BAD ART and how to avoid it

Catherine Dee

Good landscape architectural art is rare. Why?

I’ve thought a lot about this question as it’s critical in my work as artist and landscape architect.

It’s hard to say exactly what good art is. It’s hard to say what art is, even. And actually, to label something as good is in many ways a death-knell to functioning art. Yet it’s important to ask the question. So I find a more instructive way to study what’s good, is to study what‘s bad. I do this in my own practice, and in considering other’s work, and then I work to avoid.

Here to help examine the question of good landscape art, are what I consider to be five conditions of bad art:

  1. BAD ART lacks precision. It is not well-practiced, well-versed. The maker of bad art has not been careful to work over and over to pinpoint and hone specifics (see 2, 3, 4 and 5 also).


  1. BAD ART lacks function. It’s really that simple I think: All good art has function. When the artist or landscape architect doesn’t know how their work functions as art, it is likely to be poor.


  1. BAD ART is usually ill-informed by other’s cultural works. The bad landscape architect has not looked enough at things. They have not studied others’ work: both those who came before them, or their contemporaries in landscape and other arts, and other cultures. How can something good be offered in vacuum?


  1. BAD ART is materially and spatially (visually) inept. This comes about when visual, sensory literacy (sometimes called ‘graphicacy’) is superficial and not engaged with seriously.


  1. BAD ART attempts ‘niceness’. Oscar Wilde said: “All bad art is the result of good intentions”. We landscape architects are hampered by ‘niceness’, ‘good intentions’. Being nice and being ethical are not the same thing. I think these two are often confused in landscape discourses and practice. This leads to conventional, mannerist, and clichéd works and ideas of art and beauty. (“Bad artists always admire each other’s work” Oscar Wilde). I would add that ‘niceness’ for this reason is patronising. Good art is never nice. It is complex, maybe challenging, uncertain, confronting, confusing, haunting, ambiguous, honest, raw, unexpected, messy, or crafted freshly, arresting, highly ordinary, apparently simple, profound, perhaps tasteless and ugly. A primary function of art is to challenge received wisdom and morality.

A lot of art that goes by the name of landscape architecture will be found to have at least one of the above five conditions. Is this why our profession in the UK goes largely un-noted for its cultural achievements?

To avoid BAD ART: Be precise and specific. Practice lots. Be useful. Be culturally-informed, culturally-erudite even (why not?). Listen. Watch. Be refreshing. Be honed. Mainly– make stuff. Be spatially, visually, materially literate (comes from all above). Don’t be nice (but don’t be mean)(arrogance is not the way either). Don’t try to be popular, try to be honest, which perhaps, almost certainly, means going forward un-knowing.

This is how I try to work (apart from the erudite bit). Because “Bad art is a great deal worse than no art at all“ Oscar Wilde

c-dee-14-1 Catherine Dee

2 thoughts on “BAD ART and how to avoid it”

  1. What is ‘bad art’ – a response.

    I guess the purpose of a blog is to encourage debate and discourse, and I felt I wanted to respond to Catherine’s piece in that very spirit, because I am genuinely interested in this whole question of raising the profile and status of landscape and garden design as art forms. I have to say at the start that I have no training as an artist or in the fine arts. I do believe however, that, to some extent, I work in an artful manner with my chosen medium – dynamic plant combinations in designed landscapes.

    The very question of defining ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art is of course a dangerous route. It goes back to 18th Century discussions of what is good and bad ‘taste’, and this route also leads us through the quagmires of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. In essence these sorts of discussions also relate back to 19th Century ideas of the ‘genteel’ or cultured and educated classes who can recognise good taste and high culture, as against the ‘hoi poloi’ or the ‘great unwashed’ who have no aesthetic or cultural understanding, and as a result are unable to appreciate, or produce, good art, or anything of value beyond their menial functions.

    I raise these issues because of Catherine’s third and fourth points that define bad art: Catherine says that good art can only be produced if the artist is conversant with the work and ideas of their contemporaries in landscape, other arts and cultures. ‘How can something good be created in a vacuum?’ is Catherine’s question.

    To me there is a possible problem with this line of argument, in that for artists to work in the context of the work and ideas of their contemporaries is of course how much of the art and fashion world operates – ideas and concepts have their time, and movements form around them, all informed by others working in the same field or movement. At best this is exciting, at worst it is mediocre in the extreme – a sort of herd mentality when everyone is working within the context set by others. I think my main concern with this line of argument is that it, almost by definition, creates an elite of informed people ‘in the know’ and capable of producing ‘good art’, and it takes us right back to the issues that I raised at the start – you are either cultured and literate, and therefore capable of the highest artistic endeavor, or you are ignorant, uncultured, unaware, culturally illiterate, and therefore incapable of producing art that others in the elite group might consider to be ‘good’.

    Where is the space and room for the original thought, the work of art that is NOT informed by the activities of contemporaries? Is it really necessary to be fully literate with the work of others before one can produce work of one’s own?

    And this then brings us to the question of ‘what is art?’, and the point that good art can never be ‘nice’. It would have helped if Catherine had shared her own definition of what art is in her piece. We all have our own definitions. For me, it is a very simple definition – a work of art is something that is made, and which provokes an emotional response in whoever is interacting with that art work, whatever form it takes. Perhaps you could say that the greater the work of art, the stronger the emotional response to it is. That emotional response can be negative, as a result of challenging, upsetting or shocking work. The response can be positive – and the positive emotional response can be overwhelming. But it can also be small, suggestive, minimal.

    In my work, I aim to produce a very strong emotional response from people who engage with the sort of planting I do – perhaps in some cases it is overwhelmingly joyful, almost spiritual – perhaps even life-changing. But in others it might be slight or minimal. It might even just be ‘nice’. If people think that something I have produced is nice, then I have no problem with that, and a gentle positive response, is still a response, and still should be placed at some point on a gradient or continuum of positive art-responses. Yes, nice is boring, dull, unadventurous. But is art that someone considers to be nice, then also automatically by definition always ‘bad’?

    The idea in the Oscar Wilde quote that ‘bad artists always admire each other’s work’, suggests that the opposite must also be true – that good artists never admire each other’s work. Again this speaks to the thinking of a superior elite.

    Coming back to the main premise of the blog piece, I think it would be very useful for Catherine to give her own definition of what art is. As Catherine is both an artist and educator, I think there also needs to be a balance, and it would be great for Catherine to also give examples of what she considers good examples of landscape architects producing ‘good’ art. As a practicing artist, it would be even better if Catherine was able to give examples of her own work that she considers to be ‘good art’, and the reasons for why it is ‘good’, and how it has avoided all the traps and pitfalls of being ‘bad’.


  2. Hmmm if “It’s hard to say exactly what good art is. It’s hard to say what art is, even.” then perhaps clearly defining five points on something already stated as nebulous does not lead to the most easily defended of opinions? Similarly, whilst Oscar Wilde was amusing and pithy in his writing and his dogmatic pronouncements can be useful starters for a teaching discussion, reality isn’t usually as binary as those quotes would imply.

    In defence of nice: How exhausting it would be if everywhere we went our emotions were ‘challenged’ by ‘good art’ desperate to attract our attention. When planting a garden one wouldn’t choose every plant to be a star plant, sometimes you need ‘nice’ plants that act as fillers – a supporting cast that allows the ‘good’ to stand out. Equally, nice art can be good art in the right time and the right place for the right person. You could even make a case for nice art being culturally important, particularly in England where one wouldn’t want to stand out too much.


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