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The, or Some, Ethics of Topiary


If you’re an appreciator of cutting-edge topiary why not check out the Mosaïcultures internationales® exhibition in Montréal, Canada, which features around 50 works created by horticulturist-artists from 25 countries, and runs until September 29, 2013. You’ll find plants, bushes and trees clipped, snipped and cajoled into frogs, sheep, and Madagascan ring tail lemurs.

But might some phytosculptural appreciators experience a sense of uneasiness? Perhaps they could see topiary as a manipulation or even a contortion of natural processes? And find themselves wondering what, if any, are the ethical concerns of topiary? For one of the very few academic discussions around this subject turn to the journal Ethics & the Environment, Volume 8, Number 1, Spring 2003, pp. 127-142, where Dr. Isis Brook, and Dr. Emily Brady present their paper ; ‘Topiary: Ethics and Aesthetics’

“In this paper we discuss ethical and aesthetic questions in relation to the gardening practice of topiary. We begin by considering the ethical concerns arising from the uneasiness some appreciators might feel when experiencing topiary as a manipulation or contortion of natural processes. We then turn to ways in which topiary might cause an ‘aesthetic affront’ through the humanizing effects of sentimentality and falsification of nature (most often found in representational rather than abstract topiary). Our contention is that successful topiary emerges through a dynamic and positive relationship between topiarist and tree, where the gardener works with nature’s forms instead of in strong opposition to them. Appreciation of successful topiary, we shall argue, is marked by an experience of both the tree as a living thing and the artifice which has shaped it.”

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