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)