Though often done, common wisdom holds it an act of naïve recklessness to make broad comparisons across cultures. Wabi-sabi is an aesthetic with its roots in Song Dynasty China and Heian Japan that rose to great influence in Muromachi and early Edo Japan. To analyze, compare, and apply it across five centuries and, even more questionably, 12,000 km of diverse cultures clearly offends rational sensibilities. But, oddly, naïvite is not out of place here. One of the tenets of Ch’an and Zen Buddhism is that enlightenment comes as a lightning bolt that makes dutiful piety and methodical study irrelevant. The reverence of structure and tradition that lies at the heart of Confucian, Catholic, and contemporary western scientific and academic practice, is suspect, in this thread of Buddhist thought, as a kind of attachment (upādāna, in Sanskrit).
There is a parallel that has been drawn – one that I want to examine at another time – between this rejection of reverence in Zen and the embrace of play in postmodern theory. But for the moment, let’s look at wabi-sabi. The original meanings of the words wabi and sabi are themselves in dispute, with evidence that the words have bent around the aesthetic concepts as much as they originally described them. The focus is on beauty in simplicity and the commonplace. Wabi connotes, among others, sadness, inadequacy, poverty, loneliness, simplicity; sabi, rusticity (or maybe “the rustic” as a class, something that must appear somewhere in William Gilpin or Uvedale Price’s essays on the Picturesque), the serenity of age, and, literally, rust. The aesthetic follows directly from the mono no aware (roughly, the melancholy of things) of the Heian era and the Buddhist tenet of anitya, or impermanence, but also has resonance with aspects of the sublime, the Italian Arte Povera movement, and Epicurean simplicity. It is this last association that has brought wabi-sabi into the popular imagination over the last two decades with the rise of green politics, simple living, slow food, and their broad echoes in upper middle class lifestyle magazines.
While the interest has been in Asian aesthetics generally, wabi-sabi has become the shorthand for a complexity that most would rather allude to than meaningfully engage. Outside the academic journals, there are only a few works that try to explain wabi-sabi to a broader audience in a substantive way. In this post, I want to look at one, Wabi Sabi, the Japanese art of impermanence (by Andrew Juniper, Tuttle, 2003), which comes closest and yet misses most fundamentally.
Juniper, an English designer with years in Japan and a decent grasp on the language behind him, structures his book sensibly, running from overview, though a description of Zen, medieval cultural history, aesthetics, high art, and ending in his personal interest, contemporary craft. He hits all the key figures and concepts with many classic examples from poetry, garden design, and tea ceremony. He diverts from the predictable to share examples that nicely illuminate the form in passages from the life of Ryokan to catch the importance of playfulness, and provides a particularly focused analysis of the materials of wabi-sabi and how they interact with the design aesthetic.
All of this is very convincing to a point. The flaw in his portrayal starts to show as Juniper complains that the contemporary Japanese “seem to be abandoning their religious heritage for the material hedonism preached by the west” and “it is a lamentable but undeniable truth that the artistic and spiritual peaks reached in days gone by are far more difficult to find in modern Japan”. It’s quite clear that the problem is change. Now, it’s far from uncommon amongst historians to hear a tone of longing for the period they study, but even as they describe their moment, it’s with an awareness of its development. For Juniper, wabi-sabi doesn’t develop, it is discovered. He sees it as a timeless aesthetic concept, much as Kant sees the sublime – indeed, one of the chapters is titled “The Universal Spirit of Wabi-Sabi”. This leads him to address precursor forms like mono no aware in only a few lines, as “a close relative of wabi-sabi”, and to make no distinction between wabi-sabi as practiced in the 17th century, the 19th century, or the present. Still more ironic is that wabi-sabi is based on impermanence and that even a cursory reading of the Buddhist and especially the Zen philosophy show that not only things and emotions are subject to anitya, but creative work and ideas also. Poetry and philosophy are as transcient as houses and people. For Zen, even the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, is impermanent.
Wabi-sabi, then, is a form, an aesthetic practice with a specific historical and cultural context. The modern and structuralist approach is Juniper’s, to see the form as a universal and thus available to all cultures and times as a revealed truth. This contradicts the very premise of the form, a failing that leaves it quite undigestible by modern analysis. But to transpose wabi-sabi from Edo Japan to contemporary England, is in keeping both with the flexible pragmatism of Zen and the playfulness of postmodernism. The transposition is a new thing that can try to look like the old, as the garden work of Marc Keane, or like something new, as the ephemeral sculptures of Andy Goldsworthy.
Can we say that wabi-sabi is a postmodern form? Perhaps, if you think, with Lyotard, that there is postmodernism present in every age. However, I like seeing the postmodern as roughly succeeding the modern, and though wabi-sabi can be appropriated, more consideration is needed before labeling it so. And does it really profit us to say so? Better and clearer to indicate its separation from the modern altogether and call it non-modern.