Wabi-Sabi: The Beauty of Imperfection

March 31, 2014 § 29 Comments

By Tai Carmensite credit: www.mindful.org/in-your-life/arts-and-creativity/wabi-sabi-for-artists-designers-poets-philosophers

“Wabi-Sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent & incomplete.” ~ Leonard Koren

“Wabi is the beauty that springs from the creative energy that flows in all things, animate or not. It’s a beauty that, like nature itself, can appear with dark and light, sad and joyful, rough and gentle.” ~ Makoto Ueda

“Beauty is radiant and tactile, not airbrushed.” ~ Joe Hefferon 

The term Wabi-Sabi represents a Japanese aesthetic philosophy that embraces authenticity over perfection.

Characterized by asymmetry, irregularity, simplicity, economy, austerity—modesty & intimacy—wabi-sabi values natural objects & processes as emblems of our transitory existence. Rust, woodgrain, freckles—the texture of life.

grandmothers-hands-todd-fox, site credit: http://fineartamerica.com/featured/grandmothers-hands-todd-fox.html

Developed in the 15th century in reaction to the lavish, ostentatious ornamentation of the aristocracy, wabi-sabi centers around three principals: “nothing is perfect, nothing lasts, and nothing is finished.”

“The initial inspiration for wabi-sabi’s metaphysical, spiritual, and moral principles come from ideas about simplicity, naturalness, and acceptance of reality found in Taoism and Chinese Zen Buddhism,” notes Leonard Koren (“Wabi-Sabi For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers.“)Axel-Vervoordt, site credit: http://designtraveller.blogspot.com/2011/02/wabi-sabi.html

Though the concept of wabi-sabi is vast & elusive, most agree the closest Western translation is “rustic.”

“Wabi” refers to stark, transient beauty, while “sabi” denotes the poetry of natural patina & aging, with undertones of yūgen—profound grace and subtlety. Age, damage & natural processes are not seen as flaws, but as deepening & enriching an object’s beauty & profundity.

site credit: http://www.shohin-europe.com/ARTICLES-wabisabi.htm

It is not only natural process that wabi-sabi celebrates, but subtlety & suggestion.

“Wabi-sabi is underplayed and modest,” details Robyn Griggs Lawrence, “the kind of quiet, undeclared beauty that waits patiently to be discovered. It’s a fragmentary glimpse: the branch representing the entire tree …. the moon 90 percent obscured behind a ribbon of cloud. It’s a richly mellow beauty that’s striking but not obvious, that you can imagine having around you for a long, long time…”

Leaves Explored, by: Byron Jorjorian, site credit: www.byronjorjorian.com/detail/6504.html

Intentionality is key.

“Wabi-sabi is never messy or slovenly,” adds Lawrence. “Worn things take on their magic only in settings where it’s clear they don’t harbor bugs or grime. One senses that they’ve survived to bear the marks of time precisely because they’ve been so well cared for throughout the years.” rural oak bowl by holzfurhaus via etsy

To find beauty in imperfection is not intuitive to the Western mind.

Not only have we been raised in a consumeristic culture that values the new & the flawless over the old & the damaged—from objects to people, an obsession fed by airbrush-heavy advertisers—but our entire Western worldview is based on the ancient Greek philosophies of symmetry, proportion & idealized beauty. Not acceptance of what is, but glorification of what could be.

Townley-Discobolus, site credit: http://www.thehistoryblog.com/archives/date/2012/06/03, ancient greek sculpture,

Wabi-sabi finds beauty & value in what is. 

It is, Lawrence notes, “everything that today’s sleek, mass-produced, technology-saturated culture isn’t. It’s flea markets, not shopping malls; aged wood, not swank floor coverings; one single morning glory, not a dozen red roses. Wabi-sabi understands the tender, raw beauty of a gray December landscape and the aching elegance of an abandoned building or shed.

“Wabi-sabi reminds us that we are all transient beings on this planet—that our bodies, as well as the material world around us, are in the process of returning to dust. Nature’s cycles of growth, decay, and erosion are embodied in frayed edges, rust, liver spots. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace both the glory and the melancholy found in these marks of passing time.” (“Wabi-Sabi: The Art of Imperfection.”)

wabi-sabi, buddha face, site credit: eimagination.blogspot.com/2012/07/wabi-sabi.html

In this modern age we find ourselves increasingly alienated from the real.

The texture of life is more & more digitized. We are programmed to seek newer, sleeker, faster technologies—bombarded with images of younger, smoother, more mannequin-like faces as the height of beauty.

Julio Cesar Gomez, site credit: http://www.juliocesargomez.co/75582/673662/gallery/plastic-beauty

It is a ripe time to recall & explore the ancient wisdom of wabi-sabi.

