Wabi sabi and the picturesque
The classic Japanese concept of Wabi-sabi is the beauty of the imperfect, impermanent, incomplete and broken.
This concept is reflected in the west through the work of the William Gilpin. His writing responded to the grandfather of aesthetic-theory, Edmund Burke, who claimed that the key elements of beauty are smoothness and evenness. Gilpin added nuance, he added ‘the picturesque’. Instead of consistency, he saw that ruggedness could be much more gorgeous: ‘In short,’ he said, ‘from a smooth building we must turn it into a rough ruin.’
Finding the beauty in the broken isn’t a cultural phenomenon or a religious fad, it is a power that all people possess, everywhere.
Burke’s ideas of beauty extend into the realm of psychology, he believed people needed the comfort of beauty to survive everyday life mentally. Gilpin never had such grandiose thoughts about his own theories but he should have. With a world fixated on minimalistic brand-logos, clean designs and straight lines a return to appreciating the crooked and complicated could do us all some good.
The broken thing we encounter most in our lives, and thus could be the greatest source of Wabi Sabi appreciation is ourselves. So, please, look around you and find the beauty in our broken world and the beauty in yourself, your very own, personal ‘rough ruin’.
As Jospeph Cambell said ‘Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.’
Like Lucy stepping into Narnia through the wardrobe in ‘the house … in the heart of the country’, we step from our world into the internet through our pocket-sized-wardrobes. Like Lucy we also ‘felt a little frightened, but … very inquisitive and excited as well’ when confronted with the vastness of our new surroundings. But unlike Lucy, tread silenced by light snowfall, venturing into a quiet forest only illuminated by a single, shyly shining lamppost, we are bombarded with noise, information and a million lights. Smartphones are an aggressive medium, endlessly pushing us to the next light and the next and the next.
The rage inherent to this medium is mostly aimed at two things, boredom and inefficiency. Apps are meticulously crafted to keep your mind from leaping back out of the wardrobe for as long as they possibly can. Maybe the single greatest weapon these apps have is the endless-scroll, no load times, just more and more content. Its inventor condemned his own creation with a shaky voice, warning any who will listen to its addictive dangers. Oppenheimer’s words ‘Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds’ on his own worst creation came to mind.
Inefficiency is fought with optimalisation. Pedometers, productivity-apps, e-reader-word-counters tracking reading speed, mindfulness-apps promising you’ll be able to work even harder turn what once were activities for their own sake into competitive goals. Just doing things without it being a step towards some grander goal, just being bored, hell, just being might seem like a loss at first, but it is immensely liberating.
‘And next moment they all came tumbling out of a wardrobe door in to the empty room, and they were no longer Kings and Queens … but just Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy…’
Postponing is innately human yet is seen as the bane of productivity, self-worth even. There has rarely been an audible ‘pffff, I’ll do it in a bit’ that hasn’t been met with both understanding and frustration. Research has shown time and time again that doing nothing, despite Oscar Wilde rightfully claiming it to be hard work, is important if not essential for a properly functioning mind.
Furthermore, when surrounded by calls to optimalization, cries of efficiency and screams of effectiveness, a world of one task after the other, of more and more and more, postponing, being lazy, is more than just taking care of yourself, it is a form of rebellion. In a world where battles on the stock market are won by a 1 millisecond difference in connection-speed, slowing down, creeping towards a complete standstill for a few hours, or a whole day for that matter, is a form of rebellion. Society is working longer and longer hours ever since the conception of ‘work’. The belief that all this is normal, expected, is weighing you down and completely false.
Charles Bronson, Great Britain’s most expensive inmate ever, once spoke to a friend in need about the Oxford floods. A man got his leg stuck in debris and wasn’t able to release himself before drowning in the steadily rising water level. ‘Well’ Bronson said ‘that wouldn’t’ve happened to me… You wanna know why? ‘Cause I’d have said ‘cut it off now’… What I’m saying is sometimes you got to cut a little piece of yourself off in order to grow, in order to move on, y’ know what I mean?’.
So please, wait a moment before browsing on, postpone, rebel, grab the bone saw and say ‘pffff, I’ll do it in a bit’.
I would argue the most significant shift in western art has been from figurative to abstract art. Craftsmanship to concept. From art that pushes an intended feeling and meaning onto the viewer to art that pulls the viewer in with the seeming absence of those things. Nearly all art pulls and pushes simultaneously, but one of the two forces almost always wins. The girl in the golden dress in The Nachtwacht pulls the viewer in but the painting’s sheer extravagance makes it unmistakably pushy.
Some of the most pleasant pieces of art push with equal strength as they pull, art where you thus just stand still and have a moment of very odd rest. Stationary art I coin it.
The Winged Victory of Samothrace, standing like Charon welcoming travelers to the Louvre, is stationary art because of its flaws. The loss of limbs adds mystery to a statue that would have otherwise been purely pressing its grandioseness onto the tourists below.
Mondriaan’s Victory Boogie Woogie is the opus of his last career-phase. He started as a figurative painter, transitioned to abstract, strict art dictated by rules. When he moved to New York a new phase began, Mondriaan’s pulling art received a pushing, freeing busyness previously absent.
Le déjeuner sur l’herbe by Manet is an ocean of questions but I am certain that the feeling it pushes onto the viewer, however indescribable it may be, is the exact feeling Manet intended.
Written by Arthur Mulder