Is it garden design? Is it fine art? Is it conceptual art? Is it beautiful?

Question "But is it art?"

A few years ago, the RHS introduced the interesting category of Conceptual Gardens to the Hampton Court Flower Show. The above example, from the 2011 Show, is by Andrew Cook, Nicola Greaves, Camilla Moreton. The concept is explained as follows ‘Raising awareness of skin cancer this circular gravel garden, designed by students from Falmouth University, is a place where plants can plants bask in the sunlight whilst humans (represented as shadows on the ground) can escape to the shady shelter of the trees which line the garden.’
Let’s try some Qs&As:
Q ‘Is it a garden design?’ : A ‘It makes use of plants and it has an aesthetic quality, but it does not have the traditional garden roles (producing food, a place to sit, beside a house, etc)’
Q ‘Is it fine art?’ : A ‘It passes the test of having been in an exhibition, and this section of the Hampton Court Show could be counted an art exhibition, so “maybe”. ‘But it falls short of the requirements for fine art in having an explict message which makes it too like an advertisement (for skin cancer awareness)’
Q ‘Is it conceptual?’ A ‘Yes to the extent that it rests on an idea. But no because of the nature of the idea in question: it is far too “obvious”‘
Q ‘Does it produce the pleasurable quiver and sharp intake of breath which often comes from viewing a work of art?’ A ‘No.’
Q ‘Is it beautiful’ A ‘Not quite. The watery figures are good with the gravel and umbelifers. But the tree interrupts the composition, the wire sculpture spoils the purity of the figures and the peripheral planting is an untidy distraction’

14 thoughts on “Is it garden design? Is it fine art? Is it conceptual art? Is it beautiful?

  1. Simon

    Proust said that art with ideas, (by which I think he means art which flaunts/depends on its ideas), is like an item with the price tag left on. Perhaps something like this is not much else except the price tag.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Thank you – I have heard it said that Proust had a sense of humour but this is the nearest I have come to a witty remark from him.
      I son’t object to art being ‘obvious’ but it also needs to be true, to something, and new truths are rarely obious.

  2. Christine

    Is there a way to describe art by art students rather than artists? Certainly students exhibit. And sometimes their work is considered accomplished enough to be collectible.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I can see no bar to students producing works of fine art, in quality terms, but display in a student exhibition would not satisfy the commercial test (for future antiques) of the work having been displayed in an exhbition.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I like Eric Gill’s remark: ‘The artist is not a different kind of person, but every person is a different kind of artist.’ But the work of an artist falls into a different (commercial!) category once it has appeared in a recognized exhibition catalogue.

  3. Jim Peterson

    Tom, I agree with your opinion that:

    ‘It makes use of plants and it has an aesthetic quality, but it does not have the traditional garden roles (producing food, a place to sit, beside a house, etc)’

    However, I don´t see the biggest problem there. The problem is the garden´s main feature – two black depressing shades on the ground. Even though there´s an idea there, it´s way too gloomy for a garden. Both, traditional and contemporary garden´s are places of peace and harmony where one can rest and enjoy the beauty of nature. The idea here is obvious, however, it´s not suitable for a garden.

  4. Christine

    It could be also said that a student of art becomes an artist once they dedicate themselves professionally to artistic practice. [ie occupation artist] Does this however make them a good artist? Is the artist who has exhibited commercially a good artist or merely an artist practicing professionally?

    Tom do you think all persons are artists? And what do you mean by this?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Yes, commercial activity IS a criterion of who is an artist, but it is an unreliable test and it is not the only test.
      Re Eric Gill’s remark: I like it but it is only in the back of my mind. On the whole, yes: I suppose that most people have a sufficient level of artistic creativity in them to conclude that ‘every person is a special kind of artist’.

  5. Christine

    I wonder in this sense do you mean everyone is artistic, in the same way that it is said everyone is musical, or indeed mathematical? Are you saying that all people have an aptitude for a basic eduation in art, music and maths?

    When you say a ‘special kind of artist’ do you mean like Linda McCartney was a photographer [ ] while Paul McCartney was a musician [ ]?

    Yet Linda also became a musician? [ ] And Paul McCartney a photographer?
    [ ]

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      The comparison with music and maths is appropriate, though I can’t be a spokesman for Eric Gill. I would not categorize myself as an artist, mucisian or mathematician, though I have talents in all of them when compared, for example, to a chimpanzee! So I suppose we are talking about thresholds, and that the the commercial criterion ‘listed in an exhibition catalogue’ is just one way of defining a threshold for a painting being a ‘work of art’. We should also remember the comment that:
      – the aim of ninteeenth century art was to explore the nature of Beauty
      – the aim of twentieth century art was to explore the nature of Art
      – the aim of twenty-first century art is to make Money

  6. Christine

    Interestingly the twentyfirst century needs most to know about how to make money because with the GFC money seems to be in shorter supply than it was in the twentieth century when the focus was on making art. As I am totally unfamiliar with the conditions of the nineteenth century from personal experience I wont comment there.

    Tom, I would hope your talent threshold in the three areas of art, music and math was a little higher than a chimpanzee! I suppose the question becomes with equal training and equal practice do you arrive at an equal talent threshold in art, music and math?

  7. Christine

    Yes, I suppose there is mercenary and then there is mercenary…[ ]

    Of course an artist in common with a doctor ought to expect to make a living from their profession. A doctor needs to reach a particular standard of competence in order to practice medicine and hence make a living – perhaps this needs to be so of an artist?

    Or is there a sense that a doctor performs a public service and therefore should be free of market forces while an artist does not and therefore should be subject to market forces?

    So in one instance (where public safety is concerned) the standard is regulated, while in the other (where only a poor investment is at stake) the standard is not regulated?


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