Saturday, April 22, 2017

Crispin Sartwell on everyday aesthetics and wabi-sabi

Crispin Sartwell's fascinating, but also sometimes frustrating, book Six Names of Beauty (Routledge, 2004) is the subject up for discussion here.  I have long thought of Sartwell as one of the originators of the new sub-discipline of everyday aesthetics, but have kind of short-changed him on the theoretical side.  Six Names is very well-written in an essayist style.  But it is also frustrating, as one picks up the book thinking one will learn a lot about six approaches to beauty in six cultures, whereas instead there are often so many side-trips that that fundamentals are lost in the shuffle.  Perhaps the side-trips are the whole point anyway.  The tendency gets really extreme in the second chapter titled "Yapha Hebrew, glow, bloom," which, although it seems at first to be a chapter on Hebrew aesthetics, actually only discusses the Hebrew culture for about three pages, spending most of the time on the beauty of flowers, jewels, water, the sky, perfume, and fireworks! However, once the reader gets used to the idea, the results are well worth the effort.

My comments today, however, will be on the chapter "Wabi-Sabi Japanese humility, perfection." As with the Yapha chapter, this one begins with something seemingly irrelevant to Japanese culture: Sartwell's youthful experience of learning how to play the harmonica.  Although the story is charming and it does capture the interplay of spontaneity, discipline and joy the goes along with learning this instrument, it is hard to see the connection with Wabi-Sabi.  The reader is supposed to say something like this, I suppose: oh yes, this is an art in the West that has these qualities of the lonely, rustic, poverty-related, and impermanent that are also associated with Wabi-Sabi in Japan.  

I am not going to go into detail on Sartwell's take on Wabi-Sabi: suffice it to say it is associated with "withered, weathered, tarnished, scarred, intimate, coarse, earthy, evanescent, tentative, ephemeral" beauties (114), and also with stillness, solitude, extreme economy of means, imperfection, asymmetry, and humility. 

The essay gets going when Sartwell begins to discuss an account of Soetsu Yanaga of the famous Kizaemon Tea Bowl.  The issue here is the relationship between the ordinary and the extraordinary in everyday aesthetics.  

Yanegi describes the bowl as "made by a poor man; an article without flavor or personality; used carelessly by its owner; bought without pride.." (115) and the issue then is: how can such a thing be the object of aesthetic delight?  And what does it mean to take aesthetic delight in such a thing?  Sartwell notes that Rikyu, one of the great founders of the Wabi-Sabi form of Teaism, was influenced by Zen and the idea that enlightenment can be found in the ordinary.  Rikyu stressed the ordinariness of the tea ceremony.... and yet he was a connoisseur.  There's a paradox here.

Sartwell sees the paradox and notes that "As an arbitrary emblem of the ordinary, in some sense any ordinary bowl would do.  The very imperfections of the Kizaemon bowl are its aesthetic strengths or the source of its beauty:  it is more ordinary than an ordinary bowl. And yet there is something graceful ...something perfect or right about its form, that is all the more striking for being artless.  The Kizaemon tea bowl achieves beauty without self-consciousness, merely in the engagement of practical concerns."  (116)

Still, there is a paradox in its being singled out, since it is, after all, supposed to be ordinary, and yet at the same time it is kept in five boxes and is shown only to experts.  Sartwell asks: how can the idea of quieting self-consciousness, characteristic of Zen, be reconciled with the self-consciousness of the connoisseur?  It seems that "placing it in five boxes and exalting it beyond price destroys the ordinariness of which it is an emblem."  (117)  

Similarly in the history of Wabi-Sabi you get extraordinary craftsmen trying to imitate the ordinary, and is this much different, Sartwell suggests, than the artificially distressed jeans young people pay big prices for today?  He writes: "it's hard to see how the everyday can resist becoming a mannerism once the connoisseurs get at it."  (117).  The spontaneous comes to be replaced by following the rules.  Thus, one worries: "Wabi-Sabi is a kind of trap, an over-intensifying consciousness of the need for a lapse of consciousness, an ever-broadening exaltation of the ordinary in which the ordinary loses its ordinariness."  (117)

In my book the Extraordinary in the Ordinary I opposed those everyday aestheticians who stressed the ordinariness of the ordinary and who wanted everyday aesthetics to be autonomous or even entirely separated from art aesthetics.  I saw a dynamic relation and a continuity between everyday aesthetics and art aesthetics.  But perhaps I did not take into account enough the issues raised by such things as connoisseurship of Wabi-Sabi.  I had Sartwell's book on my shelf and wanted to read it but did not see its relevance to my topic.  So I am regretful than I am only now, several years later, seriously reading Six Names.  Allen Carlson, who's views on the dilemma of everyday aesthetics, I have discussed in a previous post, picked up on this problem, this paradox, without mentioning Sartwell, but based on thinking about something Yuriko Saito said at the end of her book Everyday Aesthetics about tension to be found in the domain of everyday aesthetics.   But Carlson's solution to what he calls the dilemma of everyday aesthetics is simply to reject arts-based approaches (which he associates with Clive Bell's formalism) to the everyday and to stress the ordinariness of the ordinary, which he sees in terms of functionality.  I have argued against this elsewhere. 

