Tuesday, April 9, 2013


88. Wabi-Sabi

In this blog I have pleaded for imperfection on the move (see item 19): for a positive appreciation, not just acceptance, of imperfection, the impossibility, even undesirability of absolutes, and acceptance of change, and of the provisional nature of ideas, knowledge and morality. In change, imperfection can become less imperfect without ever becoming perfect. In that change lies the journey of life. And as Nietzsche indicated, pain, misery, grief, and anguish are part of that life and should be faced rather than hidden in the distraction of false beliefs and hopes. Is there some ultimate goal of that journey, beyond life? Who knows? Probably not. But cannot life yet flourish, and isn’t that enough?

How does this relate to art? Does art aim to achieve perfection, or can it rejoice also in imperfection on the move? There is a Japanese tradition in art that does just that. It is called wabi-sabi, which means the beauty of imperfection, impermanence and incompleteness. It stands in contrast to modernism, in a way that perhaps resembles my opposition to Platonic and Enlightenment ideals of context-independent, immutable universals.

In his booklet on wabi-sabi Leonard Koren (1994) lists the following differences between modernism and wabi-sabi:

modernism                                                               wabi-sabi

 the box as metaphor (rectilinear, precise,  contained)   the bowl as metaphor (free shape, open)

manmade materials                                                     natural materials

ostensibly slick                                                           ostensibly crude

needs to be well-maintained                                        accommodates to degradation and attrition

purity makes its expression richer                                corrosion makes expression richer 

solicits the reduction of sensory information                  solicits the expansion of sensory information

is intolerant of ambiguity and contradiction                  is comfortable with ambiguity, contradiction

cool                                                                            warm

generally light and bright                                              generally dark and dim

function and utility are primary values                           function and utility are not so important

perfect materiality is an ideal                                        perfect immateriality is an ideal

everlasting                                                                  to every thing there is a season

I would not want to subscribe to all these features of wabi-sabi, to the point of rejecting modernism. I still rejoice to see modernist Bauhaus architecture, for example, though I might not want to live in it, but I equally rejoice in seeing an gnarled old wooden door about to fall from its rusty hinges, though if I lived there I might want to replace it.

Are we here facing Nietzsche’s opposition between Apollo and Dionysus again, in a different form? Before (in item 81), I argued for a dynamic unity of the two, an echo of dialectics in philosophy, where there is temporary balance, reduction and purity, that is next carried into novel settings that break harmony, in a falling apart of an established order that meets its limits. I would like to see wabi-sabi decay as a movement towards new life, in new forms that aspire to a perfection that is never achieved. 

I am reminded of the late self-portraits of Rembrandt: the decay of old age, lines becoming diffuse in rough, thick strokes of paint, the ruby blotch of a thickening nose, astonishingly expressionist for his time.