Thursday, 19 April 2012


“Even imperfection itself may have its ideal or perfect state.” - Thomas de Quincey

As I was looking through some of my old photos yesterday I came upon the one that I have illustrated this post with. I looked at it for a while and a Japanese term came to mind, something that I had heard from one of my art lecturers a long time ago, when I was studying art (part-time, while I was working!). The term is wabi-sabi (侘寂) and represents a comprehensive Japanese world-view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience.

This quintessential Japanese aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”. It is a concept derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence (三法印 sanbōin), specifically: Impermanence (無常 mujō), suffering (dukkha) and emptiness or absence of self-nature (sunyata).  Characteristics of wabi-sabi include asymmetry, asperity (roughness or irregularity), simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes.

The words wabi and sabi do not translate easily. Wabi originally referred to the loneliness of living in nature, remote from society; sabi meant “chill”, “lean” or “withered”. Around the 14th century these meanings began to change, taking on more positive connotations. Wabi now connotes “rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness”, and can be applied to both natural and human-made objects, or it can imply “understated elegance”. It can also refer to quirks and anomalies arising from the process of construction, which add uniqueness and elegance to the object. Sabi is “beauty or serenity that comes with age”, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs. In other words an appreciation of the imperfections and transience of everything in this world, something that becomes apparent as time passes.

Wabi-sabi as a feature of traditional Japanese art and perception of beauty is quite different to the classical aesthetic values of Greek ideals of beauty and perfection that are admired in the West and from which Western art has evolved. Greek art stresses symmetry, idealisation of form, perfectly finished surfaces, beautiful subjects and a view of the ideal, perfect, divine nature of things. Greek art aspires to become god-like and wishes to imitate the perfect world of Olympus and the gods that reside there. Wabi-sabi is the complete opposite, and stresses the humanity of the world, with all of its imperfections, asymmetry, confoundedness, transience, corruption and inability to reach the ideal state. If an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi accepts the authenticity of our existence by acknowledging three simple realities: Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.

Coming from a thoroughly Western background and having Greek origins, I can understand completely the Western aesthetic and the beauty expressed by classical Greek art, architecture, pottery and sculpture. However, my schooling, reading, travels, experiences and interactions with others have made me able to also appreciate the simplicity and innate humanity of the wabi-sabi aesthetic. I find Japanese art, architecture, cultural institutions, gardens and music particularly attractive and even though my roots are in Western classicism, I can embrace wabi-sabi and find it immensely beautiful and serene.

Western classicism strives for perfection and symmetry, attempts to approximate the divine by demonstrating all that is best in human nature, leaving the viewer uplifted and ready to strive for the divine ideal himself. Wabi-sabi and Japanese art acknowledges the innate imperfection of the human state and through the exaggerated demonstration of the imperfect, the incomplete and the transient, assures us that only the divine is perfect and that we as imperfect humans need to accept this and appreciate the beauty of the things that we can touch and experience first-hand.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely post Nicholas. I did not know this term although I like things Japanese too. It's great to be able to put a word to it now.