Interviewsand Articles


A Conversation with Tom Leddy: Is This A Garden? San Jose State University 11/21/99

by Richard Whittaker, Sep 21, 2000



At the time of our conversation, Tom Leddy was Acting Chairman of the Department of Philosophy at San Jose State University. He specializes in the philosophy of art and aesthetics. A former member of the Board of Trustees of the American Society for Aesthetics, Leddy, has published numerous articles in such publications as the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, the British Journal of Aesthetics, Philosophy Today, Journal of Value and Inquiry, and the Journal of Aesthetic Education. His work on gardens is discussed in the article on gardens in The Enclyclopedia of Aesthetics, ed. Michael Kelly (Oxford U. Press, 1999).
I spoke with Leddy at his office on campus…

Tom Leddy:  Arthur Danto argues that one necessary condition in order for something to be art is that it "be about something," that it allow for interpretation. Gardens which are art will have a certain emphasis on reflection, on the existence of wider implications and references to the human condition in a variety of ways.
     The two books we were talking about (Ross, Miller) both deal with central philosophical questions in aesthetics as they go along. So the question of defining art, for example, is an important one in dealing with the question of gardens. As a matter of fact, Ross and Miller have a debate with each other in defining what a garden is, but there are a number of other philosophical issues such as, "what is the ontological status of a work of art?"
     When Stephanie Ross talks about that, she says gardens, as works of art, have to be understood as having a certain metaphysical character—that they are not simply physical objects, but are what she calls "virtual entities." So immediately, when you get into that question, what is a virtual entity, you are getting into one of the most central questions in contemporary metaphysics.
     The question is really, what kinds of things are there in the world, and can we understand human artifacts, such as gardens, in the same way we understand plants.
     Think about the following situation (which is actually imagined in Kant's Critique of Pure Judgment). You are wandering through the woods and you run across a clearing, a little meadow, and you ask yourself, "Is this a garden, or is this a natural phenomenon?" It could be a garden. Let's say the trees surrounding the meadow seem placed in a regular pattern. Perhaps it was a garden designed by American Indians two hundred years ago. We now know that they actually did a lot of shaping of the forest. On the other hand, it could be just a purely natural phenomenon.
     Now clearly, as you look at it you may not be able to tell which it is. And yet, if you knew it was a human phenomenon you would look at it differently. You'd wonder what the meaning was. You're not going to wonder what the meaning is if its a purely natural phenomenon unless you think perhaps God is communicating to you via symbols in nature.

Richard Whittaker:  I see this distinction you're making and it touches on something I've been pondering. Let's say, conceptually, you have a kind of spectrum with one end marking the existential- phenomenological and the other end marking the didactic. There could be a view of art which sees its role as something which delivers one into a special kind of experience having to do with being here in the world. On the other end, the didactic end, would be an art which was intended to instruct, persuade or advocate for some position. There are other spectrums, but if you accept this as a model for thinking about it, then, when one enters a garden, one will have some very basic human experiences in the presence of the plants, flowers, fragrance, birds and so on. One could say this is an ontological aspect of being in a garden. And one could even argue it connects with the roots of our evolutionary development.
     Is there a way of looking at contemporary art which is interested in this end of the spectrum? Robert Irwin comes to mind, actually. I think a lot of the contemporary approaches to art tend to be located toward the didactic end of this spectrum.

