Friday, October 23, 2009

Pattern recognition in judging bonsai - English

Pattern recognition in judging bonsai, or how bonsai taste evolves

Can you tell the difference between a conifer and a broadleaved tree just from looking at an image? Sure you can, any child can do this. Can you tell the difference even when the conifer grows much like a broadleaved tree would  normally and the broadleaved tee grows like a conifer? Sure you could. You see this in a split second looking at an image.

OK, now explain how exactly you made the decision. Some will succeed in giving a good explanation, some will come back wit a poor explanation and some will not bother. But all will take quite a while to articulate something that they have 'known' in a split-second.

Even though our brain knows how to do this classification, our conscious mind is often incapable of articulating the rules. Our brain is exceptionally good at this type of task. We are amazing pattern recognition machines.

Our brain has evolved to do exactly this with great accuracy. If we have a set of objects we can form internal rules by which we classify them. When you learned how to read you were shown many examples of the letter 'a'. you have learned to see the letter  'a' whether it's hand written or printed. You can tell the letter 'a' immediately even if written in bad hand writing or printed in unusual script. You can do this even when you never had seen this handwriting or this script before. But you would be hard pressed to explain every time how you came to your conclusion.

You are very good in deciding instantly that a letter is NOT 'a'. So there must be some mechanism that enables you to do this to read texts at an enormous speed.

Recognition of abstract things is even more complex. You learn early what is good and what is bad behavior. You are given many examples in your childhood. As you grow to an adult your brain catalogs all examples of good and bad acts and at one point discovers rules of how to decide. When you get to a new situation in life that you never were in before you can instantly apply these rules. So we all have internal rules, but they differ slightly depending on how they developed. Thus we have slightly different notions about morals. These differences become striking when we meet a person who grew up in an entirely different culture and who apparently applies radically different rules for the distinction between 'good' and 'bad'.

So what has all this to do with bonsai taste? Well, exactly the same happens when we learn to appreciate bonsai. We learn that a tree that follows the bonsai rules which are written in stone it is good. When it breaks one of these rules it becomes bad. We learn that trees designed by Naka, Kimura, any great Japanese master are good. We are not content with just being told. We learn to search images of trees for patterns. We learned to see 'good' application of rules and 'bad' application. We learn to see the similarities in trees which are 'good' and we somehow create our own internal rules of how to decide. We can then judge a tree which we have never seen before. We can tell right away whether we have a piece of raw material or a masterpiece in front of us. We are not equally good at this. Some can get very far in this and become experts in judging bonsai. Mind you there was no word about CREATING bonsai here. It is all about judging from seeing. In this concept a person can be an expert judge for bonsai without ever having touched a tree.

The question now is, to what extent are we truly judging the merit of the bonsai, and to what extent are we just using our pattern-recognition skills.

Yes, some bonsai have the ability to move us emotional, to convey a message, to make us feel their 'soul'. But can we be sure that this response isn't simply a learned reaction? Appreciating a bonsai takes training. It is generally not the case that someone who has no training can appreciate and distinguish 'good' from 'bad' bonsai easily. Is it not possible that what we call artistic training is essentially training for pattern classification?

One step further now. I have trained myself to appreciate contemporary bonsai by experiencing it a lot, and if my brain is good at that sort of thing, then I'll form rules for discovering what I was told was 'good' bonsai and distinguishing it form the 'bad'. When I visit an exhibit and see the work of a new artist, I will apply my rules of 'good' and 'bad' bonsai and make my judgment on whether this artist is any good. Since most of us were trained by the same books and by similar examples of 'good' and 'bad' bonsai, our opinions will often be similar to  other bonsaiists, and the new artist will be branded accordingly.

At the same token this applies to bonsai designers. If I decide to become a bonsai master, I will judge my own work by the same abstract rules of 'good' and 'bad' and produce bonsai that pass my own criteria for judgment. Therefore, once it is established that some works are examples of good art, it almost guarantees that the pattern will be perpetuated by future artist and critics. This goes so far that a considerable number of bonsai connoisseurs and artists believe that there is only one way to do it 'right'. There is a strong tendency for fundamentalism; it is inherent in the system of how bonsai taste evolves.

Now in appreciating bonsai there is, of course, more than just pattern recognition here, but is there any way for us to ever separate the two? Normally there is no observer here from outside of the system, and we can never know to what extent our preferences are biased by the pattern-recognition training we have received in the past. But you remember the example of above when we 'knew' exactly what was morally good or bad and all of a sudden a person from another culture had a very different moral code. The question is whether we even listen to someone who comes from another bonsai culture. If we listen, do we understand what he is saying? Probably not really, and probably we want to stay in our cozy well established and defined bonsai world rather than constantly question what we  are thinking. And we don't realize that what we think are 'natural' rules just evolved accidentally and became a generally accepted code. But by sheer coincidence it could have become a very different code.

Can we not bring into a bonsai exhibit a person from the street who was never exposed to any bonsai or theory about them. Well, we can, but what do we expect? The person will make some judgments and will give some explanation, but they will not really tell us much more than that we have someone with a very naive taste and no background in front of us. Art form is also a language in itself, and without raining and exposure one cannot learn how to read that language.

The story is told about a person approaching Picasso and told him 'Mr. Picasso, I don't understand your art'. Picasso replied, 'do you know Chinese?'. 'No'. 'but Chinese an be learned.'

How will we ever know the true difference between elitism perpetuated through pattern recognition and the intrinsic value of a bonsai?

Adapted from: "Art and Elitism: A Form of Pattern Recognition" by

Kunal Sen, 2007, Encyclopedia Britannica blog


Matt Williams said...

