The Possibility Of A Landscape Criticism

The recent deaths of Anthony Bourdain and Jonathan Gold make now a good time to understand their example as it can be applied to the endeavor of any criticism today. Both showed a strain of criticism based on a deep fund of curiosity, one that understood dishes not as emanations of isolated genius but as the products of larger systems. Both showed a common touch and a willingness to converse with the public at large, a likely consequence of arriving at their critical calling late and outside of official channels.

Of particular importance to white male writers like myself, both showed one working practice of how to use the privilege afforded to us for a better end – as many across race, ethnicity, and gender lines have testified to with regard to Gold and Bourdain, to make people feel connected through our very diversity. In this way, those in my assigned tribe might both derive some good for all from our unfair advantage in being taken seriously; and in so doing point to how our word might only be as good as anyone else’s.

Now, my question becomes: following that example, it possible to have a critical beat based in landscapes themselves that would do something similar? 

Criticism fords rivers. It makes its way across clear difficulties. The worth of a landscape, on the other hand appears self-evident and untroubled. To criticize landscapes seems to miss the point of them. It is equivalent to explaining a joke, taking apart a watch without putting it back together.

Confronted with something on the level of a Yosemite, this may be as good as true. But any value in human eyes will be found to be negotiable, and any value can accordingly be ratcheted up or down through rhetorical means, given the motive and the opportunity. The worth of most landscapes can be seen to derive from the accumulation of facts, of imperfections and reckonings, that accrue to a place over time. In a remnant patch of bog, in a field where a battle was fought, it may take the addition of a historical record to the native qualities of the scene in order to form a place worth inhabiting. In cases like these, seeing as a landscape is one way of reintegrating difficult facts with lived experience. The landscape that appears awful or ignoble, then, would just need to be worked on to be seen as something worth experiencing. In that case, the moral thing is to polish every landscape to the point where it can reflect every other one. 

If this is true of the practice of historical preservation, it can equally be true of the written word; if Missouri’s Route 66 State Park does not adequately show that it was once Times Beach, then the critic might be able to make the otherwise invisible link. In doing so, they could at the same time confront the erasure of the site’s current presentation, and actually increase the value of an anodyne old field by revealing the deeper currents beneath it.

The same thing that makes landscape a pleasure to study makes it a fit and necessary object of criticism: that it is the whole of the environment we encounter in the open. Exactly what is not seen, what is only felt obscurely, what is mute or self-evident, what lacks a name, what gets grouped under vast and dreary words like tree, street, light; all of this leaps to life as its various parts are seen as actors, as events, as choices.

Lacking any vocabulary, and lacking any sense of what kinds of relationships are typical in the landscape, the lay experience of landscape becomes a tacit process of judgment, running with a low hum at the back of the mind. We check the visible objects and amenities that directly relate to practical or leisure use against an enveloping sense of rightness or wrongness, fit or alienation, that we cannot name or quantify beyond our own feelings. With a squint, we can get closer through examining the particulars. That is, a swing is rusty, is sturdy, is cheap or inspired; a flower is ragged, gauche, or rigid. But we can hardly do the arithmetic to add up these particulars to a whole.

Don’t misunderstand me: there can’t be any whole science or method for the landscape, because landscape is inherently a cloudy way for people to see the outside world at a glance. Landscape criticism, then, would not be a dogma, but a means of slowly bringing along an audience, convening a culture; a collective work of discerning, not the attainment of discernment. It would not write to cultivate a correct taste, but to cultivate a way of seeing in the world. Such a way of seeing need not consist of finding the true and right landscape where it may reside in any place; but instead, of learning and juxtaposing the multiverse of possible equivalents to the set of landscape values the critic starts with.

There exists a more-or-less robust community of interest around the garden. It is one that, surprisingly, falls somewhat at odds with landscape as a way of seeing. Gardening necessitates thought in terms of cycles, of ecological relationships, of relationships between parts and wholes; but as a mirror of the home or insititution it is also difficult not to conceive in terms of its indoor equivalents. That is, the private garden overlaps substantially with the interior design. It is a collection of objects above all, more or less precious, split at odd intervals between expressive and functional elements. In the backyard, a hose helps the tulips appear, while inside the sink helps the dishes remain their appearance. The garden is certainly meant to add up to a scene, to a feeling; but it is visibly assembled from purchasing orders, from squares of sod, from bags of bulbs. If it grows and opens out to the public, the garden resembles the museum – it speaks to the public through ordered objects, and engages them now and again in planned events. Landscape, maybe, is the portion of such environments that is not projected from the logic of the interior; wherein things are not installed, but grown; where surfaces are not cleaned, but crawling with ants; where water does not disappear, but snakes through, pushing and being prodded as it goes. To say this another way: a garden is only evaluated in terms of what it means to show, and we agree to edit out the presence of labor and accident. A proper landscape is animated, haunted.

