kyoto temple complex Daisen-in is a great example of this, and Saihō-ji has, among other such things, a set of placed rocks that represent a cascading waterfall.[14]

We might say that these gardens express for the monks who contemplate them the character of transcendence; it is said that at Ryōan-ji, where only fourteen of the fifteen placed stones are visible at any given time as one looks at the garden from the viewing platform, that when a monk can see all fifteen stones at once, he had reached Enlightenment. We might say that a Capability Brown landscape, as we find at Blenheim Palace or Stowe in the United Kingdom, expresses the correct relationship the English aristocracy had with the land: a controlled respect for the pastoral, illustrated through great invention and effort to achieve perfected bucolic nature. We might say that the gardens at Versailles, designed by André Le Nôtre, express through their grandeur the formality of their control of nature, and the sweeping sight lines all the way to the horizon, the majesty and power of the French monarch and, by extension, the nation.

From the possession of representative and expressive features, we might move to consideration of whether gardens possess meaning. A good deal has been written on this matter.[15] Especially noteworthy are Ross’s What Gardens Mean and the pioneering work of Miller, both mentioned at the start of this paper, and cases have been offered for why and how some gardens are indeed capable of such interpretation. The example that many discuss is that of Stourhead in Wiltshire, England. Stourhead is a large garden designed around a central lake. As visitors walk around the lake and through the gardens, they encounter many architectural works that some might call follies, as they are more sculptural than architecturally functional. If one attends to each architectural work in sequence, one recreates the journey of Aeneus as told in Virgil’s Aeneid. Garden theorists point to this as an example of an interpretation of Stourhead as a garden. The Kyoto Zen Buddhist karesansui gardens, Scotland’s Garden of Cosmic Speculation, and Martha Schwartz’ Bagel Garden all are examples of gardens for which interpretations seem obviously useful. And if we admit Earthworks and Land Art to the set of gardens, some of which admittedly only have living elements as contexts rather than central elements, such as Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels (mid-70s), and Alan Sonfist’s Time Landscape (begun in 1965), then we have another set of examples of gardens that clearly are interpretable.

To achieve any of these things – to be representative or have aspects that are representative, to express, and to be profitably interpretable or the bearers of meaning – the garden designer must not only have the skills of the artist but be able to use these skills to bring such things to visibility in a garden.

Fully engaging the visitor. For gardens that may be traversed, it is typical that a visitor’s full range of senses will be engaged. Visitors will see the garden’s colorful palette, smell the flowers, hear the birds, feel the path they walk on, and, in some cases, taste its produce. Not only are the full range of senses engaged but they are engaged dynamically, as new stimuli are constantly being presented. If we take seriously the idea that humans are indeed part of nature and rid ourselves of a dualist conception of “visitor” and “garden” as two separate things, then the garden does not so much engage us as absorb us. The space between us and the gardens we inhabit disappears as we become as much a part of a garden as the birds. If this absorption model is an appropriate way to envision how we and a garden interact, then this sets a remarkably high bar for the garden designer. Works of art commonly can be appreciated either on a disinterested model of the sort envisioned by Kant or on an engagement model of the sort envisioned by John Dewey and later Arnold Berleant,[16] but in a garden the disinterested approach is not realistic. The garden designer must create for absorption, a challenge that may be special or at least magnified in the creation of a garden.

The focus or perspective of a garden visitor is not under the full control of the garden designer. Visitors might focus on the entire visual field available; they might focus on a grouping of plants; they might focus on a single flower or leaf. The garden designer must present a rich enough palette so that no matter what focus or perspective the visitor adopts, the visitor will find something of interest. In addition, the designer of a “destination garden” must also design for a visit that might last a full day or more. They must provide a wide range of different sorts of experiences in continuity with one another, as the perspective of the visitor must be continually engaged throughout their time strolling the garden. The designer might incorporate surprise components or long sight lines; they might include places to sit and contemplate; they might include paths that slow progress or speed up the visit. The larger the garden, the greater the skill necessary to ensure full absorption from the start to the completion of the experience.