As Billie Mobayed famously noted: “When the Japanese mend broken objects they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful.”

bowl, cracks filled with gold, Japanese, wabi wabi

In an age when broken things are sooner thrown away than honored for their history we can apply this beautiful concept to ourselves.

Though our hearts may bare metaphorical fractures, in the light of our acceptance & reverence, we fill its fissures with gold. For what is more valuable than experience?

Though classically based in art, architecture & landscaping design, it seems natural to apply wabi-sabi principals to our own & others’ humanity. site credit: http://journeytoixtlan.tumblr.com/post/17125919365, wabi wabi beauty, freckles beautiful

Through the wisdom of wabi-sabi we can again begin to appreciate the texture of life—as expressed through human authenticity & natural process.

Perfection has a hallow ring next to the real.

site credit: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/523613894147062572/      

 

*If you enjoyed this post, you might also like: “Authenticity & The False Self”  

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Art and Human Consciousness: Transcending Postmodern Doubt

April 10, 2011 § 5 Comments

By Tai Carmen


Art sings from the axis of truth to wake us up to who we are and where we are going.  — Alex Grey, The Mission of Art

Since the first prelinguistic human put rudimentary paint to rough cave wall, the human race has sought to bring its inner visions into the world through form, sound and story.

These early depictions focus mostly on animals, or on human-animal interaction, perhaps having some kind of magical pre-hunt ceremonial meaning.

The next trend we see in ancient art (Egypt, Mesopotamia) is the portrayal of mythic power beings, often a merger of human-animal traits into superpowerful hybrids, perhaps an attempt of man to internalize the power he sees in animals.

As his consciousness evolves, man begins to wonder why.

To answer questions about origin and meaning, to instill a sense of control and some kind of system, the gods are born. Unless, of course, they really existed (ancient alien theory, anyone?). The most simple explanation of course is mythological — that man was symbolically growing wings, imagining himself greater than his past, stretching his imagination.

Next, the Ancient Greek interest in human form and aesthetic balance emerges.

In The Mission of Art, Alex Grey writes: “The new vision of Greco-Roman art began to shift away from the fusion of human-animal deities and focus more on ideal and naturalistic human forms. Naturalism corresponded more with the ascending world-view of rational investigation and description of nature (including human anatomy) which was the beginning of organized scientific medical inquiry.”

By the Renaissance, we see many self-portraits; in correspondence with humanity’s birthing self-awareness.

“As the ninteenth and twentieth century human psyche matured into the analytical rationalism of objective science,” Alex Grey notes, “the moderns turned their attention to analyzing the formal characteristics of painting and sculpture itself  [. . . ] The search for unique and personal approaches led artists to increasingly clever explorations of abstract, surreal, and nonobjective [art.]”

Each “ism” signified original insights and inventions of the artists: impressionism (small but perceptible brushstrokes, realistic representation of light, usually indicating movement or passage of time, simplified form). . .

fauvism (French for “wild beasts”, strong color, simplified subject, mood over realistic representation) . . .

expressionism (the world represented in an utterly subjective manner, radical distortion of reality for emotional effect) . . .

. . . cubism (objects are broken up, analyzed, and re-assembled in an abstracted form—instead of depicting objects from one viewpoint, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context). . .

. . .  futurism (violent rejection of classism) . . .

. . . dadaism (ridicules the so-called meaninglessness of the modern world through the use of the absurd, precursor to surrealism)  . . .

. . . constructivism (practical art, stripped of emotion, mechanized). . .

. . . surrealism (dreamlike juxtaposition, visual surprise) . . .

. . . abstract expressionism (anti-figurative aesthetic, emotionally intense, rebellion with nihilistic tinges). . .

. . . pop art (images from popular culture, ironic use of kitschy and/or banal found objects). . .

. . . minimalism (work stripped down to most fundamental features) . . .

. . . conceptualism (concept over aesthetic).

As you can see in this brief visual history of modern art, we’ve deconstructed ourselves to bits. Alex Grey details, “Today’s culture of high rationality has been dubbed post-modern, because we have deconstructed reason and language itself, finding that there are always multiple points of view on any subject.

“Any attempt to comprehend a ‘whole’ or ‘higher’ truth must take the cacophony of indivduals, each with his or her own opinion, his or her own “truth,” into account.

“Postmodern doubt has replaced the confident trajectory of invention and progress which characterized modernism.”

In light of our recent artistic past, it seems the current cultural situation calls for today’s artists to transcend the fractured vision of postmodernist deconstruction and find a new connectivity, a new vision, which does not so much rely on reaction to the past, as mining for deeper truths within the collective human psyche.