Another way to distinguish the two: the garden is seen as bounded, and the landscape is never easy with bounds. A garden is a private endeavor, being conditioned by outside doings but fundamentally accorded a separate place, one that lays underneath criticism; one that in some way ducks under criticism by being of service. The chief thrust of discourse around gardens is how-to, with why-do-we and why-should-we only sticking to its edges.

By landscape criticism, then, I mean landscape in the broad sense of environments that people inhabit; in such a way, the landscape critic may address everything from a backyard to a hydroelectric dam. 

The commonplace of spatial design is that a building will never look better than the day it is finished, and that a landscape will never look worse. The landscape under construction is still a record, a zone of activity; as it opens, it is only the untried version of what it will come to be. If the landscape appreciates in value – and is designed with this property in mind – then the optimal time to criticize it, for anyone reasonably large-hearted, is not on its day of birth. While this does not match most of the critical world, which is carried on waves of publicity, it does line up better with the mode of encounter practiced by Bourdain and Gold.

It is not healthy to anyone for criticism to be an affair of gentlemen and gentlewomen, in that order. This makes for the difficult question as to how landscape critics are to get around, to see what should be seen, to issue dispatches regularly. If landscape criticism is to be quotidian, what should it do? For one, 

-They might look back at their own past memory fund of landscape – there risking the damages inherent in memory.

-They might write about whatever happens to cross their path as they travel, provided they can afford to travel.

-They might be lucky enough to find a patron, one disinterested in any particular landscape but invested in the work of criticism.

They might use these means in combination to deliver on a regular basis; and so affirm that the presence of a landscape is not a matter of a difficult birth, finally come into full view in a properly comprehensible form, but a lengthy acquaintance, liable to tip one way or another at the behest of a flick of atmospheric pressure or a particularly energetic alderman.

What they almost certainly cannot do is count upon the money of any periodical, given the fortunes of periodicals in general and the perceived place of the topic in the hierarchy of the world. At most, the landscape to be criticized may be on the beat of an architecture critic, should the project lie within the rare megalopolitan area necessary to sustain such a thing. But if this difficulty can be met, the landscape critic will have done something interesting – uncoupling criticism from timeliness, at least as narrowly defined. 

It is the nature of the quotidian pattern that in critical judgment most pleasures and failures are not unmixed. This mixedness is not only there to set off the rarity of the five-star or the zero-star; but is rather a consolation and an education in the profoundly muddled moral and aesthetic worth of most things. This is doubly, triply the case with regard to landscapes, which in their form and components magnify the unrepeatability and unboundedness of any aesthetic experience. Visit MVVA’s Mill Race Park when it is neither flooded nor sunlit, or Claude Cormier’s Sugar Beach on a dismal Tuesday in January, and you will have only an approximate experience of its intended worth.

It is particularly counterproductive, then, to judge most landscapes with particular harshness or reverence, absent their failure to accomplish basic goals. What those basic goals may be is a source of contention – but applying the Procrustean rule of attendance on a sunny Saturday morning, while it doesn’t tell us nothing, seems like an unworthy test for the entire worth of the project to hinge upon. 

One of the most difficult tasks of the critic is – not quite taking something on its own terms, but simply speaking with it as – not quite a thing unto itself, but as a thing with a reasonable degree of autonomy and self-determination. Which is to say, that a front yard composed of privet, lawn, and a bathtub virgin; a healing garden with a dancing statue and an off-the-shelf arbor; a bare plaza with a colorful pattern stamped on it; all deserved to be spoken of not solely as symptoms of some other narrative, be it the machinations of international capital, the arrogance of the Ivies, or a mysteriously pure folk tradition.

Insofar as such places are collections of things and forces that seem impossible when examined very closely – stones that have strayed thousands of miles from their origin, vegetable lives only possible through study and care – they are potential infinites, places that generate newness from their arrangement.

To convene any general readership, the critic will face the problem of quickly and compellingly conveying what a landscape is and what it does. Here we arrive at the greatest problem of landscape criticism – that people are not literate in the materials of landscape. They don’t know what sets a pine apart from a spruce, or why asphalt feels different from decomposed granite.

A landscape critic knows, though, that everyone carries landscape experience with them; and through effective writing they can connect the layperson’s authority with the technical expertise carried by the landscape professions. A landscape critic with Bourdain or Gold’s touch will limit comparisons that put the landscape in a professional lineage – it is like Stourhead, Naumkeag, Buttes-Chaumont – while foregrounding comparisons that make the landscape jump alive to the common reader. In such a way, the critic would at once package a place, making it a force to reckon with – and at the same time make it resonate against a whole family of other places, becoming a guide to the orchestra that every experience is already articulated through.

(September 2018)