What is art? This is a question that has been pondered since the days before Plato. The definition of art, and various understandings have come to light in the past couple centuries alone. Unfortunately, many approaches to aesthetics in general center on Western aesthetics. Yes, the arts associated with Western history and culture have their appeal, and their place, as do various other approaches of other cultures. When seeking the best approach to the arts and art appreciation, I have always been drawn to the Japanese aesthetic notion of wabi-sabi. We don’t have a real equivalent in the United States, though the underlying elements can be utilized for an appreciation of the imperfect, impermanent, and patina of aging associated with the Buddhist-inspired aesthetic concept of wabi-sabi.
While art appreciation existed in the West since the beginning of the arts before there was even a conception of ‘West,’ the term aesthetics was only coined in the mid-eighteenth century by the German philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten. The context here was the Enlightenment — how to situate the study of beauty within a greater rational framework. It is a good starting point, but only in terms of the etymology of ‘aesthetics.’ I want to go a little deeper into Western art history before widening the scope in order to situate my argument that the aesthetic ideals associated with the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, coupled with the craftsmanship of the highest quality, constitute the highest form of aesthetic appreciation possible.
While the ancient Greeks and Romans had their own understandings of the arts, it was not until the latter decades of the Italian Renaissance that the modern construction of art history really began. In the mid-sixteenth century, Italian biographer and (second-rate) artist Giorgio Vasari wrote what many historians have referred to as the first work of art history: The Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. In this work, Vasari both traces the history (real and imagined) of the visual arts from the late medieval period with Cimabue through his own time centuries later through numerous embellished biographies of artists, with a strong bias toward his Tuscan homeland. Vasari also emphasizes the importance of the abstract arts, as well as craftsmanship, in his narrative of artistic advancement which spans three centuries. This last point is essential in understanding the Renaissance as a time when the artist became more than mere craftsman — an essential development. We, in the twenty-first century, are facing the opposite problem — the artist has become too steeped in the abstract. We need to re-emphasize craftsmanship and maintain the importance of the balance between the abstract element of creative exploration and the working with one’s hands — engaging with the materials and mastering core craft skills.
Japanese art history offers a wealth of materials and a greater emphasis on subtlety and grounding in the essential elements of human existence — impermanence, asperity, patina of aging, roughness, perishability, and use of natural materials. One should not approach Japanese aesthetics from a point of low resolution, as there are plenty of examples of excessive use of gold (such as in the castles of shoguns and regional lords, called daimyo) or vapid graphics associated with kinky forms of anime. The most important contribution to aesthetics the Japanese made, however, can be found in the various arts which flourished between the end of the Heian period in 1185 and the emergence of the Tokugawa Shogunate at the start of the seventeenth century. These centuries saw the development of the wabi-sabi aesthetic as well as the following: ink and wash painting, ikebana, the tea ceremony, various forms of Japanese poetry (uta, renga), the aesthetic concept of yugen (emphasis on subtlety and evoking things indirectly), modest rooms with tatami mat floors, and Zen rock gardens.
The aesthetic notion of wabi-sabi is the combination of two concepts over a rather lengthy period. Wabi refers to rustic simplicity and sabi refers to the patina of aging. The definitions are not complete and do not translate perfectly into English, Moreover, their meanings have shifted over time — notably over the centuries between the rise of the first shogunate in the late-twelfth century and the start of the third and final one in 1603.
While wabi-sabi is distinctly Japanese, it offers a wealth of possibility for the rest of the world. Indeed, it approaches what one can construe as the highest form of aesthetic appreciation — that of beauty, beauty and impermanence. In contrast to the Greeks, who sought beauty in mathematical precision and perfect bodily proportions, the Japanese aesthetic notions associated with wabi-sabi are much more grounded in reality, in the everyday, and in the transience of existence. There is a profound beauty in this and it is this type of vision artists in other parts of the world should strive.
The United States has a heritage of agriculture as well as industry. From dilapidated barns in rural Montana to industrial ruins in Pennsylvania, there are countless locations in the United States which offer beauty in the form of asperity, patina of aging, asymmetry, roughness, use of natural materials, and evocations of the past. Moreover, the United States has a heritage of people working with their hands (just as Japan does — one still held in pride of place: see ‘Living National Treasures’).
From c.1550 through the twentieth century, the history of art in the West, and then across the world, saw the ascendency of the abstract over the craft element. During the Renaissance before c.1550, there was a greater (if precarious) balance between creative exploration and craft skills. Now, in the 2020s, we can hope for such a balance again. Conceptual art has run out of steam. The anti-art satire known as Dada has crashed and burned within its first century. What is left but to couple creative exploration and craft skills for the benefit of creating masterpieces of unparalleled quality? A century ago, the Japanese art collector Yanagi Soetsu seemed to intuit some of this when he began collecting folk crafts from Korea as well as his native Japan, recognizing the beauty of everyday things made by unknown craftsmen — harking back to the equivalent of nascent Renaissance art in Europe (or even a little before that).
What is art? Art is what results from combining the psychological element of creative exploration with a particular set of craft skills (painting, drawing, sculpting, designing, etc.). What is aesthetics? Aesthetics is the appreciation of beauty as it can be sought, encountered, or understood in works of art.