It is the first vision that counts. Artists have only to remain true to their dream and it will possess their work in such a manner that it will resemble the work of no other artist — for no two visions are alike,  and those who reach the heights have all toiled up the steep mountains by a different route. To each has been revealed a different panorama. — Albert Pinkham Ryder


The Question of Reality

January 19, 2011 § 9 Comments

By Tai Carmen

“I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?” — Chuang Tzu

From Plato’s Cave to The Matrix, thoughtful humans throughout the ages have found different ways to ask the same question: Are we fully cognizant of the true nature of the reality that surrounds us?

There is a basic unease to the human condition, the vague and gnawing sense that there must be something we are missing, something we have not been told; a feeling rooted, no doubt, in the fact that we are born into a world where the most burning questions have only theoretical, subjective answers.

Religion has attempted to fill this void with meaning, but even in its answers, more questions arise.

How solid is our reality? Science, so often pitted against the mystical, has the most mystically fraught of answers: not solid at all. On an atomic and subatomic level — as we all learned in school, though most likely didn’t grasp the full implication of at the time — there is space and movement between atoms. The so-called solid wall is teeming, pulsing, dancing — molecules full of wide open space.

If I put my hand on the wall, the sensation I experience as touch is the interaction between the molecules of my hand and the molecules of the wall; on an atomic level, there is a point where the difference between my hand and the wall become indistinguishable.

In other words, it has been scientifically proven in our lifetime that the reality we behold is — to some degree, anyway — illusory.

The idea that the nature of form is misleading and ultimately unreal, of course, has been in existence for centuries — perhaps most famously put forth in the Eastern concept of Maya, (found in Buddhism and Hinduism,) a word derived form the ancient Sanskritma, meaning “not,” and ya, meaning “that.” Though the details differ, Judeo-Christian philosophy reiterates the same basic idea: that things are not as they appear, and this world is but a pale echo of a brighter, truer place.

There are more sinister shades, more paranoid potential, to this question of reality. The possibility that, as in The Matrix — where humans are grown by sentient machines, imprisoned in a virtual computer-generated world —we are living in an unperceived prison of sorts. As the character Morpheus says:

“What you know you can’t explain. But you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life. That there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind driving you mad.”

Of course, we can clearly see that there are many things wrong with the world — war, hunger, violence, hatred. Easily, that can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it-feeling of unease can find its root in quite tangible phenomena. Perhaps it is a form of escapism to look elsewhere than the obvious issues — wishful thinking that there is some explanation which would make the world’s horrors somehow more comprehensible. And yet, true though this may be, it doesn’t hurt to probe, to dig, to question consensus reality.

The Matrix premise borrows heavily from the Gnostic tradition, wherein the world was created by imperfect gods (though within the spectrum a perfect one exists.)

These flawed creators are described as a race of inorganic beings local to our solar system, called Archons. Agents of error, they feed off human misery and hence work to deceive the mind towards darkness. Pretty trippy stuff, considering the ancient texts date back to the 3rd and 4th century.

The fact that our experience of stimuli in the world is actually an experience of our brain’s interpretation of that stimuli (rather than the thing itself) does make a Matrix-like gap between reality and perceived reality plausible.

After all, the smell of a rose is simply information recognized through sensory organs and registered as “rose.”

The light waves we see when we perceive the rose are in our eyes, not the thing seen; the molecules we smell are in our nose, not the thing smelled. They are not the thing itself, but a relayed message or impression of the thing.

In the language of philosophy, this is known as the “brain in a vat” thought experiment. Theoretically, if it were scientifically possible to place a brain in a life-sustaining liquid environment (or “vat”) & hook its neurons up to a supercomputer—generating electrical impulses identical to those the brain normally receives—the brain would perceive the simulated reality as experiential reality.

This concept is used as a  basic argument for philosophical skepticism; as theoretically it is impossible to know, from the brain’s perspective, whether it exists in a scull or a vat.

Brain in a vat

Surrealist artist Rene Margitte plays with this concept in his famous painting, The Treachery of Images, which displays a pipe, underneath which is written in French: “This is not a pipe”

For, indeed, it is not a pipe, but a representation of one. Yet our first thought upon reading the painting’s caption is to object—certainly this is a pipe. 

Yet upon reflection we must admit that the clever artist’s pronouncement is absolutely accurate and, indeed, our tendency to associate the-thing-itself with its representation has been illustrated.

How can we assume this world is as it seems, when nightly dreams themselves can seem so real? What deeper, truer, more expansive identity and truth might be revealed to us about the cosmos and our place in it upon leaving or waking from this reality?

I’m not in any hurry to get there, and as Tom Hanks says in Joe vs. The Volcano, “Some things take care of themselves,” but I do — after many a dark night of the soul wrestling with doubt — have a good feeling about it. After all, the world minus man’s debacles, is a place brimming with potential and inspirational phenomena.


I’ve heard the life-as-dream/world-as-illusion theory described as angst-producing, proof of pointlessness. I don’t see it that way. Does an inspiring nocturnal dream enrich our spirit any less because it gives way to a deeper, fuller reality upon waking? Is a great novel any less meaningful because it didn’t really happen? When you start subdividing it, the word “real” itself begins to lose meaning.