But my question here is, what is Sartwell's solution? Perhaps it can be found in the next quote:  "But though wabi-sabi has a contradiction at its heart, it is also a way to transcend the paradox by immersion in it. At its deepest, broadest reach, wabi-sabi is a form of beauty that overcomes the dichotomy of beauty and ugliness, even as it overcomes the dichotomy of ordinary and extraordinary."  (117) Was I perhaps still steeped in that dichotomy even as I wished to talk about the extraordinary in the ordinary?  I will hold off on answering that, but am open to Sartwell's answer, if he has one.  What I think is Sartwell's solution goes on like this: "once one starts to see mud or the blues as beautiful, one is pursuing an affirmation that can lead to the thought that all things are beautiful, that all things can be exalted."  And of course that would be a Zen state, one which will see "ugliness itself as a variety of beauty."  (118)  It is also, I think, what happens when you get to the highest rung of the ladder of love in Plato's Symposium.

Sartwell connects this thought with reflection on the meaning of representation for the Japanese, representation as "encapsulating or crystallizing."  (119) It is not seen as deceptive in Plato's sense because it is not a matter of creating something new but in finding something, as for example in the practice of suiseki, where small stones are placed to form a miniature landscape, or ikebana, which is similar, where "the practice of composition becomes an immersion in or meditation on nature."  (121).  The point, also in bonsai, is to "heighten the sense of the beauty of the world to a point of utmost poignancy, until one sees everything as art, and art as non-art, but as spontaneous nature."  (122.)  OK, that is not far from what I was trying to get at in The Extraordinary.

Sartwell then flies off into another aside, this time on Wolfgang Laib, the artist famous for slaps of marble with milk, and his pieces that collect pollen.   I grant that Laib is an extraordinary artist and that he at least captures the sabi element of solitude in his art, and maybe even the wabi element in that there is no display of skill. (123)  But we have lost sight of the argument, or perhaps a certain tension exists, since Laib clearly is one of those who takes something ordinary and makes it extraordinary, thus abandoning the ordinariness of the ordinary. 

Sartwell of course is suggesting that we take a more Zen approach to our ordinary lives.  So, when he talks about the sound of gravel, he observes that "patina of symbolism," the associations with the rural, the evocation of past experience, the fact that these sounds are common and unmusical, and yet when attended to can have their own beauty.  This is the kind of thing John Cage tried to teach us.  As Sartwell puts it:  this is " our ability to be moved unexpectedly, to find the greatest beauties in the least expected places."  (126)

What appears to be another detour, this time on the concept of patina, may actually be a further attempt to answer, or at least deepen his answer, one that is very unlike Carlson's, concerning the way to approach the ordinary and the everyday.   He talks at length and poetically about a stoneware crock he has which is plain and from the mid 19th century:  "it is now almost black, and the glaze has silvered and deepened into something that makes the surface of this humble object mysterious.  It seems to have a swirling depth floating under the brownish glaze that is not something that could simply be painted on."  It was glazed carelessly and "was never intended to be an aesthetic object."  So what does it mean?  (127) 
Perhaps the point is that only with certain ordinary objects does something extraordinary emerge, some beauty that does something different even than what artists might be able to achieve.  "The surface of the crock has become deep in a plain way."  (127) Perhaps "patina" is an example, even a symbol, of what the ordinary can achieve.  In the case of patina there is a sedimented meaning:  "it shows the traces of what touches it."  To gain patina is to express what one has experienced on the surface and to become more intensely oneself.  (128)

The chapter ends with a discussion of William Carlos Williams as an artist of the everyday.  Williams walks in his neighborhood and, no longer the young man who wants to make something of himself, appreciates the "a bluish green that properly weathered pleases me best of all colors" to be found on the fences and outhouses of his run-down neighborhood.  I know what he is talking about!  And then Williams says, to end the poem, "No one will believe this of vast import to the nation."  Sartwell sees this poem, "Pastoral," as performing "the entire cycle of Zen" where Williams achieves mindfulness:  "Our lives, in fact, consist largely of the mundane:  most lives are lived in the sort of squalor...that Williams describes."  Williams takes us back to the earth.



No comments: