In order correctly to define art it is necessary, first of all, to dismiss it as simply a source of pleasure and beauty and to consider it as a primary condition of human biology. To be artistic involves the use of skill and imagination in the creation of objects, environments, or experiences, that when they are perceived by others, create social bonds by linking people together in the same feelings. A work of art then, is any human production which causes the receiver to enter into a certain kind of relationship both with its maker and with all those who, simultaneously, previously, or subsequently, receive the same emotional response from it. It is an infection of feelings.
Leo Tolstoy was the first person to define art in this way as a universal feature of human behaviour. In What is art? first published in 1896, he defined art as any human activity that a person selects from the babble of day-to-day living because it transmits an emotion that inspired the person producing it to creativity.
“We are accustomed to understand art to be only what we hear and see in theatres, concerts, and exhibitions, together with buildings, statues, poems, novels. . . . But all this is but the smallest part of the art by which we communicate with each other in life. All human life is filled with works of art of every kind - from cradlesong, jest, mimicry, the ornamentation of houses, dress, and utensils, up to church services, buildings, monuments, and triumphal processions. It is all artistic activity. So that by art, in the limited sense of the word, we do not mean all human activity transmitting feelings, but only that part which we for some reason select from it and to which we attach special importance”.
In other words, artistic activity is an expression of selfhood that evolved for bonding in groups, and through the ages has been an indispensable feature of human existence for the well-being of individuals and society. The vehicle for transmission is anything deliberately created with the intention to affect the feelings and thoughts of others with the aims of changing their mood, challenging their understanding, inspiring them to be creative or giving a visual identity to their environment.
Turning environment into art was the role of the traditional genre of landscape painting. The idea that gardens were an art form came from Alexander Pope, who, in 1734, suggested that "all gardening is landscape painting. Just like a landscape hung up”. This idea was claimed by artists in the 1960s when many stopped merely representing the land on canvas and made their mark directly in the environment. This was a human instrumental attitude to nature exemplified by the monumental approach of artists like Michael Heizer and James Turrell. Their bulldozers were the chisels of Eco art sending a message about the scale of human engineering of the land. By contrast, the work created by people who call themselves environmental artists demonstrates a weaker instrumental attitude that may be called human-centred. Some reclaim and remediate damaged environments, restoring nature in artistic and often aesthetic ways.
Contemporary environmental artists such as Lynne Hull, interpret nature to inform us about its processes, or about environmental problems we face. They interact with habitat forces, creating artworks affected or powered by wind, water, lightning, even earthquakes. Their message is educational. We should re-envision our relationship to nature by adopting new ways to dwell in harmony with ecosystems. Dwelling, in this context, means living with a set of complex interactions between ideas, people, nature and structures. This is a form of earth art whereby artists can have the same complexities of encounter with space as the people who make gardens. Mental constructs they hold in common chime with spiritual and creative impulses emanating from Eastern philosophies, which are physically rooted in the chaitya of Buddhism. They all imagine a fresh stream of inflowing ideas will ‘condition the dwelling places of man and his mode of life and expression’, ‘which will supersede the old and build the "new house" in which humanity will live; cycle after cycle and civilization after civilization’. When Siddhartha Gautama, the prince who was to become Buddha Shakyamuni, came across the region of Uruvela he was struck by its beauty and peaceful setting...the pure clear waters of the Nairanjana River flowing gently between beautiful banks, verdant woods, and its seclusion and distance from turmoil. Seeing all this, Siddhartha's mind became exceedingly calm and it became his dwelling place to attain enlightenment. What the Buddha was to see and do here were the first scriptural guidelines for the siting and design of Buddhist monasteries, temples and gardens.
In Buddhism, a chaitya is any sacred place (tree, spring, lake etc.) within which a burial place is sited. The term stupa was originally applied to a burial place but many stupas do not contain relics and the term is now used for any Buddhist shrine with a circular mound form. Stupas are frequently placed on hills and the upward journey to reach them symbolises the journey to heaven. One of the greatest stupas is at Barabudur in Java. It is situated in a long, fertile valley, on top of a small hill, nestling against a protective backdrop of mountains. The whole valley is thus perceived as a community art form. Its fields are the nave of the chaitya; the hill the stupa's pedestal; and heaven lies above its arched ceiling. Pilgrims moving through the chaitya to climb the hill, position themselves in the wider world and through their religion they negotiate their relationship with the cosmos. The Buddhist term vihara originally meant the pleasure garden of a monastic precinct. It later came to denote the monastic dormitory and hall, but the connection between cultivating and dwelling was crucial. Barabudur is nothing less than a symbolic representation of ‘humanity in the Universe', applying knowledge that evolved to cultivate crops for survival to create pleasure gardens for religious contemplation.
The Buddhist monastic garden was probably the origin of the ‘stroll gardens’ in India, where walking around a temple symbolizes circling the spiritual centre of the universe. India's stroll gardens were adapted by the Chinese, who decorated their gardens with symbols of the Buddhist universe, purifying the mind with each encounter. The history of garden making in Japan goes back to the 6th century, when hill and pond gardens were introduced from China and Korea, where aristocrats gathered to enjoy poetry and games alongside a stream. Japanese Zen monks further developed gardens into a highly intellectual art over hundreds of years of temple gardening. They emptied their minds of worldly distractions and came to know themselves by dwelling in their gardens sparsely ornamented with nothing more than rocks and fragile, sinuous marks in sand.
So, from early times gardening became the production of a representation of a dwelling place in a strongly spiritual sense; a temporary changing aesthetic, where plants came under partial control amongst a range of symbolic objects to communicate a new sense of being. A garden represents these connections in the same way that paintings and photographs can produce ephemeral moments of intimacy and enlargement of our lives. Growing things for pleasure produces a dynamic sacred dwelling place created in a combination of love, care and imagination. As the plants grow, a garden becomes a symbol of our being part of the planet in a very intimate way. With the passing of the seasons a garden produces a realisation of self as nature changes alongside fixed material objects, which is expressed in poetic ideas and imaginative play. This defines gardening for pleasure as a fundamental aspect of human behaviour. Biologically, we are at one with the bower bird, which, depending on the species, produces a space ranging from a circle of cleared earth with a small pile of twigs in the center, to a complex and highly decorated structure of sticks and leaves, into and around which are placed a variety of objects he has collected. The bird will spend hours carefully sorting and arranging his collection, with each thing in a specific place. If an object is moved while the bowerbird is away he will put it back in its place. A biological nuance, and a concession to the evolution of human consciousness, is that the bird bower is built to attract mates, whereas, we produce our ‘garden bowers’ to express selfhood and also to bond mentally with humanity and dwell in a wider context of cultural ecology.
At the end of a day in the garden a new arrangement of nature has been made, which speaks of personal effort and struggle with the depth and limitations of cultivation. The outcome is a creative expression of personality and individuality through caring for nature yet making sure it does not subvert our planned process of creativity. For most people, gardening is making sense of what is available in terms of space, greenery and opportunities to make compatible material creations. The aim is to compile images in arrangements that are not views, but loose groupings, artistically composed. Gardening is an emotional encounter with the land, involving touch amongst other senses. The final ownership of what has been produced is sensual. It is a temporary encounter with our planetary home to organise a small portion of its surface and grasp the freedom to grow for pleasure in a dynamic encounter with the limitations and opportunities of the local habitat. We fill a space with meaning in our own way, always changing it as we explore it with memories, ideas, accumulated experiences and practice. This is how a garden, alive with secret vibrations, becomes both a work of art and a dwelling.