Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Review: Wabi Savvy: When Less is, More or Less, More

Review by Lauren W. Deutsch

Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers
by Leonard Koren (1994. Stone Bridge Press. Berkeley CA)

Should you not be one of the types listed Leonard Koren's irresistibly titled 96-page murder-mystery-who-done-it lamentation in two acts and wish to venture forward, fear not; for wabi-sabi is as close as the classic pair of blue jeans you have hanging in your closet.  According to author, this "most conspicuous and characteristic feature of what we think of as traditional Japanese beauty," is an endangered species, taking its most direct hits from the very forces which nurtured it: the Japanese tea ceremony establishment. 

Trained as an architect and creator of one of the premiere avant garde magazines of the 1970s WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing, as well as such books as 283 Useful Ideas from Japan, how to rake leaves, how to take a Japanese bath, and others, Tokyo / San Francisco resident Koren self-inflicted the challenge to wrestle in writing the most slippery of ethereal-material notions.  His goal is to thrust it into "a meaningful system", "'saving'", he says, "what once constituted a comprehensive and clearly recognizable aesthetic universe."  In a sense he asks whether the experts at saving face can save their aesthetic soul.  

Definitions are in order.  Koren loosely appoints the word "rustic" as the meaning of the confederation of two quite distinct concepts.  Classically, wabi, refers to the "misery of living alone in nature, away from society" in a "dispirited, cheerless emotional state," and sabi, "withered" or "lean."  The wabi-sabi compound is contemporary, a lackadaisical slur suffered from years of misuse, and, as Koren intimates throughout the book, clandestine abuse. 

A wise mortal nevertheless, Koren honestly pursues a dialogue.  No doubt with the popularity of this black-white "sabi-esque" photograph-illustrated book, he will get his wish.  Not willing to defend spiritual materialism on any front, this reviewer wishes to ask: Why should  anyone hold on to anything in this universe ... whether it is our breath or our ideals, much less / much more how could  anyone "save" that which by its very nature must disintegrate.  Whether we are philosophers or philosopher-plumbers, the least we can do is to be sensitive to the wabi-sabi seasons all around us.  On the way, in concert with Koren, we face many pitfalls. 

The high priest of wabi-sabi was, of course, Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), chajin-for-all-seasons.  While not the first man of high rank to discover beauty in something simply, commonly fabricated, new or old, Rikyu and his progeny -- a carefully accounted for 400 year lineage of 15 generations of oiemoto  (grand masters) set wabi-sabi standards to be appreciated and valued through Chado, the Way of Tea.  And, as Koren more than once mentions, Rikyu's heirs have carefully honed and refined this into a capital concern of great magnitude.  Throughout the book, though a bit helterly-skelterly, Koren indicts the imperial-like patriarchal system for its presumptuous hold on what's right and what's wrong.  Who's asking?

Politics aside, the book does provoke the mind, making one wonder what's the fuss all about anyhow.  Is there really a difference between a pair of blue jeans well-worn in "real time" and that stone-washed "look" created by fast-forwarding the fabric through a chemical process?  Do the pants create the woman or man or vice versa?  And who cares?  This is fun.

Many years ago during a camping trip in the Smoky Mountains, I attended a Saturday night town social in Galax, Virginia attended by probably everyone -- old and young -- who could get up the fire house stairs to the community hall.  My city-slicker partner and I put on our clean(est) blue jeans and prepared to blend in with the natives for some down-home bluegrass music and dancing.  But we were the only ones in blue denim; everyone else turned their work clothes in for fancier duds.  Not even a pair of "designer denims" were to be found anywhere.  Being "correct" is very complicated.

Koren's "unswerving principles of wabi-sabi " are illustrated here: #1/ "No one object or element ... shall stand out above any other."(We tried to blend in.)  #2/ "Thou shalt not revere the old for old's sake."  (If the pants fit, wear them.)  I wish the book would consider other principles (the author's), such as: #3/ Some things build up over time like young mountains; others, like old ones, wear down; (Patch holes over the knees were once the rage -- quite practical, actually -- now it's the holes themselves which are sported with savoir faire.)   #4/ How to detect wabi-sabi fraud?  (The pants cost more than a day's wages and have been dry cleaned.); #5/Wabi-sabiness is not transferable from symbol to significant nor vice versa.  (Beware of tourists!)

Pablo Picasso once reflected, "I want to live like a poor man with a lot of money."  Poverty has never been as chic as it has emerged in the 20th Century USA and Western Europe.  Take the current "home boy" gang-inspired fashion, the city rapper fatigues ... baseball cap perched brim backward, huge, funky pants (how do they keep them up?), layers of flannel shorts atop a hooded sweatshirt?  Mucho dinero  from Japan to Paris ... soo cool even in the "I hated the riots, didn't  you?" Westside of L.A. 

As for the notion of refined rusticity, that "further retired" feeling, an L.A. art critic once noticed how artists are the real estate tycoon's bloodhounds in the property speculation hunt.  Once artists move into what is usually the dangerous, depressed (read "cheap rent") parts of town, these areas become trendy and rents quickly inflated, driving the artists further and further into more dangerous, depressed ... etc.

Poverty is not inherently chic and, it's very expensive.  Most homeless people of sound mind* would like to get out of the cold.  What they would do with Picasso's wealth is certainly another story.  Given the preference of a classic structure from L.A. architect Frank Gehry (walls made from inexpensive corrugated metal, cinder block and adobe with chain link trimming) or something which resembles Versailles or Katsura, who knows what would be #1.  (Don't mention which would be more cost-effective for a government to build.)  We're not talking about urban camping which could a delightful social experience on a hot night.

In short, becoming vulnerable is an essential humbling, human experience.  It shows we are living.  Perhaps it is a dulling of our sense of responsibility for our actions individually and collectively, in the name of science and art, about which Koren is sounding the alarm.  I hope he writes a sequel for people like me.  (Disclosure: I worked for Koren at WET in the late 1970s).

* There are reports of homeless people living on the streets in L.A. who have been identified by social service agencies as preferring not to  be tied to a regular form of shelter, even if they could afford it.  In New York, there have been legal battles about whether someone by law must go to a shelter if offered.)