Thursday, 26 January 2012

Something to say - Ballad Of A Thin Man

"But what does it mean? Oh, what's it trying to say, surely it means something?"  Hear the petulant wails as people whack through the flourless chocolate cake and Earl Grey tea.  They've just visited a garden, they're the new breed, they're trying to make sense of it all. 

Can you imagine such a scene?  And the vibrant conversation that ensues: are gardens art? What was the creator's brief?  How to judge, whether to judge?  Was it beautiful?  Was it right? Does it matter?  Was this the point?  Was that the point? 

Ephrussi De Rothschild, Nice, France. 

No, that's not really how it works.  Gardens don't seem to invite artistic or philosophical discussion with any ease.  That's not to say they don't sometimes get it, and there are many who feel an aesthetic of gardens should be encouraged, helping us all to develop better gardens and better understanding of them.  I sometimes feel this too.  And then I turn round and feel the exact opposite.  So I'm not to be trusted, but, as ever, I'm willing to toss a few opinions about.

In any case, a garden mostly means itself.  Like a landscape, it means that here was considered a good place to grow this or that.   It means that the people who made it thought this thing or that thing were worth doing.  It means society, history, fashion, art, money, labour, aspiration and practicality.  It can mean leisure, class and memory.  These things can be read in it, but they may not be intended as meaning.

The Pursuit of Paradise by Jane Brown gives us the complete low-down on the social history of gardens in the UK.  I highly recommend it, if you enjoy detail and illumination.  Few pictures but lots of evidence for interesting assertions.  Threads of influence and expectation woven through our understanding of what a garden is or ought to be.

A garden often represents some pretty simple aims;  pleasurable control of nature and contact with beauty.  It might also present a point of view, or a set of thoughts, it might mean an insult, or a dream.  But it means all these things in a rather gardeny way - it can never really be free of being a garden, it's hard to understand why one would want it to.

The Garden House, Devon

The website urges us, in its manifesto, "to promote productive and pleasureable debate through gardens and to foster gardens that offer deeper artistic expression".  That's fine, I'll give it a whirl.  But I don't know, not at the expense of what we have taken for granted in gardening. That everyone can do it,  that it's a kindly balm, that it's a humanist endeavour at its heart.  And that we should create and encourage, not the reverse.

Proper art, whatever that is, has greater freedom.  It's chains are self-imposed by the creator's desires and capacities.  A wild and irritating generalisation, of course; nothing is free, or all that easy. 

The gardener's volatile materials are growth, place and weather; prone to tempers and unreasonable behaviour, they demand deference.  The Wicked Fairy of fashion steps through, just as exigeant and forceful.  Time tarnishes and then, with luck, softens.

But there are routes to beauty.  Effective placing of lovely plants only emphasises their inherent charms and interest; a sense of scale and all the other design mantras all look like the absolutely obvious when they're right.  The decisions of the garden-maker disappear as the branches spread.

Naumkeag in Massachusets.  

Not true of a combination with striking architectural elements, like the steps above, of course.  That's the way to make your mark.

There's another thing that happens.  As a garden-visitor, you create your own experience, because it's a whole environment, you're in it and part of it, seeing what is visible and meaningful to you.  The garden-maker may focus your gaze, but not your active attention.  Gardens are often sociable baths of sensual leisure, thinking seems out of place and criticism mean-spirited.
Guess who can shed a little acrid light on the role of the critic, it's Dylan of course, singing Ballad Of A Thin Man.  I chose this next photograph because of the slightly weak, disconnected look on the defensive, but defenceless face. And there he was thinking he was the Emperor Tiberius.

We all know the song surely, the singer mockingly accuses the subject of  his ballad, Mr Jones, of not knowing what's " happening". "Do you, Mr Jones?"  You've heard that cawing, sneering tone of voice.  It's charismatic but frankly not that attractive.  Difficult to enjoy even if you are not the target and even if you think the target deserves it.

But this target doesn't seem seriously offensive, his biggest crimes seem to be his appearance, his weak attempts at asking questions and the way he moves, holding a pencil, being a bit like a camel.   This doesn't add up to much, but he's an uncomprehending, ignorant outsider, with an educated veneer.  Lovely to sneer at, with all the pleasures of bullying and being superior.  Indeed he's beset by aggressive questions from an enraged circus troupe, who relish their own more exotic flaws.

Mr Jones is very uncomfortable, like a toad who's flopped unwarily into a hairdresser's.  He's puzzled and harried, lost for a response and  faced with confusing forces who seem to know more about him than he knows himself.  They scream together in coded language.  He has no idea what to do and that seems to madden his interlocutor further.  All this you learn, not from him but from the unrelenting attack.

