Beware Agapanthus

"Man is always, I think, made fearful by what he does not understand. I heard the other day a story which illustrates the point and which may appeal to garden lovers. A lady wishing to keep people from crossing her lawn put up a notice BEWARE OF THE DOG. It had no effect. She then put one up BEWARE FIERCE DOG - still no effect - but when she put up BEWARE AGAPANTHUS no one dared come near."

Jim Ede - Founder of Kettle's Yard, Cambridge. ('Open House' Exhibition Catalogue)
The degree of aesthetic impact and emotional experience of the above quote varies dramatically depending upon whether or not the reader 'knows' what an 'Agapanthus' is. The quote is useful because it presents a few small challenges; to buy into, or believe in this story, we have to imagine, visualize, think and feel.

For those who do 'not know', the warnings of a dog, and a fiercer dog, set up the Agapanthus as something particularly fierce and dangerous. Finding out that an Agapanthus is a rather beautiful plant diminishes the fear of what it might be and enables us to understand one major point of the story, another point is that the realization also dashes the daydream created by our imagination.

For those who 'know' what an Agapanthus is, the quote presents a different challenge. When one 'knows' it is more difficult to imagine or create a daydream of what an Agapanthus might be. In many ways it is sensible and practical in life to trust in the reality we have tested, know and believe. However, the quote also makes more complex points, one being that there can be gains and benefits from using the imagination.

The 'lady' in the story uses her imagination to enhance reality - by activating the fear and imagination of others she gets the solution she wants. It is a consciously driven movement away from reality, a creative reversal of the process of realization.

There is also an implied warning that accompanies the process of immersing ourselves in the story - when we 'suspend our disbelief' (Coleridge, 1817) and our trust in things that are real, we make ourselves susceptible to being manipulated. It is like our reality anchor has been hoisted and we become vulnerable to the ebbs and flows of the sea. We identify with the lawn trespassers and the story makes us turn back in fear.

Significantly, those who 'know' and those who do 'not know' must both give up a sense of reality and accept the fictionalised story to be able to understand and have access to the benefits of the many points condensed within it.

Jim Ede recounted this viginette so that visitors to museums and galleries would enter and approach art and artefacts with open and creative minds, rather than expecting to find what is already known and what we feel safe with. There is a risk in embracing the unknown, the challenging, and the difficult, but without the risk there can be no development, creativity, or change. It is not difficult to see how crucial these factors are in learning.

The unfamiliarity of the 'Beware Agapanthus' sign forces a re-evaluation of habitual responses, momentarily we reconfigure our existing experiences to address a new set of learning parameters. We are forced to question and consider, or if the challenge is too extreme, we avoid. It is an important skill to 'know what to do, when we do not know' (Claxton 2003, p2) and it is something that is easily overlooked when there are so many prescriptive aspects of compulsory education.

[Karl Foster]

Related posts:-
Negative Capability
Entertaining Ideas
Art Frame of Mind
Are you sure?
Don't commit to it
Look again
Escaping Uncertainty