The power of words Posted on January 8, 2017

Suspended animation at Kew this morning

How limited, stilted and inhibited our gardening vocabulary is compared with, say, the jargon of the art world.

I look in vain in our literature for the sort of punchy phrases I noted on the walls of the Royal Academy during its Abstract Expressionism show. I have never read of a garden, for example, ‘dense with corpuscular motifs’, or ‘by turns visceral and cosmic’. Would I recognize them, I wonder, if I met them among the hedges and lawns?

I did find some expressions, though, I would love to attach to a garden. A ‘spiritualized space’ sounds more at home in a garden than on a canvas, and I challenge – who? Arabella Lennox-Boyd or Tom Stewart-Smith? to plant me a ‘lush but fragile impasto’.

Perhaps the real difference is that art critics have to maintain an illusion of more significance than meets the eye. Language can easily become a veil concealing a void of meaning. Gardening is realism made physical, permanent and in full view, with no room for commentary or excuses. Once it could use references unmissable by people who had been to the right school, or done the Grand Tour, to express political or religious messages – to those who knew the code. Sadly, we have thrown away the code book; what would, say, a Brexit garden or a Momentum garden look like? Not free of weeds, the latter. I fear the furthest the current idiom will get you is a genuflection to a Dutch gardener who paints in grasses.

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