It's a pretty horrible situation, one I instinctively wish to avoid.  My sympathy for Mr Jones is reluctant, because he has got things wrong, but I hope to have nothing but distaste for the ganging up and the superiority.  I've seen that frozen, defensive look on the faces of garden visitors when their opinion is sought. They sometimes have no clue what they're supposed to be looking at or for, even as I enthuse or criticise with others.  I'm sure I sometimes have that look myself.  Taste is not simple, condemnation circles in the air.  Try Germanicus for the hard look on the singer/protagonist's face as he directs proceedings.  

In the song, Mr Jones probably represents the press, who have to turn out a story, even though they completely misunderstand the nature of the culture they're looking at.  He doesn't understand its anarchic reality, or its revolutionary possibilities and he doesn't understand that he'd better be a part of it.  There's an underlying gay sex theme, implicating Mr Jones in further hypocrisy which he hasn't begun to come to terms with.  He doesn't even know about himself, let alone the subjects of his interview.

But is ignorance and fear best dealt with by mockery and exclusion?  Rhetorical question of course.  The song speaks of the piercing truth of the situation, from both sides. Dylan nails it, and he manages to do that from a one-sided perspective.  He leaves you questioning how you too are implicated.  If it's unfair criticism of an unfair critic, whose side are you on?

The alternative to harsh criticism cannot be universal tolerance and misty-eyed acceptance of everything.  That would never work.  How we rate and what we perceive in the work of others needs expression and exploration.  And that's where thinkinGardens comes in, but confusingly.  Try it and see.

I'll finish with this very influential garden, Prospect Cottage, Dungeness, Kent, UK which completely "got" the zeitgeist about 10 or 15 years ago and seemed to speak to the hearts of most people.  But not me, I don't know if it's contrariness or a dislike of too much self-conscious bric-a-brac, however "found" and place-specific.   I could see it was clever, and artily done, but it left me cold, almost like this week's song. This picture does it no justice at all; you might like to search for something better.  There's plenty under both its name and Derek Jarman's.

It's only fair to say that the garden's focus on the simple, the natural and the wild is no longer so new and different as it seemed then.  Time passes, impact is lost as repetition dulls.

But if I ever met the current caretaker, or had ever met Derek Jarman before his untimely death, I would have found something I could honestly admire and I would have remained silent about my cold heart and the reasons for it.  Is that cowardly and dishonest?  Voicing it would have seemed churlish and wrong.  There are those who think they've spotted a naked Emporer and you really need to be both absolutely positive and correct.  Is that possible about this sort of thing?

You don't pay to enter this garden, you can go any time - doesn't that make it worse to criticise? If you go to a private garden through the National Gardens Scheme or others, part of the small price, usually paid to a charity, is reasonable tolerant enthusiasm and acceptance.  That's because you're an honorary friend and it's why so very many people in this country open their gardens to the public.  You're never far from a garden to visit and it's a marvellous thing on the whole.

My dishonesty would not matter a straw under those conditions of course, but if I had been an influential person writing a published review I think I would still have focussed on the positive.  Would my hypocrisy have made me unreliable, to the point of uselessness?  There's a good tradition of constructive criticism, which involves balancing a good thing with a bad, suggesting a way forward.  Any mentoring or management tome will help us with that.

If I had been honest,  I would have had to do more than simply "not like " it, I think.  And that's the challenge of the thinkinGardens reviews.  Harshness must be justified. Gardens set a high bar on that, precisely because they're gardens, with all that that means.  We couldn't give Mr Jones this much credit, but some sort of paradise is always being pursued in a garden.


  1. What a great post. I too read thingingardens and I applaud it for its ambition and find some of it fascinating but I am also sometimes made uncomfortable by a readiness to offend. I don't mind offending generally but a garden can be as personal a place as a bed. I am sure gardens can be art but mine is not. It is where I live and work. I do have a sense of what I am doing here but it might very well not be visible to other people, being to do with place and trying to make something which does not draw too much attention to itself, the place being more beautiful than anything I might impose upon it. You see, even talking about it doesn't work too well.

  2. Elizabethm. Ah, these are the issues, imposing without imposing, it's such an absorbing problem! Then we have to think about what other people think, and it all gets very messy. Thank you so much for responding.

    And beds are sometimes art! Just to muddle us further.

  3. Ah, I love blog posts that really make me think, as this one did. It made me think about the ways I write letters of recommendation for my students, honestly describing their strengths and remaining silent about their weaknesses. It also made me think about the tension in gardening between the creation of an art object and plants as living, growing, beings with wills of their own. Thanks for this. -Jean

    1. Jean - didn't get back quickly to you on this but want to thank you for your comments. It's what is so absorbing I think, being powerless but powerful in our gardens. As for the criticism issue - I didn't really get anywhere but glad it was stimulating!