Scientific knowledge. All artists must understand their medium well to be able to manipulate it to produce an instantiation that approximates their vision for their work. In the case of a garden, a designer not only must understand the media from an aesthetic point of view; the designer must have mastered a wide range of scientific knowledge concerning plant biology, soil biology, hydrology, climatology, and so forth. Possessing this knowledge entails planning and care accordingly. As mentioned, a garden untended tends not to be a garden for long. And a garden tended in the wrong ways tends to experience the same fate. Garden designer and gardener alike must work with an attitude of humble cooperation with a partner whose dictates admit of little flexibility.

Care of living objects. Most artists need not be invested in their media in ways that involve care and empathy. If a painter wants to throw away paint, brushes, or canvases, those objects are merely property that may be disposed in the way the painter sees fit. Not so with gardens. Plants are living things, and most gardens include animals of one size or another. The recognition that one is working with fellow living beings is made more complex by the gardener’s need to attend to tasks like weeding, pulling up seedlings, removing plants that begin crowding out others, and other activities that entail stopping some living things from continuing to live. While every living thing is living, a gardener must be able to discriminate among living things taken as individuals and living things that form a field, like a bed of violets, where plants are not typically seen except as a group.

Cooperation with others. One challenge for artistic autonomy in all art forms is the commission, where the artist is obligated to cooperatively work with a patron. The installation and ongoing maintenance of a garden require resources in proportion to the scale of the garden. A kitchen garden may require only what a homeowner can easily give, but even in the case of a modest contemporary vegetable garden, the chances are that purchasing a tomato from a supermarket will be less expensive than preparing the soil, buying the seeds, planting them, watering and fertilizing the plants, and keeping  small and large pests at bay. While seeds, water, and compost may be inexpensive, the labor and care that goes into the gardening to achieve this tomato make it precious. Like an extraordinarily decorated birthday cake, one is loathe to cut into it and ruin the perfect result of so much labor and care, “perfect” despite that it is not spherical or uniformly red, as the grocery store tomato would be.

Resources required by gardens worthy to be visitor destinations can be substantial, such that the only way to create and maintain such a garden is for the necessary resources to be provided by either a very wealthy individual or some sort of corporate body, like a municipality or a university. This tends to limit such gardens to traditional forms, styles, and purposes. And this limitation in turn limits the extent to which a garden designer’s plan, no matter how artistically rich that plan may be, is carried out in accord with the artistic merits of that plan. Creating a garden on a large scale means not only the need for cooperation and compromise; it means that limitations are compounded because of those needs.

Once a garden is installed, gardeners take over the work from the designer. The need for ongoing care is a challenge most artists do not face. In the case of most art forms, once a work of art is completed, no modification is permitted, even by the artist, of the completed work. This is certainly not the case with gardens. Gardeners are plural, and they are plural in two directions, which is to say (1) that in gardens of any significant size, there will be more than one gardener and cooperation among the group is necessary for the health of the garden, and (2) gardener will follow gardener, as gardeners leave and are replaced by others. The gardener who develops a proprietary attitude toward the garden may be hampered by the lack of success that results from not cooperating with others, but also by the lack of investment in a garden that the gardener likely never will personally experience. Those who plant trees do so in the realization that they will not see those trees into full maturity; they plant them for future generations. This is certainly the case in large-scale gardens where gardeners install plants knowing that those who will appreciate these plants may not yet have been born.

5. Conclusion

Whether or not one accepts Alison’s schema for ordering art forms according to the plasticity of their media is not ultimately at issue because, as we saw, there are a variety of ways to order art forms along continua where one ordering seems as reasonable as another. Rather, what is at issue is the level of respect that The Garden should enjoy, respect that has been stymied from its relegation to being “merely aesthetic” and not capable of numbering among its members works of art. Or, if accepted as an art form, relegated to being one of the lesser ones. To the contrary, the point of this paper is to highlight the reasonableness of understanding and celebrating The Garden as an art form, since artistic success with a garden that rises to the level of being a work of art – and clearly not all do – entails having to master a set of skills that typically dwarf what must be mastered to manipulate the media of “simpler,” more plastic art forms. If we are right to cheer all the more loudly for a work of art where we know the challenges that were overcome were either systematically or incidentally greater than they might have been, then we have reason to celebrate the successful garden work of art with greater exuberance because of the level of evident skill needed to bring it into existence.

