Judging a good (or bad) artist

I attended an interesting discussion on Thursday (8 April) at the Garden Museum in Lambeth, London. A panel of 3 speakers stimulated the discussion by each giving a resume of 2 garden designers, then the audience could give their opinions. Getting away from the particulars of named individuals, the most interesting conclusion I reached is that in the world of landscapes and gardens, the reputation of a designer is based almost entirely on their writings rather than the quality of their designs.

This can be partly explained because gardens are a 4-dimensional art form: they change with time, are highly dependent on the maintenance they receive and they can easily disappear altogether.

Relating this to photography (and most other disciplines, come to think of it), it seems that publishing books is the fastest way to enhance a reputation, but a book is often a surrogate of the “real thing”. We usually think of the fine print as the photographic artist’s primary output, but how many photographers’ reputations are built on the fine print alone? None that I can think of. We are far more likely to know about a photographer from books, magazines, TV programmes or the Internet than their original work.

But at least the reproduction of a photograph is a close facsimile to the original, indeed some photographs are taken or printed for this specific purpose. We should feel sorry for the student of garden history though, who at best is only likely to see a photograph of a garden – a 2-dimensional representation of a 4D object loses a heck of a lot in translation however good the photographer. And gardens are more than a purely visual medium: the scents, sounds and general experiential nature of a garden will be lost.

An important foundation stone of western culture is the printed word. With improvements in mechanical reproducibility and literacy, this has become increasingly to mean The Book. The moving picture, particularly via television, has added to this, and in the last couple of decades digital technology has again increased our means of recording our culture (though in a lot of cases this just means a book on a screen rather than on paper). But even with these new layers of technology, unless the artists developed their artwork specifically for this medium, we are still only going to get a partial impression of the original.

There’s an adage “don’t judge a book by its cover”, but it seems we need another one: “don’t judge an artist by their books”.

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