Wabi-Sabi

Wabi-Sabi 1, photograph

A funny thing happened this week – one of those whimsical coincidences that can reveal. I read a book that had been recommended by Donna Watson on her wonderful blog Layers. The book is Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren. In it I found a phrase the not only resonated with me strongly but was the exact same phrase that had been used by Robert Adams which was the inspiration for my last blog posting. I realized that my previous posting had mysteriously foreshadowed this book and that there was a theme here for me to explore further.

Here is the quote from Koren:

“The simplicity of wabi-sabi is probably best described as the state of grace arrived at by a sober, modest, heartfelt intelligence. The main strategy of this intelligence is economy of means. Pare down the essence but don’t remove the poetry”

There’s that phrase again – economy of means. Why was it haunting me?

First, what is wabi-sabi? I won’t attempt to explain it fully here (Koren’s book does a wonderful job of that) but basically it is a fundamental Japanese aesthetic of beauty. In his introduction Koren describes wabi-sabi:

“Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional.”

I have always been drawn to photographing objects in some state of deterioration. I’d rather shoot an old, decaying building than a new shiny one, a beat up old car than this year’s model, an antique rather than something just made. I never understood what appealed to me in these objects and sometimes felt self-conscious pursuing them.

The concept of wabi-sabi has given me a context within which to consider these subjects. Koren discusses some of the metaphysical, spiritual, moral and emotional foundations of this interesting aesthetic. For example, a metaphysical aspect is “things are devolving toward, or evolving from, nothingness”, while a moral precept is “get rid of all that is unnecessary”. The economy of means phrase refers to the unpretentious simplicity vs. materialistic complexity that is also fundamental to wabi-sabi.

I like the idea that what and how I photograph can cause me to think about the world around me in a more conscious manner. I have a feeling a wabi-sabi series is in my future.


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Art – It’s Not What You Think

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“The thing made is a work of art made by art, but not itself art. The art remains in the artist and is the knowledge by which things are made.”

Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy

It’s an intriguing thought to view art as not the work itself but the means by which the work is created. Art becomes something much more complex and interesting – the various internal forces within you that enable you to produce the “work of art”. Even “work of art”  takes on a new meaning – the piece created is the work of the art within you.

This makes the answer to “what is art?” take on a much more personal meaning – instead of looking outward and saying this piece is art and that piece is not, we instead turn inward and look for the measure of the art there. Art becomes much more than technique, composition or style – it is the unique combination of experience, intention, insight and creativity that only you have. Art becomes inseparably intertwined with the life force within you.

“The art remains in the artist” – I can think of no better companion.

Improvement

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“There isn’t any method of improvement inherent in abstract painting. There is no challenge.”

– Daniel E. Greene

As you might expect, I don’t agree at all with the sentiment expressed above. I find it interesting that a prominent artist would make such a statement – Daniel Greene is one of the most respected portrait artists out there. His style is certainly not abstract, but such a “partisan” point of view is surprising.

That said, he does raise an interesting question, which is how does one gauge “improvement”?  First, there is an assumption that, as an artist, we are trying to improve. Is this always true? Is “improvement” just a sly euphemism for “more successful”? We know what a twisted thicket trying to chase success leads us into.

Or does improvement mean that we are better able to express whatever it is we are trying to express in our art? One might argue that there is no need for “improvement”. As long as we’re enjoying making the art, who cares? Do we need to strive for improvement or should we be more concerned about enjoying the process and expressing ourselves freely wherever that leads us? Does trying to “improve” actually hold us back?

I believe what Greene is referring to is probably more technique oriented – as a fairly realistic painter or portraits, he can gauge improvement by the work’s closer and closer resemblance to the subject. Not just how photo-realistic the painting is, but to what degree the character of the subject is captured. For an abstract artist, it is certainly harder to measure improvement because there is no external reference against which the piece can be compared in some way.

But I cannot agree with Greene. I think in abstract art there is room for improvement and there are real challenges we face. The measure of improvement is more internal to the artist and thus more difficult for others to measure. But you probably have had the experience of looking at two abstract pieces and seeing that one is clearly better than the other – if these had both been done by the same artist, one would have to conclude that improvement had occurred (I’m assuming it wasn’t a one-off stroke of luck!). If such a leap in quality can be recognized there must be a method of improvement behind it.

Color is King

“The orgiastic moment is the laying on of the color.”

– Kurt Vonnegut (he says he hung out with a lot of painters…)

I’ve begun reading a new book, “Color Codes” by Charles A. Riley II. The subtitle is “Modern Theories of Color in Philosophy, Painting and Architecture, Literature, Music, and Psychology” – whew! Quite a range of topics to cover. So I’m sure this will generate a few postings in the near future…

One thing that has struck me already is the importance color has had in intellectual thought over time. For example, it turns out that many important philosophers spent a lot of time investigating color. I believe this is due to the fact that color is such a common phenomenon (everyone knows what red is … or do they?) so it provides a rich opportunity to explore a wide range of issues related to how we experience and understand the world around us.

Many books have been written on the subject of color – there was Kant’s Critique of Aesthetic Judgement (1790), Goethe’s Theory of Colors (1801-1810), Hegel’s Aesthetics, Schopenhauer’s Theoria colorum physiologica, and Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Color (1950). That’s a lot of brain power aimed at understanding color (and other items related to aesthetics). In particular, I am impressed that Wittgenstein spent his last days working on the issue of color – he gave it that much priority.

Just to start the ball rolling, here is an interesting question to contemplate – one which as artists we face on a daily basis. Wittgenstein talks about the difficulty of matching or comparing colors since they are so dependent on their surroundings. He asks you to consider a painting cut up into small pieces, so small that each one is essentially a single color. Like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle it is only when they are put together that they become the sky, or the vase or the figure. So, he asks, do the individual pieces show us the real colors of the parts of the picture? They do make up, by definition, the color elements in the painting, but we only see the real colors in the context of the entire painting.

At a practical level, as painters we all understand that colors take on different qualities in the context of other colors. We use that knowledge intentionally as we paint. But it certainly makes the effective management of color more complex. Take the number of colors we might create and then multiply exponentially to account for the subtle differences created by surrounding colors – it’s a dizzying palette!

I have a feeling that color is a somewhat slippery thing. Maybe that’s why we artists are so fascinated by it!