TL:  I think that when you look at the earthworks and the environmental works that Ross and I have actually compared to the gardens of the 18th century—and both of us have argued that the garden tradition has, in a certain sense, continued in these forms—that when you look at these, one of the things characteristic of this tradition is what you referred to as the existential- phenomenological aspect of our experience of gardens as objects of aesthetic appreciation. What is not particularly characteristic of this tradition is any really profound emphasis on the political, social, or functional aspect of art with respect to art's role in society.
     This debate you are referring to could even be taken all the way back to Plato versus Aristotle, because Plato believed that art must serve a practical social function and therefore he wanted the imitative artists, in particular the tragedians, the comedy writers and painters to be kept out of the ideal society because he felt that they would do more harm than good. Only people who would praise the Gods and tell the truth about philosophical matters in an artistic way would be allowed to pursue art in the ideal society.
     So Plato had a social-engineering ideal about the role of artists in an ideal society. Aristotle, on the other hand, defended tragedy and imitative art in general based on the idea that tragedy doesn't have to directly serve social needs. It can simply be pleasurable because imitation is pleasurable to man and we learn from that.
     But to go back to gardens - gardens actually can serve both of these functions--both the aesthetic and the political-social function. It can serve the social function insofar as it provides a context for certain kinds of political organization. But we're not very much aware of that today and we don't focus on it very much.
     This current environmental art movement doesn't really focus on that in the sense of trying to shape society by shaping the kinds of garden environments within which we live. But you could say, for example, that the Zen gardens in Japan often are so closely connected with the meditative practice of the zen students that they, in fact, express a social function. And so too, the medieval garden expressed a social function insofar as it provided an imitation of paradise within the confines of the castle, the aristocratic quarters, or in the monastery in order to allow for contemplation that would help lead one to an appreciation of God.
     So there are ways in which gardens have served social and political functions in the past. Well, going back to the ancient Greeks, Epicurus practiced philosophy in a garden. It's believed that Aristotle probably did as well, insofar as he was called a peripatetic. He would walk back and forth in a garden with his students discussing philosophical matters. So gardens played a role in the construction and understanding of philosophy even in the time of Aristotle and Epicurus.

RW:  Michael Pollan in his book Second Nature points out that the garden is a mediating point between culture and nature. And he also suggests that one of the things needed for our time and culture today are new metaphors. The garden has been a metaphor for a long time and there's nothing new about that, but today is the garden especially promising in its metaphorical potential?

TL:  Well, when you think about the famous saying that appears in Voltaire's Candide at the end, after the main character, Candide, has gone through a large number of really horrifying episodes in his life—the moral of the story is "that one should tend one's own garden."
     One thing that has always struck me about gardens as a possible metaphor for our own society—and this could apply with a relatively small garden which doesn't try to refer to the sublime in any way—what is probably really needed today is a place of protection from the constant interventions of the outside world.
     I think that more and more today, people need a place for some kind of communion with nature because nature is disappearing so rapidly around us. In a way the garden could provide a place for the re-creation of an idyllic notion of what's possible for us to experience as people, who are in some small degree, in nature. So getting back to what you were saying earlier about the culture-nature relationship. In our rapidly growing technological society in a world in which overpopulation is combined with the fact that the United States and other industrialized countries are using environmental resources at an incredible rate, it is also becoming more and more difficult to actually have any contact with nature, and we gain a certain measure of satisfaction with works of art that connect us again with nature.
     Now there is something unique about gardens as works of art insofar as some of the aesthetic qualities are not under the control of the artist. That's just in the nature of gardens. One has to accept that from the beginning. I was sitting in my garden the other day and everything was just beautiful because of the golden light that was cast across the garden. That's something the gardenist can't really control. And that is something of the charm of a garden. Yet, at the same time, there's more.
     The garden is a transformation of nature that has meaning - content, intentionality, and there's a possibility of interpretation. To go a little further, it seems to me one of the things that characterizes gardens as works of art, is that there are expressive qualities. Gardens can express the emotions in some way, and are not simply things to interpret. They can also give us profoundly emotionally-charged aesthetic experiences, experiences similar to those we might have, for instance, when listening to a great symphony.

RW:  Ordinary gardeners without any knowledge of the art world would naturally partake in gardens in this expressive sense— this very human tendency. That raises the question: How do you view art that doesn't have any reference to the art world?