In the end, my inclination is to reject both the particular hierarchy Alison introduced and hierarchies of aesthetic or artistic worth in general. They do no work. Such hierarchies do not aid us in the depth or endurance of our aesthetic/artistic experiences; they do not help us evaluate aesthetic/artistic objects and events; nor do they assist us in working out the meanings of such things. One’s celebration of The Garden as an art form, framed within the respect that ought to be accorded for garden artists working, at best, as co-equal partners with nature, should not be taken as cause for celebrating any other art form less. Indeed, the notion of celebrating The Garden as an art form is motivated in part by the expansion of opportunities for experiences that may be as rich as those afforded by any other form of art.[17]


David Fenner

David Fenner is Professor of Philosophy and Art at the University of North Florida. He currently focuses on the aesthetics of gardens and aesthetic education; in the past, he focused on subjective, contextual, and ethical matters in aesthetics.

Published January 15, 2023.

Cite this article: David Fenner, “Gardens and Plasticity,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Volume 21 (2023), accessed date.



[1] Mara Miller, The Garden as an Art (New York, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993); Stephanie Ross, What Gardens Mean (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

[2] G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1975), 41-42 and 248.

[3] Michael Lee might disagree with this characterization of Kant’s view. See his The German “Mittelweg”: Garden Theory and Philosophy in the Time of Kant (New York, NY:  Routledge, 2013).

[4] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1987), 322-324.

[5] Archibald Alison, Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste, volume one, fourth edition (Edinburgh, UK: Archibald Constable and Company, 1815), 122.

[6] This is discussed at length in Alison’s Essays, 123-131.

[7] Lee, 107-108.

[8] This is not necessarily the case. See Mara Miller, “’I Let The Piece Sing Its Own Stories:’ Post-Modern Artistic Inspiration,” Sztuka i Filozofia (Studies in Philosophy) 45 (2014), 7-31.

[9] Salvatore Garau’s recent invisible sculpture, Io Sono (2021), is a significant exception, joining such works as Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) and John Cage’s 4’33’’ (1952).

[10] Susanne Langer, Feeling and Form (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953).

[11] Miller, 15, 50-51, and 124.

[12] ‘Garden designer’ and ‘landscape architect’ are titles that may be interchangeable or differ from one another by virtue of focus and scope; garden theorists use the term ‘gardenist’ on occasion, a title that highlights the analogue with ‘artist.’

[13] Michael Lee writes “[Karl Heinrich] Heydenreich’s reversal of Allison’s hierarchy of painting and gardening is based on his recognition that the garden’s spatiality offers unique resources to the project of discursivity.” Lee, 108.

[14] Karesansui gardens are unlike places like Cadillac Ranch and Stonehenge in at least four ways: (1) it is atypical for anyone to refer to Cadillac Ranch and/or Stonehenge as gardens, but it is common to refer to karesansui as gardens; (2) karesansui, at least the iconic ones found in Kyoto, are all parts of greater garden complexes, all of which include plants, providing a living context for these dry landscape places; (3) karesansui participate in the “borrowed scenery” of living plants that may be seen (heard, smelled) just beyond their borders; and (4) most karesansui are not composed simply of non-living elements; again, the iconic ones in Kyoto all incorporate some degree of living elements, like moss.

[15] Miller, 135-176; Mark Francis and Randolph T. Hester, Jr. (eds.), The Meaning of Gardens:  Idea, Place, and Action (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990); Marc Treib, “Must Landscapes Mean? Approaches to Significance in Recent Landscape Architecture,” Landscape Journal 14:1 (1995), 47-62; Jane Gillette, “Can Gardens Mean?” Landscape Journal 24:1 (2005), 85-97; Susan Herrington, “Gardens Can Mean,” Landscape Journal 26:2 (2007), 302-317; G. R. F. Ferrari, “The Meaninglessness of Gardens,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 68:1 (2010), 33-45; Marc Treib (ed.), Meaning in Landscape Architecture and Gardens (New York, NY: Routledge, 2011).

[16] John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York, NY: Perigee, 1934); Arnold Berleant, The Aesthetics of Environment (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1992).

[17] My thanks to two referees for this journal, and its editor, for their very helpful guidance.