Thursday, November 10, 2011

Wabi Sabi, the aesthetic of decay

Globalisation and industrialisation can be understood to unfold in two diametrically opposite ways (as with any politic)--their proponents view them as ways to produce things more "efficiently" and bridge cultures, while opponents view them as mechanisms of ecological and cultural homogenisation, mechanisms of disregard for people and place. What cannot be denied, though, is that mass production of anything leads to a uniformity of outcome. Assembly lines strive to make the same exact car, and forks and spoons and jeans and computers are all made to be the same. On the other hand, you have the Japanese aesthetic of Wabi Sabi, so wonderfully described by John Flowers, a philosophy graduate student at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, at the Building Bridges conference on philosophy and waste. Just as I did yesterday, I would like to quote some passages from John's paper first.
Whereas the western potter would see the cracked, imperfect pot as a wasted effort, a Japanese potter, enmeshed in the aesthetic of wabi would have little qualms with the display of this vase as an epitome of his aesthetic craft. That is, wabi, as an aesthetic, seeks to find and represent the beautiful in those things that are imperfect, withered, or even damaged by the passing of time. Wabi then seeks the beautiful not in the perfect symmetry prized by western ideals of beauty, but in the asymmetry and irregular structure evidenced in the natural world that surrounds us: it is an ideal that elevates imperfection, as representative of impermanence, or mujou in the Zen Buddhist lexicon, to the highest levels of beauty and thus finds the beauty in those things whose form has long since deteriorated.

Thus, wabi, as an aesthetic, takes objects ravaged by time or imperfect in their creation, and finds within them a conspicuous beauty that surpasses the material. More than that, wabi takes objects which, under other aesthetics, would be discarded for their worn or irreparably damaged appearance and elevates them to a position of high art: it re-values decay and forces the connoisseur of art to re-evaluate their perspective on beauty itself...In the modern sense, wabi is often paired with sabi, which is a qualitative principle of feeling that refers to the specific quality of the emotions of the artist or the perceiver that arise in response to imagery. the Shinto conception, those things which most accurately reflect the natural order, that is constant flux, are the most valued. In this sense, a cracked and faded porcelain vase, an iron kettle rusted from use or a sword whose chipped edge shows its age are considered the highest forms of art. It is through the contemplation of these objects, that the appreciator of sabi art begins to sense the ebb and flow of nature...

...under wabi, beauty can never fade: it only grow deeper with the passing of time and the accretion of subtle qualities of impermanence that serve to deepen the beauty of the object by reminding us, through the feeling of sabi, of the evanescence of all life, that we should savor each moment as it comes, rather than longing for it to last forever.
Therefore the "imperfect" tea cup, the changing landscape of a garden, and the sculptures constantly affected by weather are all wabi art. Their beauty is in their ever-changing uniqueness. (Images taken from Kevin Taylor's commentary on John Flower's paper.)

I find these thoughts to be extremely fascinating, for several reasons. I have written many times about the appreciation of place and time that is so essential if we are to make any meaningful attempts at sustainability and combating ecological degradation. I believe that the arguments for an such an appreciation of art and object can easily be translated to our surroundings, our most mundane possessions. If we appreciate what we have, we will not want more. If we do not want more, we refuse to tolerate harm being done to the Earth and its people in the name of production, industrialisation, and materialism.

(Nick, Farid, Cara, David and I made our own wabi sabi art. =))

1 comment:

  1. What a refreshing reminder to appreciate the beauty of imperfection and resist dismissing that which appears to be decrepit!