Hot Debate Coming Up: Do Gardens Qualify as Art?



The Royal Hort Society is holding a debate I’d love to hear.  The topic is: “Are Gardens Art?” and get a load of the line-up of debaters — a critic, a designer, a plantsperson and a philosopher:

  • Andrew Wilson (Chair of the debate panel) – Award winning Garden Designer, lecturer and writer
  • Anne Wareham – Editor of ThinkinGardens, garden critic and creator of the garden at Veddw House. Anne is campaigning to have gardens returned to their place amongst the fine arts of British Culture
  • Kathryn Aalto – A professional garden designer, historian, writer and speaker. Kathryn is concerned with both strong, contemporary design and an analytical view of garden history
  • Dr. Noel Kingsbury – Garden writer, reader, lecturer and teacher. Noel is an occasional designer, concerned with naturalistic and sustainable planting design who makes decisions based on science and evidence
  • Professor David Cooper – Emeritus Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Durham. David is the author of A Philosophy of Gardens (2006) which discusses the position of gardens as art or nature. Booking is recommended but not essential. 

The debate is being held at the RHS Garden Wisley in Surrey.  BUT, according to Anne Wareham, the could be made public (via Youtube, etc) if we show a little interest in it – by email.  So if you’d like to hear these folks go at it, email to say so: (Wisley contacted us to say they’re unable to film the debate, so could we remove this encouragement of emails to that end.)

Photo of Monet’s Giverny by Juergen Kurlvink.  Posted by Susan Harris


  1. That sounds really interesting! And Giverny would be an interesting study case – we visited the garden a month ago ( and I was thinking about how hard it must be to be a head gardener in a garden that people do not want to change in the slightest. Yet part of the beauty of gardens is their continuous evolution and in my view by trying to keep the garden static, it loses some of its charm. Would love to hear the debate!

    • Yes… keeping a garden in stasis is kind of a defeat of the point. I overheard client and friend of mine whose garden was recently on tour tell a visitor that viewing the garden on one particular weekend in the year wasn’t really doing it justice – “a garden isn’t a snapshot” she said “it’s a motion picture!”.

    • I read an article in The New Yorker many years ago that pointed out that Monet created Giverny as an outdoor studio/backdrop for his paintings — it allowed him to work from home, so to speak. As such, if I remember the article correctly, it is a very good garden, but not a great one — as garden design. Not art, but for art making.

      I found the backdrop argument to be true when I visited it later. All my quick “point and shoot” snapshots (especially of the pond) looked wonderful.

  2. This is a topic I am passionate about. I majored in art in college and spent a lot of my formative years learning the basic constructs of what we consider “art”. From a design aspect, garden as an art form is rather profound… it utilizes all the principles of design that are expected in 2 and 3 dimensional composition – balance, form, texture, unity, scale, color, etc., but it also incorporates time and movement as a design feature similar to dance and drama.
    The dynamism of garden also includes the viewer as participant similar to many works of installation art.
    As an art student I was charged to constantly be asking the question “what is art?” Although its kind of like Jesse Helms definition of pornography – “I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it”, I have come to believe that true art is a kind of communication that expresses the inexpressible and that good design and an acknowledgement of beauty are a kind of language that affirms wholeness. (Its why we perceive nature as beautiful).
    Garden, in my opinion, is a legitimate art form that encompasses all that the art world strives for and it would be a breakthrough in thinking (and even perhaps funding) if the attitudes about it could shift away from its also utilitarian definitions. We know how to separate “painting” as in painting a house from “painting” as in van Gogh… so it shouldn’t be a stretch.
    Its a shame that this debate is absent thinkers from the art world. I think they would be open and receptive to the concept of garden as art.

  3. Of course there can be no debate which can answer the proposed question vis-a-vis garden-making as an art form since there’s so little agreement on the purpose of Art, whether as a personal mode of self-expression or as a conscious means to communicate a specific idea/feeling to an audience. But it seems so clearly advantageous for us all to help promote gardening as an art form. Just as anyone can pick up a pencil and draw, the same goes for trowels and planting. What really makes the “Art of Gardening” so difficult is it’s dynamic nature over time, whether that’s the tenure of the gardener, the impact of changing seasons, daily weather and sunlight conditions.

  4. Sorry, folks. Wisley wrote to tell us they were unable to video the event and we should remove any mention of that from this post, so as not to disappoint people. So we’ve updated per their request.

    • ih welk. If you’re not getting in troubke, you’re not trying hard enough. Goid effort though everyone.

      But seriously, how hard is it to stick a camera on a tripod?

  5. What’s at stake in this debate? In other words, are they debating just for the sake of it, or will a specific outcome result in something, perhaps new sources of revenue for stakeholders?

    If one part of the definition of art is that it is made by humans, then I don’t see why plants, water and hardscaping can’t be considered proper media for an artist to work in. We take many different media from nature to make art (clay, metals, wood, cloth, ice, rocks, gemstones, glazes and paints, etc); why not living plants and the man-manipulated environments they are placed in?

    I guess I have trouble figuring out what the argument against calling a garden “art” would be. Perhaps some gardens are more “artful” than others, which have a utilitarian purpose (food, for example). But one can look at cars the same way; we use them for practical purposes, and some are more worthy of being called “art” than others (because they send a message or evoke certain feelings and so on). For me, the question of whether a garden can be called “art” is a moot point.

