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September 14, 2006

Wabi Sabi

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A Fred link to a good Wikipedia entry on the Japanese aesthetic known as Wabi Sabi has reminded me that I've long wanted to pass along ... Er, dammit, where are those notes? ...

OK, got 'em. Anyhoo, I was struck by a conversation between a couple of Japanese art curators, Shiji Kohmoto and Fumio Nanji. Sorry to supply it source-less: I copied this passage out and set it aside a couple of years ago, and I no longer recall where I found it. Still!

Shinji Kohmoto: The Western concept of art, based on notions of individualism, was introduced to Japan only a hundred years ago ... [Japanese] art works operate as elements which create a particular space and mood -- they were not personal artistic statements and they were not a method of defining meaning and ideas. Our main concern was not to produce or have objects, but to experience daily the different stages of the mind.

Fumio Nanji: We didn't have the concept of art in a modern western sense; we had craft, the main concern of which had to do with techniques, materials, and decoration in relation to space, architecture, and lifestyle.

SK: All (pots, chairs, scrolls) were elements equally capable of giving people an opportunity to reflect on or feel something else behind the visible.

FN: To talk about identity you need someone else -- to make you think objectively about yourself, of your identity. But we in Japan never had that chance.

SK: The Japanese language is very suggestive rather than reductive. Japanese is a verb-dominated language while English is noun-dominated. Japanese has a limited vocabulary of adjectives; it is not analytical in nature ... If the essential character of the post-modern condition can be defined as an awareness of pluralism and relativism, I think Japan has been ready to accept that condition.

Wabi Sabi: It's all about the appreciation of impermanence, imperfection, and incompleteness. Yeah, baby! I don't know about you, but Asian art theory often stirs me far more than Western art theory does.

I enjoyed and learned from this book on Wabi Sabi. Wikipedia links to this good article about the Wabi Sabi aesthetic.

Fred has recently put some music he has composed online. It's rousing stuff -- equal parts eerie and rollicking. Fred clearly isn't a stranger to the magic of empty spaces, suggestion, the marks the hand (and the soul) make, and mood either.

* Related: I blogged -- cluelessly, heedlessly, enthusiastically -- about Hindu aesthetics here.



posted by Michael at September 14, 2006


Westernized Wabi Sabi: a poor excuse for a sloppy designer.

Posted by: Tat on September 14, 2006 11:15 AM

Long ago -- the Sixties? -- House Beautiful had a series of articles on special paper celebrating "shibui," the aesthetic of the subtle, the natural, the sumptuous. I've kept them -- somewhere. The contrast was the gaudy, the shiny, the cheap -- was that "iki." Better go look.

I do appreciate the valuing of the verb over the noun, relativism, shifting, transformation, incompleteness and yearning in literature. I think that American Indians, esp. those of the plains, ought to be looked at through this aesthetic. Often they strike me as Asian. They imply, they don't confront, they look alongside rather than directly at. But this disappears as the TV generation takes over.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on September 14, 2006 11:46 AM

Tat -- Then it's a good thing that I'm not a designer!

Mary -- Interesting, tks. Funny how exposure to lots of video seems to make minds more ... literal or something, isn't it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 14, 2006 12:24 PM

Michael, Michael: there you go again, being terribly nice to me. You da mensch.

I first encountered the wabi sabi concept sitting in a J. Jill store while my wife tried on some clothes. They sell odd little books there just to add to the atmosphere. I picked up that Leonard Koren book that Michael linked. Among other things, Koren founded a 70s avant guarde periodical called WET: the Magazine of Gourmet Bathing. That title still cracks me up when I think of it.

Anyone who listens to that piece of mine who can't make out the words may find them here.

Posted by: Fred on September 14, 2006 12:29 PM

Fascinating, Michael. Thanks!

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on September 14, 2006 2:00 PM

It's not just that the modern Blackfeet kids are more literal. They think in terms of THINGS which one owns, rather than PROCESSES which one can learn or join. They have let their own local symbolisms and history be replaced by ghetto black kids' ideas and music. (Or at least marketed versions that purport to be that.) They've given up an environment that was largely made by relatives (tanned, whittled, bound, chipped, painted, beaded) in order to go to WalMart and Sam's Club. About as close as they can get to that now is silk-screening t-shirts.

Maybe the irony is that the ghetto black kids never get close to their verb-oriented African roots either.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on September 14, 2006 4:16 PM

Michael, everybody's a designer, at least of the home they live in.

I'll illustrate:

It's weird, but the herb plants may be my favorite thing about our apartment. I think they sort of summarize what I'd characterize as my style (since the book asks you to describe your style in three words) - . Looking at all the examples on AT lately, I feel like a bit of an outsider. Everyone's taste seems so ultra-modern, and while I love to look at those examples they strike me as somewhat sterile. That's not me. At the same time my style is a bit unfocused. Part of me looooves the Bauhaus and Danish modern stuff - my parents had a good bit of this type of furniture in our house growing up - Wassily chairs and stuff. It's just mostly out of our price range, even Ikea versions (our price range is generally "free" since we are both full time students in NYC).

edit: actually, maybe the best way to describe our style is "wabi-sabi."

So, matter of phraseology: one way to describe it is "organic, bohemian, a little messy", the other - sloppy, mish-mash, unfinished, badly thought out.

Posted by: Tat on September 14, 2006 5:16 PM

Tat -- That's funny and helpful, tks. I sometimes use wabi-sabi as a way to let the dust bunnies accumulate too.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 15, 2006 10:22 AM

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