Interesting thoughts Walter, thanks. It is undoubtedly true that to fully appreciete any art form a little education in that area does help but the importance of our instinctual or culturally conditioned reaction to art should not be denegrated by this.

My feeling is that to be a good judge of bonsai one should have an appreciation of the technical aspects of the art and craft of bonsai but perhaps as importantly havew looked at a lot of trees in order to build up a good memopry store for pattern recognition. This should include, infact (in my oppinion) be predominated by, real trees in nature. Unless one believes that real trees have nothing to do with bonsai... and if that's true I am greatly misguided!

Zopf said...

Hallo Walter
Vielleicht interessant in diesem Zusammenhang
"Programming and metaprogramming in the human biocomputer" John c. Lilly
Die "Prägung" an und für sich ist nicht negativ das Beharren eher schon
mfG Dieter

Broken.Arrow.Bonsai said...

Walter, This is very thought provoking. I hope others read this. I am aware that in the time I have worked with bonsai my preferences and understandings have evolved. Particularly as my understanding and appreciation for trees in nature has progressed and as I learn to apply and appreciate more techniques. Most recently as I have begun to work with some collected material. Perhaps a good exercise to aid one in developing a greater appreciation of "different" trees is to assess/analyze the many series of technical skills that were applied to develop it. Also simply being open to look at trees that are "different". If what you have written is true, some judges would not be able to do this and as a result may disregard a good tree that does not fit into a pattern, or which they are unable to discern the application of good techniques. Any way thanks for posting.

Ana said...

That's one tempting question!

If I may take a round-about to a possible answer:

From following Souren Melikian's writing on art and its markets for a while now, I remained with a particularly useful sound bite that seems to fit here well. Melikian writes of art collectors, their taste thwarted by auction watching:

"The greatest experts are only as good as the sum total of what they have seen." (*)

From the sound of it, that expert lot of outsiders could be the same you caught rationalizing bonsai patterns.

It has been a while since making rules has been recognized as derisory in more ubiquitous arts. Even making rules about their critique is not quite what it used to be. And the street cred of sole owner auctions has been unquestionable for about ten month... The point: it may not take as strong an instinct as herding behind patterns - or any stable aesthetic standard of evidence, for any audience to remain one step behind the transformations of any art. Lest 'cheap talk' should find a way to instant entitlement. (**)

Melikian is more optimistic then I. He goes on by hinting to a saving grace of spectator mediocrity:

"When there is little to look at [...], when viewers are no longer guided [hic!] by passion, a whole aspect of the living artistic culture withers away."

If 'viewers guided by passion' go by wholly distinct instincts then seeing it all can be relied on to provide, I sure wish Mr. Melikian had spared one more paragraph to qualify that 'viewer's passion' further! Here's my guess:

To qualify that 'good taste' would be making explicit rules bound to be dulled by replication (***). Bar that, there are a few familiar words for un-observable qualities and acts: uncertainty and its semantic brethren.

Hoping to have put my answer in some context by now, I'd put it in short as follows:

'Intrinsic' value is that whose first recognition demands viewers to take a risk in expressing their judgment, equivalent to that the artist took in providing the object to be judged.

Art buyers make their bets fairly visible. The risk inherent to holding a consistent personal position reveals itself as soon as the 'eye of the beholder' opens the associated mouth... Writing? At least for that there's a good chance no one will ever write back, depending on one’s choice of medium, these days.

Ready to bet that this view is at least as wrong as any other, only I haven't found a good way to put it to rest, yet. I am putting it down here looking for some reason to...

* source: Souren Melikian, "Beyond aesthetics, the name's the game
", International Herald Tribune, 8 Nov. 2003]

** I am holding the moderation function of this blog responsible to rid me of that temptation...

*** I suspect there is some story here for someone concerned with intellectual property matters. Most wonderfully off-topic. One perhaps less so:

Taking the other part of Souren's closing statemet, if the judgement of buyers of French impressionists suffer from insufficient reference, I wonder how little value 'seeing more' really has for a far less ubiquitous art and its styles. Your argument seems to imply this also. Unintended?

Chris said...

Great post Walter!

For many years I worked with my own bonsai, and didn't know any others who practiced the art (and I still don't). Everything I knew on the subject was learned from books. I made a lot of mistakes along the way and slowly learned better technique. It was rare (and still is) for me to see other bonsai. By my judgment, my own bonsai held a lot of appeal. I'm sure much of that appeal was rooted in having spent so much time and attention on them. Other people with more knowledge and experience probably wouldn't have judged them as kindly. I knew that my bonsai were not of the same standard as those those pictured in the many books I'd collected, but I was content with what I had.

Two weeks ago I visited the National Penjing & Bonsai Museum in Washington DC. The first tree I saw was an Ezo Spruce by Tokuei Tanaka. I was familiar with this tree (and many others in the collection), having seen it in photos many times before. I was astonished! I had no idea it would be that beautiful! As I made my way through the 3 pavilions, I had a growing sense of unease. Each new tree I saw made my pulse quicken and my breathing faster. When I couldn't stop tearing up, I realized I was experiencing the effects of Stendhal Syndrome. I've never experienced it before in an art museum or anywhere else.

I'm still a little shaken by the experience, and it makes me wonder if there are such things as platonic ideals or is it really all subjective. Would I have had that emotional response if I had never seen a bonsai and learned no patterning before? Did I have that experience precisely because of patterning (through photographs)? Does an emotional response of that kind indicate that the art viewed is even "good" at all? Or does it cloud the mind, making an objective judgment of "good" impossible in the first place?