Very busy and behind with work at the moment but lots of interesting things which would be nice to share when I get time.
Today I just wanted to share a few thoughts on wabi sabi.
Ever since Bernard Leach went to Japan and wrote about Japanese aesthetics there has been great interest in the Japanese ideas about beauty. I was first introduced to the ideas through Leach’s adaptation of Soetsu Yanagi’s “The Unknown Craftsman”. When I first read the book it was a revelation, it felt like it gave words to the feelings I already had, it gave a vocabulary to describe how simple humble things could be more wonderful than the glamorous and bling end of material culture that is often highlighted in Western museums and galleries. It suggested that the Japanese had words that explained these concepts which did not translate directly and had lots of subtle nuances difficult for outsiders to grasp but gives a fair explanation of the concepts in English.
“A certain love of roughness is involved, behind which lurks a hidden beauty, to which we refer in our peculiar adjectives shibui, wabi, and sabi.”
Yanagi discusses shibui at length but suggests that wabi is to ephemeral a concept for most westerners to grasp. How tantalising a concept, not surprising then that wabi and sabi have become much used terms in the Western craft world even if we don’t understand what they mean. We have this feeling that there is maybe something there that we admire, that if we could understand, would help us more fully understand the simple and humble in our own material culture. I suspect to some it also sounds rather grand using words that we don’t fully understand in another language. There are numerous books on wabi sabi a typical one from my bookshelf is ‘Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers”. These are mostly written by Westerners trying to interpret what they think they have understood in the Japanese concepts for us. The above book is subtitled “Wabi Sabi is the quintessential Japanese aesthetic. It is the beauty of things imperfect, and incomplete. It is the beauty of things modest and humble.” This actually sounds closer to the meaning of shibui than wabi or sabi to me though I have an incomplete understanding of all these words and prefer to use English terms which I understand fully.
The impetus for this post was what I think is a great blog post by a potter in Japan. Euan is a Westerner but he has lived and worked in Mashiko for 20 years (the pottery Village where Hamada lived and worked) This is the first paragraph of his post which I hope will encourage you to visit and read the rest, it is the simplest, clearest explanation of wabi sabi I have read, clearer and more comprehensive than most books on the subject.
“Just as in English there is a whole vocabulary available for the discussion of Art and Beauty, so too does such a vocabulary exist in Japanese. There is a tendency among people with a passion for and some experience in Japanese art to use the word “Wabi sabi”, and yet so little understanding of what the term refers to. Leonardo da Vinci said that, “If you cannot explain something, you don’t understand it.” To be anecdotal for a moment, there was one young American anthropologist who had studied pottery briefly in Mashiko, who gave a slide lecture here to coincide with an exhibition of American ceramics. Anything in his slides which seemed even vaguely Japanese influenced he described as possessing “Wabi sabi”. One of the thirty or so professional Japanese potters in the audience enquired, “What do you mean by Wabi sabi?” He laughed as he responded, “Nobody knows what Wabi sabi means!” The entire audience laughed also, but the young gentleman never realized that it was not because they agreed with him, but because of his naivety. Wabi sabi is not some mystical secret, but a basic aesthetic principal. Merely because he didn’t understand it doesn’t mean that it cannot be understood.”
I would argue that we do not need Japanese words to understand these concepts, English is a remarkable language. What has been lacking in Western aesthetic discourse is an understanding of the humble, the simple. Perhaps the Shakers in the US came closest to this in the West. I remember in 1998 visiting the ethnographic museum in St Petersburg This is a truly marvelous place, a grand imposing building, not unlike the British Museum or the V&A in London.
Inside are not the finest pieces of art and craft which form the material culture of the 1% at the top of society but the ordinary objects which formed the material culture of the 99% of Russian society. Where could I see the equivalent in the UK? Why do we always highlight the bling over and above the humble and the simple?