Posts Tagged ‘postmodernism’

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Wabi-Sabi as a non-modern form

May 18, 2008


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.

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Getting Muddy: Revisiting Rosalind Krauss’ “Nostalgie de la Boue”

September 20, 2007

I’d like to open with a story of sorts – about my first encounter with postmodernism (though it was more than fifteen years before I heard the word) when I was a child growing up in the London suburbs. My grandparents, active in the local Music and Drama Society, had taken me, twice, to see their friends and acquaintances perform Tom Stoppard’s one-act the Real Inspector Hound. My initial response of naive confusion when two of the audience members, talking with rude volume, revealed themselves to be theatre critics, was compounded as they berated the actors from their seats and later strode onto the stage itself and became inseparable from the drama, finally becoming victims in the Agatha Christie-like play they are supposed to be reviewing. But it was funny – if you haven’t seen any of his plays, Stoppard has Wilde’s talent with farce and wit, and often manages to fold in parody (though here it is at the expense of characterization) – and humor is a sure draw for children, so I opted for a second night of it to avoid an encounter with the dragon babysitter. This time I could anticipate and compensate for the vertigo of watching the superimposition of roles. I remember distinctly wondering if I was now allowed to go on stage, too?

One of the things that inspired me to start this project was rereading Rosalind Krauss’ essay “Nostalgie de la Boue” from the journal October’s Spring 1991 issue. As it brings up a number of threads (nostalgia, camp, obsolescence) that feed into thinking about my love of decay, I want to run through it here.

First, some fast background on the author (itself a loaded term) and October. Krauss was a rising star in art criticism, when, in 1976, she left that most prestigious and intellectual of magazines, Artforum, to found October. 1991 saw her at the height of her powers, about to accept a tenured position at Columbia, watching her revolution become the academy.October, a paper journal issued quarterly, was named for the Eisenstein film that celebrates the Russian Revolution while simultaneously practicing film theory past the point that the Bolshevik leaders could tolerate. With a non-doctrinaire focus on “small r” revolutionary art theory/practice, the journal reasserts the relevance of the historical avant garde (the cascade of early twentieth century movements, artists, critics, and manifestos) by building what we would now call a remix of poststructuralism, contemporary art, and a historicized take on the early modernists. Its success marked the rise of the academic mode of art theory and a separation from the rocket of the 1980’s art market that crashed a decade later.

The instigation for Krauss’ essay is the famous show “High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture” at New York MOMA, that brought graffiti and other expressions of popular culture into the Museum’s hallowed halls, causing a minor uproar in 1990.

In the show’s catalog, the agents of MOMA put down Surrealism and its focus on the unconscious as “meaningless”, dissing it with the phrase “nostalgie de la boue” which the catalog says involves “a yearning to wallow in what is seen as low and filthy”. The expression, which literally translates from French as “nostalgia of the mud”, is, oddly, not used in France, but has a life and meaning only among English speakers. The same dubious phrase shows up being used by Andrew Ross, a famous Cultural Studies critic to dismiss the historical avant garde as not being seriously engaged with popular culture — they weren’t really hip, they were just slumming. In both cases, nostalgia is invoked to disqualify their targets as worthy of serious consideration; however, as Krauss points out, nostalgia ends up as the main relationship to the past that their stories use. It becomes crucial. In all this we need to remember that Krauss is a big fan of historical context, partly a Marxist influence via earlier critics like Walter Benjamin and partly through the New Historicism that arose from the writings of Michel Foucault.

Then she invites us to consider a few of the tenets of Cultural Studies: 1) that consumption (and we’re talking ideas here, not hamburgers) is not a mirror of production – meaning that you can’t say that there is a monolithic culture machine out there cranking out images and programs which we all consume like sheep; rather, 2) that consumers are critical users who can rewrite and remake culture (though the MOMA curators prefer to see it more in terms of distinct subcultures rather than individual users). Oddly, though, with all this cross-pollination among equal subcultures, it always seems to be the High Art crowd, be they Pop artists, Surrealists, or Cubists, who are gaining inspiration from waning elements of popular culture, and not the other way round.

Now comes the first major conclusion. Krauss says that MOMA is implicitly claiming that “high art’s creative consumption of popular culture is…nostalgia” and gives lots of examples. Then she points out that Ross identifies the same instinct for popular culture on its way out as camp, and camp is really nothing more than an ironic posture within nostalgia. For Ross (and Krauss), “camp taste works, then, as a peculiar celebration of marks of disempowerment within a media or commodity culture” that arise because components are becoming obsolete. Acknowledging and celebrating this cycle in the end denies the whole premise of modernist culture here: that taste is universal and timeless. So creative nostalgia ends up being a crucial postmodern tactic.

Her second conclusion is to find something rotten in the underpinnings of the whole series of arguments. If this form of cultural recycling (taking the outmoded and remaking it into what is cool) can allow consumers to cut themselves free of the realm of production, then what kind of sense does it make to talk about production vs. consumption? Are they two separate spheres anymore?

This last point is really irritating to me because it makes one generalization – it’s too messy to make clear distinctions anymore – where a number of useful threads could be teased out: the separation is alive in what economists call consumer goods (a factory in China makes a toaster, I buy a toaster); the separation is strong in broadcast culture (CNN or Sony Pictures don’t take a lot of input from me); the separation is complicated within the networks of service industries (as a graphic designer, am I producing or consuming images?); and finally within remix culture, like Wikipedia or YouTube, or zero-sum shopping, like buying/selling used toys or vintage clothes on EBay, the distinction becomes nearly meaningless. Notice anything about that continuum? There’s that transition from big money to no money. And a shift from a one-way to a circular mode of consumption. This circularity and recycling isn’t the same as the 1960’s get-out-of-the-rat-race-and-become-self-sufficient ethic because the former still had that modernist obsession with purity and simplicity, while the latter embraces ambiguity and complexity, providing points for personal intervention in the cycle.

Which brings me back to The Real Inspector Hound: it was exactly the outmodedness of the Agatha Christie drama that allowed me to want to step on the stage myself: not to passively participate, but to help remake it.

For those of you with access to JSTOR, the online journal archive, Nostalgie de la Boue can be found here.