Inheritance

I remember a professor in college – in despair at Zami, or Stone Butch Blues, being advanced as literary canon – plaintively saying that it was his understanding that a proper leftist revolution would bring the great works of the West to the masses, not turn aside from them entirely.

I wonder about this every time I put Versailles in front of my students. Should landscapes be inherited? Should they be subject to an inheritance tax, taxed for what they have done wrong? It is, I think, a real difficulty to propose to further, in the examples we present, a professional identity so thoroughly rooted in evils, from the evil labor relations built into most great estates all the way down to its disdain for its perennial working other, the landscaper.

The peculiarity, the minority of landscape architecture; the harsh mismatch between its self-regard and its obscurity; all this has at least the benefit that it causes us to think critically and at length about our professional self-definition. (I start to suspect that in fact it attracts the ambivalent and the irresolute.) If professions are bundles of sticks, separate duties and interests bound together in one name, landscape is composed of stray leavings from culture’s back lot – a lumpy log, a good limb or two, a few twigs.

We might well choose to rearrange and restock the bundle we pass on. And in the zero-sum run of years that constitutes an initial education in landscape, this means that certain places must be struck and others added in.

A student asked me once point-blank if the department had a commitment to teaching diverse landscapes equal to that of its stated commitment to hire diverse faculty. It was tough to answer. One hand, yes, I try to teach this, but I can only teach what has been written about; what has been written about is what has been accepted or assimilated in the eyes of the profession. That means that it takes the work of a community in conversation to change the tradition. You can see the potential in recent work like John Beardsley’s edited volume Cultural Landscape Heritage in Sub-Saharan Africa which proposes additions so substantial as to not only displace more familiar places, but to actually dislocate how we think of landscape-making in the first place. I’m thinking specifically of the fearful groves in Ikem Stanley Okoye’s “Good Bush, Bad Bush.”

Yes, we lose something substantial when, as the curriculum diversifies, Versailles becomes the sole representative of the Baroque landscape that a student meets with. As whole traditions shrink to exemplars we stand to lose the ability to reckon between across different representatives of a tradition.

First and foremost, though, in changing the tradition of education we are given, we exert conscious responsibility over the model of the world we would like our students to be working with. If we do it right, we will even have them in agonies of their own when it comes time to pass on their own notions of what the traditions are. 

(April 2017)