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In the Western world, aesthetics is considered the branch of philosophy that is concerned with concepts of value and beauty as they relate to the arts. Philosophers from Plato until the present time have had rigid ideas about what artists should create and what people should like, but in today’s world, aestheticians represent a variety of approaches to the philosophy of art.
Aesthetics, in the broadest sense, may be thought of as a worldview, a view that may be markedly different in other cultures. Objects from other cultures that are categorized as art works from the Western perspective may or may not hold the same meaning in their culture of origin. Precisely because of possible differences in worldviews and aesthetic stances of non-Western cultures, it is important to set aside Western aesthetics as criteria when making judgments about non-Western art. For example, many non-Western cultures recognize no distinction between fine art and craft, may not even have a word for “art,” and may not separate art from everyday life.
To understand the art and aesthetics of Japan, it is necessary to investigate a Japanese worldview, ideas about the nature of art, and influences brought about through contact with other cultures. The aesthetics of Japan developed in a unique fashion, partly because of its geographic location, a string of islands about 100 miles from Korea and 500 miles from China. Its isolation by the sea helped protect Japan from foreign invasion and allowed its rulers to control contact with other nations.
During long periods of self-imposed isolation, art forms and aesthetic ideas developed that were specifically Japanese. Over the centuries, when interactions with foreign cultures occurred, they influenced the traditional arts and aesthetics of Japan. For the purposes of this discussion, the focus will be on what remained essentially Japanese.
Traditional Japanese art and aesthetics were most affected by the Chinese and Buddhism, but influences from the West are also evident. For example, the Japanese made no distinction between fine arts and crafts before the introduction of such ideas by Europeans in the 1870s. The Japanese word that best approximates the meaning of “art” is katachi. Katachi translates to mean “form and design,” implying that art is synonymous with living, functional purpose, and spiritual simplicity.
The primary aesthetic concept at the heart of traditional Japanese culture is the value of harmony in all things. The Japanese worldview is nature-based and concerned with the beauty of studied simplicity and harmony with nature. These ideas are still expressed in every aspect of daily life, despite the many changes brought about by the westernization of Japanese culture. This Japanese aesthetic of the beauty of simplicity and harmony is called wabi-sabi (wah-bee sah-bee).
Since wabi-sabi represents a comprehensive Japanese worldview or aesthetic system, it is difficult to explain precisely in western terms. According to Leonard Koren, wabi-sabi is the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of what we think of as traditional Japanese beauty and it “occupies roughly the same position in the Japanese pantheon of aesthetic values as do the Greek ideals of beauty and perfection in the West.”
Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.
It is the beauty of things modest and humble.
It is the beauty of things unconventional.
The concepts of wabi-sabi correlate with the concepts of Zen Buddhism, as the first Japanese involved with wabi-sabi were tea masters, priests, and monks who practiced Zen. Zen Buddhism originated in India, traveled to China in the sixth century, and was first introduced in Japan around the 12th century. Zen emphasizes “direct, intuitive insight into transcendental truth beyond all intellectual conception.” At the core of wabi-sabi is the importance of transcending ways of looking and thinking about things/existence.
All things are impermanent
All things are imperfect
All things are incomplete
Material characteristics of wabi-sabi:
Suggestion of natural process
As wabi-sabi once was the preeminent high culture Japanese aesthetic, a familiarity with its concepts is essential for the understanding of the Japanese tea ceremony.
The Japanese Tea Ceremony:
“Tea began as a medicine and grew into a beverage.” –KatkuzoOkakura
“The Way of Tea cannot be taught in any book…It is a state of mind. Tea is a living tradition.” –Professor KimikoGunji, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
“Holding a bowl of tea whisked to a fine froth… Such a simple thing: yet filled with a spirit that Reaches back more than a thousand years.” –The Urasenke Tradition of Tea
The most comprehensive example of the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi is found within the traditions of the tea ceremony. To understand Japanese aesthetics, it is necessary to understand the unique features of the Japanese tea ceremony, known as chanoyu, chado, or sado. The tea ceremony is the serving of tea, ritualized over time and rooted in Zen Buddhism. It symbolizes aesthetic simpli.............
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