Friday, March 18, 2016

Bonsai, what should they look like (philosophical questions)

My philosophy on bonsai. There seems to be some controversy in the world scene as to what direction bonsai should go. One camp says that bonsai is what came out of japan and that if it does not look like that it is not bonsai. Another camp says that bonsai is living art and that bonsai can change with interpretation.

I have studied art formally. I was born in santa Barbara and have lived most of my life in Los Angeles CA. I have travelled to Argentina, Mexico. I lived in Nashville Tennessee for a few years.I grew up in the 90’s. Why am I sharing all this? My experiences shape how I think. Bonsai is fun and I would never argue with anybody over it. However, I have made up my mind as to where I will take the bonsai that I make.

I believe that if you make bonsai, at least here in the U.S. you are an artist. You are making living sculptures. All the things I learned about art I apply to making bonsai. Therefore, I believe bonsai has to keep evolving. In japan for the most part the elite bonsai makers are shokunin. Loosely translated shokunin is craftsperson. Yet it means more than that. Shokunin is reserved for the most skilled be it bonsai, pottery, etc. A craftsperson is not an artist. A craftsperson usually stays within the parameters of their work and they excell until they become masters. An artist is one who pushes the boundaries, and most important satisfies his perception of art. It is art because an artist says it is. Art is not born from public consensus. Has the artist made good art? That is a personal opinion derived from the person's experiences. Time is the moderator.

I truly believe that bonsai evolving is for the best. If how we shape trees does not change then the art form is dead. Take a look at the many styles of bonsai. Look at the depiction of bonsai in ukiyo-e. Bonsai has been evolving since the chinese brought it to japan. Why should it stagnate now?

The rift in philosophies comes from the naturalistic bonsai. A great many people say that bonsai is the miniaturisation of  trees as they look in the wild. Yet if you look at bonsai today you can honestly say that bonsai do not look like trees in nature. Bonsai are in fact idealized. I have been in nature. Nature is harsh, it will take your life if you are not prepared. Nature is full of life, but it also kills and maims. Only the strongest survive in nature.  And yet, some of that unforgiving quality of nature is added to some bonsai in the form of dead wood, the twisted trunks, and holes that are carved into the trunks. Why? Because that is the diffrence between what makes a good tree from an exceptional tree. The tree has a story to tell. The tree got crushed, it got punished and it survived. Now the tree has a story to tell.    

Mr. Walter Pall makes a distinction between natural bonsai and naturalistic bonsai. He says that to plant a tree in a pot and let it grow is a natural bonsai. To shape the tree to resemble a true wild tree is naturalistic. Naturalistic is still a mimic of the wild. A naturalistic bonsai is shaped and styled. A naturalistic bonsai though does not follow the same conventions of japanese and japanese looking trees.

Humans are part of nature. I strongly dislike when people make a separation. Like ants and bees even like prairie dogs humans have the capability to change their surroundings. Is a beaver dam unnatural? What about a honeycomb or coral reef.  All materials come from nature even plastic. Humans can not make something from nothing. I believe some law of thermodynamics says so.  We do idealize and romanticize things though. We tend to forget the bad and remember mostly the good. All this is reflected on how we make bonsai.

What are we to do? Which side is right and which side is wrong? I believe that the most important thing for the hobbyist is that we receive enjoyment when making bonsai. Does it satisfy the artistic, horticulturist, OCD side in us? Does it bring us joy as well as frustration? Does it fill our souls? That is what is the most important. We cannot say that one style is bonsai and the other is not. Nor can we insist on showing a naturalistic bonsai at a japanese exhibit. There has to be some sort of respect. You do not have to like every kind of bonsai, but you can not say a nursery stock plant potted in a bonsai pot is not a bonsai. Nor can we denigrate the so called cookie cutter styles of japanesque bonsai.    

For some to make a bonsai that is just like classical japanese bonsai is the epitome of beauty. To them I say well done. To some making trees into cutting edge works of art is beauty. To those I say well done. The future of bonsai will come one tree at a time. Only time will be the arbiter of what bonsai is.  

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