We can knock on a table and feel reassured by its bright, solid sound. But even the table is like Magritte’s pipe — both what it seems to be and also not at all. Reality ripe with paradox and potential, lots of wide open space for us to take a tip from the molecules and dance, even in the smallest spaces.

The Art of Madness

January 10, 2011 § 3 Comments

By Tai Carmen

By Minjai Lee; site credit: www.hdw.eweb4.com/search/surrealism/

“Madness is to think too many things in succession too fast, or one thing too exclusively.” ~ Voltaire

“A person needs a little madness, or else they never dare cut the rope and be free.” ~ Nikos Kazantzakis

“You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” ~ Robin Williams

In his seminal work, “Madness and Civilization,” French philosopher Michael Faucault posits that psychiatry uses labeling language (known as positive science) to camouflage the bourgeois values imposed on social deviancy.

In other words, the mental health system acts as a kind of suppressive goon against nonconformity.

site credit: http://floatinginthebellyofawhale.tumblr.com/post/69345544932

Vincent Van Gogh, famous for his sunflowers, wheat fields and ear-chopping, acknowledged that:

“It is only too true that a lot of artists are mentally ill — it’s a life which, to put it mildly, makes one an outsider. I’m all right when I completely immerse myself in work, but I’ll always remain half crazy.”

From an evolutionary perspective, survival depends on some kind of social acceptance. So it’s natural that we attempt to avoid stigmatization. Yet, the seeker-dreamer feels compelled towards living authentically and will often sacrifice herd acceptance for the satisfaction of true self-expression.

Still, there is the ever-present, if subconscious, awareness that if you go too far, you could lose liberty. If you act too differently, you could be institutionalized.

Once deemed clinically insane, the individual’s rights become blurry, as with criminals.

The incarceration of psychological dissidents acts as a kind of warning to wayward thinkers; a cautionary tale to not let one’s mind run too far into the fanciful woods. 

unknown source

Edgar Allen Poe observed:

“Men have called me mad, but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence—whether much that is glorious—whether all that is profound—does not spring from disease of thought—from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect. Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.” 

In the Renaissance,  the mentally ill were considered to have gotten too close to “the Reason of God.”

Tribal cultures throughout the world consider madness the first sign of a shaman’s birth into his power, marking him as one who can communicate between the physical and the invisible worlds.

Dr Adele Juda, researcher at the Institute for Psychiatry of Munich, interviewed over 5,000 people between 1927 –1943. She found what was considered neurosis and personality disorder in 27% of the artists & 19% of the scientists and statesmen studied, against the general rate of 10-12%.

The highest rates of psychic disruption were seen among poets (50%).

As French poet Arthur Rimbaud writes:

“A poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses. All forms of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he exhausts within himself all poisons, and preserves their quintessences. Unspeakable torment, where he will need the greatest faith, a superhuman strength, where he becomes all men… Because he has cultivated his soul, already rich, more than anyone, he attains the unknown.”

The lowest rates of neurosis were found among architects (17%).

A good friend of mine once worked as a personal assistant for an Oscar-winning talent who shall remain nameless. She has shared moments with me wherein the successful entertainer barreled through the living room in boxer shorts, a newsboy hat and cowboy boots, a manuscript of papers clutched to his chest, saying, “I’m going mad!”—after dumping his papers in a pile to play a beautiful fit of piano music & jumping up to scribble in a notebook.

He smiled of course when he said it, because he had managed to play the most beautiful hoodwink upon society that a creative mind can play: he made money being slightly mad.

And that is the art of insanity: valuing creative chaos and giving it room to unfold without premature critique or analysis. Order and reason can come later. As Nietzsche says:

“You must have chaos within to give birth to a dancing star.”

Creative process doesn’t have to make sense, and some of the world’s greatest visionaries have proven that it’s better if it doesn’t. Far-fetched processes yield unusual thoughts, and novel ideas garner more attention than pedestrian ones.

Am I suggesting that one can not be brilliant without being insane? Certainly not. But in order to have great thoughts, one’s mind must certainly be open to a broader scope than the average thinker, and when a mind is broad in expanse, the impressions therein will be unusually varied.

Madness and art are not mutually exclusive, but they do go well together, and often turn up as a pair to the same party. If you’re one of those who dreams awake and finds yourself an “outsider” like van Gogh, consider yourself lucky: you’re in good company and that much closer to doing something original.

So use your madness to your own advantage. Rather than stuffing it in a drawer, take it out to play.

“Imagination,” Einstein says, “is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

There is no genius free from some tincture of madness.Seneca

If you liked this post, you might also The Outsider, The Outsider As Visionary & The Mythology of Conformity 

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