Where have all the critics gone?
by Anne Wareham
I would like to see more great gardens. I think they would enrich our culture. You can express things through the use of land, water and plants that no other art form provides scope for, especially because time and weather are inevitable and dynamic partners in the process. This combination of natural forces and our work upon them has immense resonance for us, echoing our work in making a living on this planet in partnership with the land.
A great garden requires a site and a person willing and able to transform that site. In order to do that they have to have time, sensitivity, imagination, courage, taste, ruthlessness, a spatial sense and response to pattern, and an ability to learn, especially about their own limitations.
And it requires a culture which takes gardens more seriously than we do. For that we need better gardens. An end of praising Highgrove and other inadequate efforts by the famous and fatuous. And for that we need garden critics and garden criticism. No art can thrive without the serious discussion and dialogue which criticism offers: it raises standards, informs, educates and promotes intelligent debate. It is the lifeblood of any high art, and our gardens are suffering for lack of it. I am not referring here to the garden where the kids play football or that which is devoted to a collection of special plants: I am referring to gardens which open to the public for money.
I think it is possible that the dual sense of the word criticism creates a problem. The dictionary clarifies the ambiguity –
“Criticism: 1.the act or an instance of making an unfavourable or severe judgement, comment etc. 2. The analysis or evaluation of a work of art, literature etc.
It is, of course, the second use of the word that concerns me here, but the definitions are not mutually exclusive. It is a fact that “an analysis or evaluation” may come couched in quite damning terms – but serious analysis is worth the bruises. I read an article by a novel writer recently, about his visit to a book market, a “salon litteraire,” in France. He found the punters very blunt in their comments about his work, but concluded – “Yes, the French revere their novelists, but they also believe they can tell them off if they are found wanting. Because they believe that what you do is important, they also reserve the right to dress you down.”
A bit of dressing down is maybe what we need to make our gardens sing again. Our gardens and our appreciation of them could blossom if we would begin to treat them as important, worthy of serious debate and discussion — not simply as occupational therapy for the retired middle classes.
However, there is currently no context for garden criticism. The model of theatre or book criticism would suggest that critics would visit gardens, and then write them up in our broadsheet newspapers and periodicals if they were worthy of that attention. But no-one writes such a column in this country and no writer has such freedom. Gardens are featured in magazines and newspapers – but never in the review section of a paper. If pop music can be reviewed in these sections, why not gardens?
Gardens usually appear in the press alongside “home” or “property”, and in glossy magazines which are dedicated to a glamorous presentation, for the benefit of potential advertisers as much as anybody. In both, the “how to” is muddled up with the resulting gardens — both reduced to hobby.
Gardens get into these magazines and the press via photographs. Garden photographers trawl the country looking for new ‘material’, which they flatter by getting up ladders, crawling about on the ground, getting up at the crack of dawn and Photoshopping. They then sell the results to an editor of a magazine or newspaper. The editor then decides whether the photographs fit the magazine: have the right “style”, fill an “autumn slot,” feature the right plants, create the right balance.
The editor is merely buying a set of photographs, not assessing a garden. She will probably never see the garden. If all this is acceptable, a writer will be dispatched to write a piece about the garden. Probably in the middle of winter despite the pictures featuring flowering roses. It is actually not unknown for the writer to write the piece without setting foot in the garden, but even if they do see it, their task is to justify the garden’s already accepted presence in the publication, not raise issues about it. Editors ask for the articles to be “personal, focusing on the owners and their history and how they came to make the garden. With plant associations.” This is altogether not a context in which we can review gardens or discuss them in depth. (I sometimes toy with the delinquent idea of inventing a totally fictitious garden and seeing if I could get it into a magazine or newspaper…..)
To get gardens worth taking seriously and then to understand why they are worth taking seriously we need a context for genuine garden criticism. We need editors with the courage to break the mould and put gardens alongside books, theatre and pop music in the review sections of our newspapers and magazines. We need to be able to separate garden appreciation from hints on slug control. We need to find a way to break out of the “gardener’s ghetto”, where gardens are only seen to be of interest to gardeners. And, perhaps, we need a certain delinquent small boy, prepared to declare that the Emperor in fact has no clothes.
Garden writing veddw.com/category/annes-writing/
It is a pleasure to publish this post. I enjoy gardens, plants, trees and flowers, as many do – and it brightens the cold evenings and days of winter.