Wabi-Sabi?

scottsullivan's picture

I just read 'Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers' by Leonard Koren, It's a great book and I really feel that it's describing a fifteenth-century form of Modernism. Do any of y'all know about Wabi-Sabi?

I've found that both Wabi-Sabi and Modernism are in direct response to the prevalance of ornament. Koren suggests that Wabi-Sabi was born for aesthetic reasons while Modernism came from function. I think that there is a good possibility that Wabi-Sabi's earthy imperfection is a result of constructing objects with the most practical materials in the most practical methods of the time (mid 15th century), and the lack of aesthetic consideration is a result from the efficiency of production.

I guess my main question would be, would you consider Wabi-Sabi in the same timeline as Modernism??

here's the Wabi-Sabi wiki

Dan Gayle's picture

My understanding is that the "Zen Masters" wanted a cup. Just a cup. Not decoration, not perfection, not anything un-essential to the purpose of "cup". So they went and found the most basic cups they could find, i.e., something made by a Korean farmer who just dug up some dirt out back by his barn and made a cup that worked as a cup.

No intrinsic value other than "cupness".

If you were to compare this idea to any kind of movement, a surprising match, in my mind, would be Swiss International style. On the surface, it seems different than Wabi-Sabi, but when you boil it down to the absolute essentials you realize that both styles are based upon distilling the essence of something down to... the absolute essential.

Paul Cutler's picture

While this is a nice entrance into the world of Zen you would be much better served by reading Zen poets.

There is a concept called mugo that means when you write a poem about something you must first become the thing. That is done by meditating on the subject. So Shinkichi Takahashi's tremendous Triumph of the Sparrow is the result of his meditations on the sparrow, his becoming the sparrow. He is a particularly interesting character who was a dadaist in the 1920s in Japan, got arrested and thrown in jail for it, and then later became a Buddhist monk. He is a calligrapher and poet and a designated Japanese cultural treasure.

Modernism and Zen were not on the same timeline - Zen appears in China in the 5th or 6th century when Bodhidharma brings Buddhism there from India. In China it mixes with Tao and thus Zen begins. It flowers during the Tang dynasty (which is one of the greatest civilizations ever - for example, to serve in the government you had to be an artist) and we get Li Po, Tu Fu, and Wang Wei who established the art of poetry as a Zen activity. It is not until the 14th century or so that it is transmitted to Japan, which is what most people think of when they think of Zen.

The best translator of Zen poetry into English is Lucien Stryk. Probably because he is also a poet and an academician at the University of Illinois the last time I checked.

pbc

My mind is subject to change without notice.

jupiterboy's picture

My introduction to the term came by explanation of the green tea ceremony wherein a cup with an imperfection was seen as charming or desirable, more so than a cup that had a more traditional perfection.

Maybe to apply this to design you could look at something in a naive or folk direction that is functional and charming because it specifically looks as if a designer never touched it.

Paul Cutler's picture

excellent jupiterboy. that's juice.

quick/slow bold strokes.

pbc

My mind is subject to change without notice.

eliason's picture

I think prominent in wabi-sabi is a respect for acknowledging, accepting, and even esteeming the weathering toll that time takes on impermanent (that is, all) objects; whereas modernism demands of the object that it be new.

Maybe to apply this to design you could look at something in a naive or folk direction that is functional and charming because it specifically looks as if a designer never touched it.

Although my understanding is that some of this stoneware was created by renowned "masters."
Perhaps the imperfections are better thought of as deriving from the properties of the materials rather than the ignorance of the creators.

hrant's picture

FWIW to me Modernism (at least in the West) started with the Romans.
They were the original self-important control-freaks.

hhp

jupiterboy's picture

Although my understanding is that some of this stoneware was created by renowned “masters.”
Perhaps the imperfections are better thought of as deriving from the properties of the materials rather than the ignorance of the creators.

Craig makes a good point. Clay and the firing process brings the elements into the equation. Maybe a better example would be wood type where use and the material exert an imperfection which is actually desirable.

Dan Gayle's picture

I had a college sensei who was a pottery master who specialized in tea ceremony utensils. I once asked him how many cups, bowls, etc., he had. He said two. Two cups. Two bowls. Two everything. The rest were for sale, so that he could put rice into his two bowls.

The point is that having more, more perfection, more quantity, more new, doesn't mean better bowl or cup. It just means more.