    A bigger question for me would be, if a garden qualifies as art, what do you call the “garden art” placed within the garden?

    • Hmm. Garden art would be the opposite of a building designed to be (or later chosen to be) a container for art – an art museum… Perhaps my garden is just a really fancy presentation of my one simple, concrete, Japanese lantern.

      Someone on the internet, I think this site, called gardening “the slowest performance art”.

      I don’t know that art has to be human, but I think David’s comment above covers that when he says it is communication. I can imagine aliens or robots in the future making art. When whales sing, are they simply communicating (“I’m over here”) or are they also actually singing? I can imagine the latter, although I have no reason to think so.

  6. Alan is correct in noting that there are no art experts. This is because gardening is not considered fine art. It is design. To an art historian it falls under the category of craft, as do many other beautiful things such as the best cuisine in the world. Chefs are not Artists, but there have been Artists who’ve gardened. Gardening does not make one an artist in the same way that being a fantastic amateur cook does not make you a Chef or even a Sous Chef. These titles are earned. That is why we call garden and landscape professionals Garden Designers or Landscape Architects and not Garden Artists. Design is a craft and only the best of any design may be called art. (I believe in my canonical art history text from my undergraduate years André Le Nôtre, Monet’s Giverney, and Capability Brown all made appearances.)

    I’ve waged this intellectual war for many years just for fun with my former mentor, an art historian, and I think it is nice they’ve added a philosopher to the panel. That’s the angle I always argue from when it comes to this debate. There are several books written by philosophers concerning this subject and they always conclude the exact same thing: Gardens are not fine art. Yes, they are artistic and can be full of creativity, but fine art is intended to invoke a great deal more from us a viewers. Garden history has nothing in it to compare to the Salon of 1859 in Paris. I wish it did because it would make gardens more interesting to me, but this is another key to why gardens are not art.

    Gardening is additionally a mimicry of nature. So yes, it has it’s dramatic side, but the flowers do not open for us, and we do not make them open, they open to attracts pollinators. It’s nice they’re holding this debate but I think it would be better if for once we could all just sit back and enjoy the history of garden design, herald the designers who create mind-blowing and life-altering designs, and enjoy being amateurs or professionals who love creative designs that give us pleasure.

    If the plant doesn’t propose to be something other than what it is, than neither should we.

    • Eloquently said and thoughtful and I disagree.
      What art is meant to evoke is a timeless debate and the intent of any artist is always questioned and considered and the same can be said of the artist who uses garden as his/her media.
      Also, I’m not certain there is a valid point in proclaiming that garden is a mimicry of nature – the same can be said of the renaissance sculptors and painters and is a landscape painting not art because it mimics nature? And is it always the intent of the gardener to mimic nature? Many times its the opposite… a reaction to or against the natural world.
      And the flower does not open for the gardener per se, but at the hands of any skilled artist the media renders something new. Stone can be a man. Crushed beetles can be the blood of Christ.
      My contention is that the very same thought process, inspiration and skill goes into the creation of a truly profound garden that is used in the construction of truly profound art and there is no logical reason to relegate garden to the category of “design”.
      Design, by most associations, is form related to function. The designed object has a practical application. It exist for no purpose other than the purpose intended by the artist. An ornamental garden is not a practical or functional object. It is a built environment intended to illicit a specific response by the viewer. Its a work of art.

    • Landscape architecture is a relatively recent delineation within the realm of architecture. As such I think we can look at architecture to see if both landscape architecture and architecture fall within the scope of fine art or as it had been called for a much longer time ‘high art’. In that case, it most definitely is fine art as architecture has been considered one of the high arts as long as there has been a classification of ‘high art’. Of course back then the only high arts were painting, sculpture, and architecture. Take that photographers ;p.

      • Sorry poets and musicians, as a visual artist I always forget your position in the high arts and I apologize.

    • Oh, and if you want a semantic argument the art school I went to lumped furniture, landscape, architecture, and land art under the singular rubric of ‘environmental art’ as in the three dimensional human environment.

    • Tsk. I wasn’t aware that “artist” was a regulated title that people had to qualify for. Surely it is a different category from chef, dentist, and lawyer.

      It’s true the plants do not open for anyone, however much I may have interfered with the process. but when I was younger and produced some oil paintings of dubious quality, I never received the impression that the paint dried for me. Gardening is not *necessarily art – it can be purely utilitarian, as moving, talking, and perhaps writing usually are.

      It is true that gardening is not usually considered fine art, but I suspect that is better explained by class pride than good philosophy, and an historical artifact. I put a lot more thinking into my garden, technical and consideration for its appearance, than I ever did for my adolescent oil paintings. (Of course, I’m older now.)

      Not to say that your opinion isn’t intelligent, nor well expressed.

  7. Doctor Cooper will be playing devil’s advocate, I gather – and I understand you have all been effective and that it will be filmed. All being well..

    Thanks for your efforts. XXxx

  8. Well if it is art, I’ve identified it’s first critic. Since early this morning my friend and nemesis Sammy the Squirrel has been showering my garden with twigs and other detritus as he builds another nest in the Sycamore tree that overhangs both my deck and the garden. Talk about a negative review. Ugh!

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