Over the last few years, my wife has introduced me to a number of striking, original, and highly unusual landscapes and gardens, which caused me to reevaluate my estimation of gardening and landscaping as an art form.
To be sure, this has been an art form since ancient times; yet while we buy and sell small, often relatively insignificant and drab paintings by very famous artists for staggering sums of money — tens and perhaps even hundreds of millions of dollars, by now — there is no aftermarket for great gardens, nor has the art world managed to wrap its relatively small mind around the achievements in this area, which in many cases stand well above achievements by painters, sculptors, and the like — the former whose works often accidentally (or not) represent such gardens in their measured and crafted approach to landscape painting, and the latter, whose works are so often placed in such landscapes.
The lowly gardener, it seems, is too humble — his hands buried in dirt and tangled in twigs — to be worth all that money. The landscape, in modern times, simply becomes a setting for architectural gems (again, the buildings are perversely perceived as being more important than the landscapes they sit in) or an advertisement of the wealth and power of the landscape owner.
Landscaping, in the meantime, has quietly persisted as an intelligent and extraordinarily aesthetic craft that manages to operate under the radar of the cognoscenti, the movers and shakers that determine what is aesthetically important. One can imagine, on almost any day, an article in CNN or the times extolling the virtue of a van Gogh or a Monet sold at Sotheby's or Christie's for $50 million; but when was the last time you read about a garden, Bonsai tree, or flower arrangement changing hands for a huge sum of money? Not gonna happen.
Having spent my entire life immersed in the arts, I come to the realization that landscaping is a high art very late in the ballgame — yet realization it is. No one can visit the mannerist Gardens in Italy or the Zen gardens in Kyoto without beginning to understand that man's interaction with his landscape ranks among the highest of all arts, even though we take it for granted. There could be a great deal more attention paid to this art; yet in most Western countries, it is an afterthought for all those except the small percentage addicted to the understanding of plants and their propagation. The Japanese clearly have a much greater understanding of this sensibility and art form; and their landscape reflects it. This isn't to say that the Japanese have been unflagging and attentive stewards of their environment—far from it. But they do craft better living environments and landscapes than we do.
Our landscape has the potential to be invested with an enormous amount of aesthetic and symbolic value, always in movement. Some ancient cultures understood their entire way of being through this mode of potential, growth, and change. (On the matter of the perception of life as a process of becoming, see my friend Stephen Houston's extraordinarily fine and interesting book, The Life Within—Classic Maya and the Matter of Permanence.) Only when we encounter mannerist landscapes as original as the Parco dei Mostri do we begin to understand the potential for landscape and gardening to inform the subliminal; and only when we encounter formal gardens such as the Villa Lante can we begin to understand the potential for formal gardens to express the aesthetic of inner perfection from a Western point of view.
The gardens and landscapes of Zen temples are another matter entirely, so it would seem; and yet the heart and soul of Zen gardening practice springs from the same hearts that beat in the same breasts as those of Western men and women. There is a deep and unspoken kinship between gardeners, the world around; it is a universal language. It remains forever unspoken except in the souls of those who walk the paths and taking the impressions; yet everyone understands it.
I'm not sure why we don't value this very high art form more; so much could be done to change that, yet it seems unlikely. Nonetheless, my musings on landscape and gardening led me to a group of insights and ideas about Zen gardening practice which I will continue to discuss in the next few posts.
One last note before I close out this post. Readers interested in a more in-depth treatment of the question of human beings in the relationship to landscape ought to read Simon Schama's Landscape and Memory, an utterly fascinating book.