My sensei would throw away many many bowls because he put too much of himself, his ego, into the bowl. He put too much emphasis on the perfection. Too much into the style. Too much that wasn't the essence of “bowl”. But then he would find one where he wasn't focused on perfection, but focused on bowl. And he would keep that one.

The clays and the firing processes certainly contain the essence of the "bowl" of which they created and are a part of, the same as the creator is part of the essence of the "bowl". But they do not make up the entirety of the bowl. It's not a bowl unless it can be used in a bowl-like fashion.

It's a deep meditation process on any creative undertaking, that's for certain. That's one difference between old art and modern art, if you ask me.

hrant's picture

For a few years now I've believed:
Two is everything is two.

hhp

jupiterboy's picture

I heard a good sensei story where the sensei would walk around a circle of students and randomly strike one with a cane every morning. At some point someone decided to take the cane away from the sensei and hit him back, which was the correct response.

I wonder what graphic or type design applications, or other broader applications the Wabi-Sabi concept has?

Paul Cutler's picture

I find myself operating much like what Dan Gayle described. I meditate on a project for a long time before I do anything concrete. When I exectute I try to adhere to this: If the kernel takes more than 10 minutes my head is in the wrong place.

Wabi-Sabi is directly derived from Zen so I see no need to study it (I have the book). Go to the source. Study ikebana, shodo, etc. Ikebana is a particularly good pursuit for designers. Lines.

Philosophy is the only part of design I am really interested in for that can be developed forever. Like Hrant once said (and I will never forget) results are the ripples on the ocean of intent.

pbc

Dan Gayle's picture

If I recall...

Ikebana = the arrangement of flowers/plants

eliason's picture

I certainly wouldn't recommend it in place of or before the leads offered above, but I remember enjoying Zen Comics as a college student. (The befuddling bamboo-wielding sensei image brought it back to mind.)

ebensorkin's picture

Modernism* and Zen aesthetics do have some things in common - an interest in reduction of ornament, advocating simplicity and so on. Also Wabi & Sabi are not the same. It can be hard to get the difference but there is one. But Wabi Sabi is very very different from and 20th century modernism. For one thing Wabi & Sabi are both aesthetics that have to do with the natural. Modernism is about the man made or synthetic. Wabi & Sabi are not about bright colors. Modernism all about bright color per see isn't either per se but it is hard to think about Modernism as existing meaningfully outside of the use of red. Modernism is about the new. Wabi & Sabi are about the beauty of the weathered and the used. Modernism is showy - Wabi and Sabi are the opposite. You could go on and on.

So in a word : no. I think only a very superficial reading of either wabi, sabi, or modernism can relate them closely let alone any question of timeline.

* when you say modernism it is a very vague thing to say - If you say futurism, dada, bauhaus, and leaving too many things out and ending with mid century modernism... it would be less vague.

I probably feel overly strongly about this because i did an undergrad thesis on Wabi Sabi & Shibui and the ways in which they are used to sell things in advertising in Japan.

blank's picture

Read Kenya Hara’s book Designing Design. It discusses in great detail how traditional Japanese aesthetics and zen concepts come out in his work and how that has influenced the entire product line of Muji corporation. It’s everything people are trying to get at in this thread, written down by one of the most brilliant designers alive, who happens to have lived it.

Paul Cutler's picture

Looks great James - ordered.

Another great one is (non-design specific) Encounter with Zen by Lucien Stryk. The first 100 pages or so are musings on different Zen subjects - the last 150 are interviews with different zennists - most of them artists (painters, calendar makers, potters, poets) and some students and teachers. Highly recommended.

pbc

Nick Shinn's picture

Illustrations to an article by H.F. Ellis, "Very good kind of folks", in the 1953 Coronation edition of Punch magazine.

Paul Cutler's picture

I'm sorry Nick but the indent on the right side of the present day pot is unacceptable. What purpose could it serve?

Probably someone drinking gin, which changed the history of Europe.

The culture of the rotted plant. I wonder when it was discovered, a bison stumbling, a botched container?

pbc

scottsullivan's picture

WOW! how'd this thread get so popular all of the sudden, I thought it would be forgotten forever! Thanks for the discourse everyone, yeah there's obviously a whole lot I don't know about Wabi & Sabi and whatnot.. just from reading the Koren book, it seemed that there was some interesting philosophical similarities.. definitely gonna check out Designing Design.

- Scott

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