Wabi-sabi isn’t anything new — it dates all the way back to the 12th century. But with the help of Leonard Koren’s book, Jesse Kornbluth demonstrates its uses in the world today.
Woodstock Writers Radio: I’ve admired Martha Frankel since forever — she’s a fearless interviewer — so I was really pleased when she invited me to her show about books. She asked one question: What’s your favorite book? And we were off. What book? Click here. My segment begins at 26.00.
Do you feel like you’re living in a 24/7 football game?
It seems as if there are just two sides to everything now. MSNBC vs Fox. Democrats vs. Republicans. Christianity vs. Islam. Climate change vs. who-needs-experts. And on and on.
For years, I’ve wandered the media desert like a Seeker, desperately searching for a view of the world that hasn’t been focus-grouped and vetted by corporations.
At last I found one: Wabi-sabi.
The funny thing about that? There’s nothing new about Wabi-sabi — it dates from the 12th century.
No surprise that Leonard Koren has been Wabi-sabi’s representative in the West. Educated as an architect, he founded Wet: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing, which was wildly ahead-of-its-time. As was his next incarnation:
In 1992, while living in Japan, I embarked on a project to locate and define the kind of beauty that I felt most deeply attracted to. By “beauty” I meant that complex of exciting, pleasurable sensations ostensibly emanating from things — objects, environments, and even ideas — that make us feel more alive and connected to the world; that urgent feeling we equate with “the good,” “the right” and “the true.”
Instinctively I was drawn to the beauty of things coarse and unrefined; things rich in raw texture and rough tactility. Often these things are reactive to the effects of weathering and human treatment. I loved the tentative, delicate traces left by the sun, the wind, the heat, and the cold. I was fascinated by the language of rust, tarnish, warping, cracking, shrinkage, scarring, peeling, and other forms of attrition visibly recorded.
I gravitated toward things that reduced the emotional distance between them and me; things that beckoned me to get closer, to touch, to relate with.
I encapsulated my new domain in the phrase “a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.”
In 1994, Koren published “Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers” and, in just 88 pages, dealt a massive blow to our ideas about progress, quality and perfection. Koren is more than a writer; he does most of the photography for his books and designs them. In this case, the book is, literally, an example of the ideas it contains. [To buy the paperback of “Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers” from Amazon, click here.]
You can find the origins of Wabi-sabi in the Japanese tea ceremony. Over the centuries, it became a highly formalized ritual — and an expensive one, with tea served in exquisite cups in rooms decorated with rare art. Then a Zen monk began to mix local utensils with the fine china. Rough against smooth? It was a new concept of beauty.
The beauty of imperfection. Of the ordinary. Of age. Of the small.
In the book, Koren tells the story of a student who wanted to work with a great tea master. His “entrance exam” called for him to clean the tea master’s leaf-strewn garden. “First he raked until the grounds were spotless,” Koren writes. “Then, in a gesture pregnant with Wabi-sabi overtones, he shook the tree trunk, causing a few leaves to fall.” That’s Wabi-sabi. Clean but not too clean.
The implications cascade. Like: Beauty isn’t the result of creation alone, it’s also determined by time. Like: Beauty depends as much on your reaction as it does on the object. Like: It’s easy to overlook Beauty because it’s so often unobtrusive.
I like Wabi-sabi because it’s timeless. And contrarian. And intensely personal [For a New York Times profile of Leonard Koren, click here.] You can’t find Wabi-sabi in a super-polished, nothing-left-to-chance Apple store, but I’ll bet there’s plenty close to home. Or there could be. And who can say what looking closer at things can lead to?
OTHER BOOKS BY LEONARD KOREN
Leonard Koren’s web site.
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler.
Photo credit: Christopher Paquette/flickr