Wabi sabi is a quintessential Japanese aesthetic that can inspire our own art. A minimalist counter-point to the slick, saccharine and strictly prescribed standards of beauty that we, in America, seem to adhere to, it is the realization of beauty to be found in things impermanent, imperfect, incomplete and unconventional. Developing an appreciation for wabi sabi can greatly inform our own rationale as artists by freeing us up from Western ideals of beauty and allowing us the space to take chances and risks in our art.
It is a perfect paradigm for these recessionary times – since lavishness and excess are not politically correct, wabi sabi offers permission to celebrate what is readily available: sparseness, the beauty in decay, the haunting loveliness of a gray morning, or the raw beauty of a winter landscape. It is a nature-based philosophy that can restore a measure of sanity and proportion to art, an antidote to superficial, de-sensitizing corporate style.
In a way, wabi sabi is just another approach to seeing. We can retrain our artist’s eye to see the beauty of things wabi sabi by being somewhat familiar with its moral and spiritual underpinnings. Based on Zen tenets, it allows that truth comes from the observation of nature. By carefully and closely looking at the elements of the world around us, we come to understand a few fundamental ideas:
All things are impermanent – everything wears down and fades into oblivion. Embracing a compassionate understanding of this eventuality can mean seeing and appreciating the beauty of the ephemeral; the loveliness of a withered leaf, a dried seedpod, or the simple spareness of a leafless tree. To an artistic sensibility that celebrates the notion “to everything there is a season”, the terms rusty and weathered might easily come to mind.
All things are imperfect – when we look very closely at things we see flaws. The natural progression of all things to devolve toward oblivion necessarily means they will break down, become less than perfect and more irregular. Wabi sabi emphasizes the vagaries and inconsistencies in the construction process, adding to the originality and grace of the object. Asymmetry in shape, colors and textures that emphasize the unrefined, and an accommodation for degradation and attrition all point toward a ‘flawed beauty.’ While Wabi sabi seeks to coax beauty out of the homely, it eschews the grotesque.
All things are incomplete – since all things are either in a state of becoming or dissolving, when are we to say something is ‘finished’ or ‘complete’? There is no concept of completeness in wabi sabi, and this translates to seeing the singular beauty in moments of beginnings or endings. Metal in various states of rusty or tarnished patina, cracked and weathered wood, the curling delicacy of petals about to unfold; these are evocative of an undeclared and pensive beauty.
Wabi sabi is the notion that ‘beauty’ is about the context, circumstance and frame of reference of the artist. It represents a state of consciousness and point of view that encompasses the value existing in inconspicuous and often over looked details, revering instead the unpretentious and unassuming. To turn Vladimir Horowitz’ quote around, “Imperfection itself is perfection,” if we only have eyes to see.