March 31, 2014 § 29 Comments
“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.
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.“)
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.
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…”
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.”
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.
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.”)
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.
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.”
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?
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.
*If you enjoyed this post, you might also like: “Authenticity & The False Self”
April 10, 2011 § 5 Comments
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