Monday, November 5, 2012

The Japanese Aesthetics of Hipsterism

In her essay on Japanese aesthetics, Yuriko Saito argues that the marked appreciation for the asymmetrical, the unfinished, and the damaged stems from philosophical attitudes that deal with the process of coming to terms with the unpalatable realities of life—specifically its impermanence and general messiness. (1) Essentially, the Japanese preference for the care-worn and the subtly decaying is part and parcel of an acceptance of the fluidity and intransigence that characterize life on earth. Though this is all well and good, Saito fails to fully explore one of the most interesting aspects of this phenomenon: the trend toward the deliberate production of well-worn and damaged objects that originated at least in the Heian period (794-1185) and became fairly common from the fifteenth century on.

Saito notes the trend, but for the most part attributes it to a general preference for contrast that is intertwined with the philosophical currents previously mentioned. The tea master Murata Shukô (1423-1502) is said to have reframed an elegant hanging scroll that was given to him by the shogun using rustic materials; another tea master deliberately destroyed one of the handles of a perfectly symmetrical vase; another was ridiculed for repeatedly destroying the perfection of highly-prized objects. (2) In each of these cases, Saito argues that these acts bespeak a specific philosophical stance and furthermore that they are only valuable acts because the objects are capable of being perfect, but are not:
It is important to note that this aesthetic celebration of the imperfect and the insufficient presupposes not only the yearning for but also the attainability of the optimum condition, understood as a shiny mirror, a gorgeous and properly framed scroll, a meticulously maintained garden, and a perfectly formed vase. A cloudy mirror Sei Shônagon appreciates is not a cheap or defective product; it was shiny once. A wild garden exalted by her did not result from the owner not being able to afford maintaining it; rather, it was a calculated neglect (emphasis added). Falling cherry blossoms are aesthetically superior to those in full bloom precisely because they had previously achieved the stage of full blossom. Chipped and cracked tea wares could be repaired. The impoverished looking scroll does not imply an inability to choose opulent materials; it is a production of conscious design. Similarly, a flower vase missing one handle is not a result of failed creation. (3)
But it is precisely this deliberate intervention into the aesthetic forms of various objects, which picked up speed in the Momoyama and Edo periods (1576-1868), that is the crux of the matter. In the seventeenth century, for example, the tendency to prize objects that had been accidentally broken and then repaired was transformed into an affluent fad where objects were deliberately broken and repaired using gold and silver rivulets along the cracks. (400 years later a number of these admittedly exquisite objects found their way into an exhibition at the Freer and Sackler galleries in DC—Moonlight and Clouds: Silver and Gold in the Arts of Japan.) What had once been an aesthetic grounded in simplicity became evidential of a considerable level of affluence.

And for me that is the really interesting process. Because, it is a process that happens all the time all over the place. Hell, we see it right now in dieting fads and hipster culture—the ironic appreciation of something that is suboptimal, which ultimately transforms into a major marker of wealth, power, and influence. The ancient, medieval, and early-modern Japanese had what I would consider to be a fairly clear-cut hipster culture. It was so clear-cut that it even came under the same kind of scrutiny that hipster culture comes under today. In the eighteenth century, the Confucian scholar Dazai Shundai (1680-1747) called the wealthy tea ceremony practitioners out for aping the culture of impoverished, arguing that while the rich might find it amusing to copy the poor, the poor would never find it amusing because their condition was not something that they merely dabbled in. (4) In many ways, though not in all ways, the tea ceremony (and many other arts that stemmed from the same aesthetic roots) was an ironic enjoyment of something that the partakers would never have enjoyed in its original context. In other words, it was "hipster."

And for reasons I cannot explain (but probably because I am something of a hipster myself), it delights me no end to discover that hipster culture has—in a weird way—always been around.

1) Saito, Yuriko. "The Japanese Aesthetics of Imperfection and Insufficiency." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 55, no. 4 (Autumn 1997): 377-385.
2) Ibid., 378.
3) Ibid., 380.
4) Quoted in ibid., 381

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