TL:  That is a hard question to answer. First of all, as we are heading into the 21st century a very important aspect of the art world consciousness is the incorporation of many of the outlying areas of the art experience. There are various means for this: through the Pop Art movement, through appropriation, and originally through collage—and also, in the last few years, through an emphasis on "outsider" art. Now, for example, if I were to write an article about gardens as art today, I would not simply talk about the important contributions of the 70s and 80s through the earthworks movement etc, but I would also talk about outsider art.
     One of the things I really enjoy here in San Jose is going to places where people have produced gardens in their front yards not intended as part of the official art world, but just as expressions of their own personal views. These can be delightful and, of course, they can be works of art.
     However, I would also still like to distinguish between two senses of art. One goes back to the ancient Greek word techne. In fact, the Greeks didn't have any word for "art." They just had this word, techne. It referred to any practice that required some skill. So oratory, shoemaking, and painting were all technes. They didn't have a sense of fine art that was distinguished by a word, but they did have a concept of poesis. Basically this meant, "creative making."
     Eventually, I believe, they made a distinction between two kinds of techne, those that involved skillful making but were not creative, and those which were. That idea eventually was picked up in the 17th century in Europe through the notion of the distinction between the fine arts and other art forms, for example, medicine and so forth. So when people say, "of course, gardening is an art" they might just be referring to it in the sense of a techne as a skilled craft.

RW:  Okay, here's the gardener working in the form of a simple techne, a form which doesn't bring in the question of man's larger relationship to nature. Here's a person working in the garden, quintessentially embodied in a relationship with the earth, soil, plants - at, I suppose, a preconceptual level. Would that be different from something which called one to consider this relationship consciously, let's say?

TL:  First, it's important to think about experiences of gardening as covering a wide range and being interconnected. So gardening as art couldn't really exist if there wasn't a vast activity of everyday gardening.
     If we did not have everyday experience we would not have the arts. The arts are increased in their meaning and significance by everyday experience, and to a large extent the arts concentrate and focus everyday aesthetic experience. The everyday aesthetic experience of the ordinary gardener is important. The existence of the more art-oriented gardens are there, to a large extent, simply to remind us of these things.
     There is a constant dialectical relationship between the aesthetic experiences of everyday life and the aesthetic experiences of high art. Many people believe that if you give value to, or—as some postmodern critics like to say— "valorize" the high arts, that somehow that takes value away from everyday aesthetic experience. But it's quite the opposite.

RW:  In your article responding to Mara Miller you gave a number of reasons why you thought the prospects for gardens becoming a medium for fine art were good. One of them has to do with the importance of environmental concerns. Would you say more about that?

TL:  Well, first I have an addendum to the previous question. There's a very helpful work (and also a very controversial work) that relates to this by Martin Heidegger called The Origins of a Work of Art. And I'd like to note that although one has to be concerned about Heidegger's relationship to Nazism, nevertheless, there is extremely valuable material in this essay, as in the rest of Heidegger's work.
     Heidegger talks not about a garden, but about a temple. He argues that as the Greeks created the temple, the temple changed the character of the surrounding landscape. It gave what surrounded it a new meaning. He talks about this in a symbolic way, about the gathering of the Gods and in terms about "the earth erupting into the world." What this means, I think, is that as rain falls on the temple it is experienced differently because it's contextualized within the possibility of this ontological emergence I was talking about earlier. That is, there are non-physical characteristics present which, I believe, reference what Kant referred to as "the transcendental."

RW:  I'm not sure I followed what part was emerging. The temple is there, and now rain falls...

TL:  I'll tell you what is emerging for Heidegger. He talks about "the earth emerging into the world." By "the world" he means our culture, human culture. Specifically he was talking about Greek culture and German culture, and the relationship between the two. But let's just think about the world as we experience it, imbued with meaning in terms of cultural context. With "the earth," what he's referring to, although it's more complicated, are the materials of the temple out of which the temple is made, and also what surrounds the temple including the animals and humans. But what I am really interested in here is the idea that by building the temple, the rain is experienced differently. The stone of the temple has been transformed. Light is experienced differently as it comes through the temple. All these things are experienced differently in a specific way. They are now aesthetically charged. Certain important aesthetic qualities now emerge such as beauty and the experience of the sublime. For me, these qualities are closely related—you could say the sublime is beauty, supercharged.
     Art, in Heidegger's view, is when Being comes into unconcealment. It reveals itself. And I believe Heidegger equates "Being" with the creative potentiality of what it is to be a human. I agree with Heidegger that art, in its highest manifestation—and all fine art—tries to accomplish this, including the fine art of gardens.
     And referring back to your talking about the everyday existential experience, one has to think about the relationship between that and so-called primitive society, what today we call "small scale traditional cultures." There is a strong relationship in such cultures, a dialectical one actually, between everyday life and ritual life. These two are related to each other, but also kept distinct. So special events— today we might call it "performance art"—occur when people are moving from one stage in life to the next, for instance.

RW:  Except that performance art is not part of a tradition in the way a rite of passage would be.

TL:  That's true. But we've tried to recreate aspects of ritual in our own culture in ways that are significant and meaningful to us. Although many people would argue that the ritual dimension of experience has disappeared in our own culture, I would like to argue that it's very much present, but fragmented. What we usually do when we try to deal with issues that require ritual, is we try to pull together fragments from the different aspects of our experience and try to create a possibility of a ritual-like space.
     What happens with gardens is that gardens, as fine art, can engage in that dialectic between the ritual-like space and the everydayness of ordinary experience, so that on the one hand the garden can be a place for contemplation and on the other hand it can be a place for getting your vegetables.

RW:  In all these traditional societies in which ritual is a crucial part of life, there are deities and powers greater than the self. There is a religious view of life. In our culture, although things may be changing, still we have scientific materialism as the leading authority in the Reality-describing realm—scientism. I find myself thinking, as your speak, there is something problematic here for the grounding of ritual. This may take us a little off-course.

TL:  It is fragmented in our culture, as I was just saying. But sometimes we're too hard on ourselves about this issue, because when we fail to recognize the places where ritual still exists in ways that are often very individual, and still meaningful, we are missing something. For example a friend of mine, Kevin Melchione, recently wrote a paper on hobbies as being art-related in some ways. He talks about hobbyists who just follow the rules and ones who do more, who express themselves and try to find some meaning in that.  
     In some instances, it becomes a meditative practice—take for example, weaving or quiltmaking. The processes involved in quiltmaking and weaving can be very meditative. So there is a kind of place for ritual even within this activity. There are other dimensions which people are well aware of and go toward because it plays a significant role in their lives. Many regret that we cannot go back to the period of our tribal ancestors. Well, we can't. But if we allow that kind of nostalgia to keep us from finding our own path toward the possibilities for a Heideggarian opening up of Being, then we are going to lose out on a lot. I think that what we need to do is take what is possible for us and enhance it, rather than feel regret for what we've lost. There's just no value in that.

RW:  Let me pose a general question. There's a general tone and content of what you're saying which evokes big issues, beauty, the sublime. It brings up, for me, the postmodern dismissal of universals, grand narratives, and so on. Many postmodern criticisms of modernism are pretty compelling. But has this been carried too far? I know it's a big question.

TL:  It is, and so to try to answer relatively briefly: I'm sympathetic with certain aspects of postmoderism but mainly as a very large cautionary tale. Sure, there aren't any stable grand narratives we can depend on in this postmodern era. Does that mean we have to abandon such concepts as nobility, genius, beauty, the sublime? Many postmodernists think that it does, and they've associated the words with modernism. There is a deep problem with that, and it is a problem of self- contradiction. When postmodernists say that you can't give value to genius or you can't give value to essences, for instance, because those are modernist concepts, they are engaging in the essentialism they reject. They are saying that modernism is essentially this, postmodernism essentially that. It is central to postmodernism that they must reject essentialism, and yet they are the worst essentialists around.
     It's characteristic of philosophers to question the dominant ideology of their times and I would question the essentialism of postmodernism. I would also challenge their questioning of these very concepts, genius, beauty, nobility and the sublime, which I believe are concepts ripe for renewal.
     Only recently, for instance, the concept of beauty has been much discussed in the art media for a variety of strange and not very clear reasons. But I think the main thing that's happening is that people are just very interested in talking about beauty again. I think that today, at the end of the 20th century we need to start talking about how we can bring these old concepts back to life again.
     Take, for example, genius. To get back to your previous question in some small way, many feminists believe that genius is something that is besmirched because of its connection with males and their valorization, and the lack of concern for important female figures. But it seems to me that there's no need to throw out the concept of genius as long as we're willing to transform it, give it new significance. It seems to me we should allow ourselves the possibility of saying that a work by a great gardenist is a work of genius.

RW:  One of the things I find difficult in regard to postmodern thought is the insistence on a kind of horizontality. This is a reaction to many abuses based upon hierarchies of power. But almost anything that smacks of hierarchy has to be rejected. And that seems ridiculous. You wouldn't eat food on that basis.

TL:  It's the new dogma of our times. I think it's interesting that so many of my students find Nietzsche inspiring in a different way than he was inspiring to people 30 or 40 years ago. Today he is saying to students, it is possible to transcend yourself, it's possible to achieve something higher without necessarily buying into a religious worldview. So we don't accept the grand narratives anymore, but Nietzsche rejects the notion that everybody should be the same and that mediocrity should rule in our society.

RW:  One could approach the idea without even needing to invoke the word, genius. One could perhaps use the word, "authentic." Authenticity. I think postmodern irony is, in large part, referenced to the missing authentic— the lack of a real connection to oneself replaced entirely by style, or whatever. Heidegger speaks to that with his "they people" and the "they world," and speaks of the value for seeking to develop one's own nascent possibilities over and against this "they world."

TL:  Yes, but actually I would go further than the authentic self, because, as is sometimes stated, it may make people too closely tied to the idea of the isolated individual.
     I think the concept of genius is associated with the notion of a spirit that inspires one and connects one to the larger world of spiritual concerns - and I'm not referring specifically to religious concerns, but to philosophy and art and any domain in which people try to transcend ordinary everyday experience to achieve something which is higher.
     This idea takes us beyond the mere individualism characteristic of aspects of existentialism which, I think, made it too limiting in some ways. Community is important, as is the spirit of the times and culture. And there's Hegel's idea that somehow the great artist can manifest the Absolute coming to its own self-understanding in history. This is something I think we need to reconnect with in some ways.
     I think that we need to go through postmodernism to something else which draws on the recognition that postmodernism essentialized modernism, and in doing so, failed to recognize many of the most valuable aspects of modernism. Just as a sidelight, it's amusing and fascinating that many of the heros of postmodernism were actually heros of modernism who were stolen by postmodernism—people like Joyce and Mallarme. Now it's claimed, "Oh, those people weren't really modernists. They were proto-postmodernists."
     Well, we've gotten way beyond gardens. [Laughs] There are a number of really interesting postmodern gardens. Ross refers to Ian Hamilton Finley's garden which incorporates aspects of postmodern thought into his garden. Alan Sonfist's work, Time Landscape, which he did in New York in the 1970s, is an interesting example of an early postmodern garden in which he makes a conceptual statement by taking a plot of land and trying to reconstruct exactly what the land looked like at that spot in New York back in the 15th century. So there are going to be a lot of experiments with gardens before the garden can become a fine art form again in any full and rich sense. But there are still very interesting things going on with gardens.

RW:  It's one thing to say that gardens will be constructed as self-consciously intended works of fine art and considered in that light. At the same time, while environmental concerns are increasingly crucial along with many other concerns of the moment, I wonder if there isn't some way in which the garden can't also serve as an important point of consideration for the ecology, if you will, of our inner world.

TL:  It's a good symbol. There is a form of environmentalism that says basically, man is separate from nature and the main problem is that man is messing up nature and the solution is to separate man from nature. That's an ideology which I cannot accept— that human beings are not natural. We are still animals who are doing our things. It may be unpleasant for other animals, it may cause extinctions, but we are still animals. Gardens do not speak to that, and will never make that kind of environmentalist happy. That kind of environmentalist would like to push all humans out of the wilderness area so that it regained its pristine state. We need those areas very much, but we can't separate ourselves from nature. What gardens do is that they recognize our interactions with nature. There is a place where we can still be present in nature while expressing ourselves in nature.
     What we have to recognize is that much of what is happening in this world today is harmful to us because it hurts our souls. It hurts human souls. I'm referring to the innermost significant aspects of ourselves. Our souls are harmed by the rampant and unthinking destruction of our environment, and the garden is there now as a way for us as individuals and as groups to heal ourselves.
     We're just going to have to live with what we've done to this world. And in many instances we can only respond to it on a small scale level. So, the postmodernists say there are no grand narratives, there are only small narratives. Well, gardens are small stories that we can tell ourselves that can make life more meaningful, and make possible a relationship with that aspect of ourselves which is nature.

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine    


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