As part of our assignment this week, we had to read the book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren. It’s a very quick and delightful read – so much so that I decided to go through twice! I’d only have to disagree with the title to this book… Wabi-Sabi isn’t just for artists, designers, poets and philosophers – it’s for everyone.
Anyhow, here are my answers to some of the questions we were asked in our assignment.
• What is wabi-sabi and why is it difficult to define?
Wabi-Sabi is an aesthetic at the core of Japanese culture. It’s difficult to define primarily because a precise, intellectual understanding of it has been avoided. Japanese critics believe it’s important to maintain a certain mystery and elusiveness, which ties in with the aesthetic’s lack of concern with “ideological clarity or transparency” are not essential to wabi-sabi. In turn, the subtleties of the Japanese language and the evolving meanings of the words wabi and sabi also impedes a literal translation of the term. Now, the words are almost always used in conjunction.
Koren uses the word “rustic” as the closest English word to wabi-sabi, explaining that shares characteristics with “primitive art” and the earthy, unpretentious and simple.
• How is wabi-sabi different from modernism? How is it the same?
Wabi-sabi and modernism apply to all forms of manmade objects, spaces and designs, and both came into being as contradictory movements to dominant aesthetics of their times. Elements superfluous to structure are unimportant – what both principles are concerned with is the abstract representation of beauty according to their set of aesthetic principles, which are actually quite different. While modernism is cool, polished and exact, wabi-sabi is imperfect, incomplete and earthy. The differences between them outnumber the similarities. A few other mentioned in Koren’s book are:
Modernism / Wabi-sabi
Cool / Warm
Absolute / Relative
Future-oriented / Present-oriented
Everlasting / To every thing there is a season
Romanticizes technology / Romanticizes nature
Believes in the control of nature / Believes in the uncontrollability of nature
Purity makes its expression richer / Corrosion and contamination makes its expression richer
• What is the metaphysical basis of wabi-sabi? What are its spiritual values?
The metaphysical basis of wabi-sabi is that things are in a perpetual state of devolving toward or evolving from nothingness, which unlike that of Western philosophies, is “alive with possibility”. Capturing what Koren refers to as “faint evidence” of the unformed and forming is the purest kind of wabi-sabi there is. The inability to discern the formed from the unformed is also recognized by the wabi-sabi aesthetic: “If we didn’t know differently we might mistake the newborn baby boy – small, wrinkled, bent, a little grotesque looking – for the very old man on the brink of death.” (Koren, p. 45)
Wabi-sabi’s spiritual values come from the observation of nature and involve embracing unpredictability, imperfection and incompleteness. Beauty isn’t grandiose or monumental – instead, it’s found in the minute details, the hidden and subtle. In turn, wabi-sabi offers no distinction between beauty and ugliness. As Koren explains, “Wabi-sabi suggests that beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else.” And, because of that, beauty can occur at any moment.
• What is the wabi-sabi state of mind? What are its moral precepts?
Expressions of wabi-sabi make us aware and comfortable with the inevitable aspects of nature and life. In contemplating our own mortality and that of everything around us, “they evoke an existential loneliness and tender sadness”. Koren also uses the words “bittersweet comfort”. There’s an appreciation for the cosmic order of things and the transcendent nature of the world and ourselves.
The moral precepts of wabi-sabi are heavily based on the notion of “Material poverty, spiritual richness” and making choices that allow for a balance between “the pleasure we get from things and the pleasure we get from freedom from thing.” Koren uses the design of the wabi-sabi tea room as an example of how it values the intrinsic and shuns the hierarchical. In the tea room, everyone is forced to crawl in through a small entrance – in essence, stepping to the same level and entering an environment in which all are equals.
• What are the material qualities of wabi-sabi?
The material qualities of wabi-sabi as susceptible to the suggestions of a natural process. As ‘vulnerable’ materials, they are subject to warping, cracking and other forms of effects caused by nature and man. As such, they are also irregular and don’t conform to conventions of beauty. Things wabi-sabi are, as described by Koren, also intimate and a world apart (ie. the tea room), unpretentious (coexisting with their environment and not found in museums), earthy (rich and raw in texture), murky (blurry and approach nothingness) and simple (“pare down to the essence, but don’t remove the poetry”).