Thursday, January 27, 2011

Worthless discussion about bonsai styles?

Worthless discussion about bonsai styles?

A few years ago I had the pleasure to interview Kimura. among other things I asked him 'you have started what now has become modern bonsai style. How and why did this happen?'.He answered along the lines 'I have started nothing, I always did and do traditional bonsai'. He apparently was not ready to comment further on this subject.
Ryan Neil, who has studied under Kimura for 6 years a very recently said something along these lines: 'In Japan the subject bonsai styles (in the sense of movements is not discussed all. They just do bonsai. They don't discuss whether bonsai is an art form or not.' Ryan, while quite open about any subject, seemed to not want to speak about bonsai styles either. Boon, one of the present stars in American bonsai is quoted ons saying on many occasions 'this discussion about bonsai styles is totally superfluous and counterproductive. There are no bonsai 'styles', there are only good bonsai or bad bonsai.'

So one can conclude that at least three very important people in the bonsai world are going into the same direction about this issue. Their verdict must be authoritative. Well, I am sure one could find several dozen more important bonsai people who are of similar opinion. When this subject comes up on the internet there are always a few rather heavyweights who try to close the discussion by making clear that this is fruitless. While some of these could be called bonsai fundamentalists it would not be fair at all to say that only bonsai fundamentalists refuse a discussion. It is, however, obvious, that the majority of the nay-sayers are artists themselves, successfully so.

So shall we stop this 'totally superfluous' discussion from now on? Let's recapitulate. Boon said it the best. 'There are only good bonsai or bad bonsai. OK, let's look at other fields: To make differences in styles of music is totally superfluous, there is only good music or bad music. To make differences in styles of food is totally superfluous, there is only good food or bad food. One could go on and find many more most monstrous and outlandish statements like these.

What is my take on this? Why do I discuss this so often? Well, it comes from the fact that over the years I set in my garden and just did bonsai, trying to do good bonsai. I have the great luck to not have to sell what I make. Therefore I can create something that I like and don't have to think about other people's taste. I honestly try very hard to create something that is really good and it takes quite awhile until I myself am impressed about my work. When that is so I often publish the result to share it with others. Almost every time I did so I got hammered by a few. I was asked how I could create such lousy things and call them 'art' - and similar. Every time I was shocked to see a harmless sharing of what I thought was good work end in a battle with all sorts of honest and some evil minded individuals.

This experience I had many times and it made me think hard about bonsai taste. As a result I came up with what by now is the almost legendary 'styles and forms' script. Later on I wrote a lot about these things. All fruitless and worthless? Well, I came to the conclusion, that just as it is very important to differentiate between styles of music and food this is also true about bonsai styles. It is to be able to discuss intelligently, to create a code that is commonly understood, to not have to start every conversation with telling the other one what you mean. It is not enough to call it 'food'. The discussion would make much more sens if I called it 'Italian food - namely spaghetti - original as in Italy'. In bonsai discussions it would make things a lot easier if everybody would know what was meant by 'modern bonsai - Italian dialect'. Well, they don't.

Recently I had this epiphany: The artists are better off if they don't care about this. They just have to do their work. They can rightfully refuse to discuss about this systematization. But the general crowd that discusses bonsai is much better of in developing some code to be able to talk intelligently. So don't listen to the artists, to the heavyweights. They are speaking about their own personal situation where it is OK to not care about such things.

So BTW what is 'modern bonsai - Italian dialect'?
Well here is a famous tree by Enrico Savini. That's what is meant. Why modern and what is a bonsai dialect? Great! Now we can start to discuss intelligently.


Darrell said...

Walter, I think you hit the nail on the head. The comparison with music is very apt. I'm sure Beethoven or Bach didn't concern themselves with the "style" of music they were writing, they just wrote the best music they could. It is only useful for us, in describing their music, and the influences that shaped it to use terms like "Baroque" and "Romantic".

Root Bonsai said...

What a great idea in your mind! I never thought in that way. Making bonsai is not easy work we should have proper knowledge how made bonsai. So please give me more details about it.

Michael said...

Walter, I can more or less see their point of view... putting a fancy style name on a bad bonsai will never make it a good bonsai, while failing to put a fancy style name on a good bonsai will never turn it into a bad bonsai. Remember that from a Japanese point of view, if something new worked it becomes part of the norm... it is only shunned if it failed. You also have to remember that what is now called "traditional bonsai" (Japanese) is actually "modern bonsai" that only got popular about a century ago and is still evolving.

It is the same thing with food. Attributing it to a local ethnic style won't turn a bland dish, a foul tasting dish or randomly picked ingredients into a good dish. There is an easy test for good food: "Do I want another serving right now or later?". For music, putting a fancy label on random noises seldom turn it into a musical masterpiece either (coming from somebody who used to listen to East German industrial, no less). The easy test for good music would be: "Does it evoke a feeling other than boredom or desire to pierce my eardrums with a pointy stick after a few seconds?".

I wouldn't consider the discussion worthless, tho. For one thing, it forced me to look into what makes a bonsai work for me. And to date, even tho you would probably lump me into "fundamentalists", your trees do work for me.

So, to answer your your last question:
The "modern bonsai" part is easy: it is not in the ancient Chinese style, doesn't represent a tree from one of the traditional places used in that ancient style and doesn't have a "quasi religious" connotation that is required for that.

The "Italian dialect" part is harder: could it refer to the way the deadwood is treated? Or the fact that a branch is crossing the trunkline, which would be considered a fault for "Japanese style purists" who base their "Japanese style" on old books and mistranslated articles from decades ago?

Anyways, thanks for the thought provoking post!


Ravi Kiran said...

Some of the most profound truths are often simple.... Boon's statement of "THERE IS ONLY GOOD BONSAI OR BAD BONSAI" is one such.

Increasingly, the discussion on "STYLES" is getting less frequent and these days focuses on other "TRADITIONS" like display styles etc. Even when the discussion comes down to "STYLES", I do not hear one talk about Formal Upright, Informal Upright Slanting, Semi Cascade etc..

Enrico Savini's tree is a good example of where such a beautiful bonsai cannot be slotted into any of the so called "CLASSICAL JAPANESE STYLES".

Let's debate LESS about Bonsai and enjoy Bonsai MORE :)

Anonymous said...

Boon said: „There are no bonsai 'styles', there are only good bonsai or bad bonsai.“
This really looks like simple sentence, which can even sound, due to his simplicity, like some wisdom from East. However, somebody also could said: Bonsai does not exists, and that sounds even more simple …. but what then?
In life generally I am avoiding defining thing like good or bad, because I know how difficult is to be able to see whole. We can compare it to iceberg - only part above sea surface is visible, and even bigger part in sea not.
Let’s assume that “good bonsai” exists. How we can define it? What if I don’t want that other people admire my bonsai as “good” bonsai, but at the same time I don’t see it as definitely “bad” bonsai. That is why I consider style names as good idea, because one can easily explain to the audience what is not visible right away.
This subject in art is something that art historians deal with, but there is not chance for that in bonsai world.