Sunday, September 6, 2015

Dear Arthur, Dear Walter #2

Hello Walter,

Thank you for responding to my open letter. As usual, what you have written is worth the reading and prompts further discussion.

Although I think of it as a sidebar to the topic at hand, I want to take the time to comment on the business of Internet bonsai forums, especially as this conversation is taking place on one. It is well understood and not surprising that you have had your fill of on-line arguments. There is not much use in them, I think. Still, I remain a proponent of the forum concept and think they offer a valuable service in providing a platform for the free and open exchange of ideas. As with many other things, there is a discouraging gulf between the ideal and the reality in the way forums typically function. In defense of using personal blogs and Facebook pages as an alternative to forums, you point out that while they may not be democratic they are effective. This is no doubt true. However, the same can be said of dictatorship governments over democratically elected ones and for mostly the same reasons. Democracy is cumbersome, slow, frustrating and all too often ineffective, but I think freedom of speech and the ability to have a multitude of differing viewpoints contributing to a larger dialogue is worth the trouble. I do not agree that democracy means we are all the same. It means only that we have the same right to express ourselves and participate, and in the competition of ideas better ideas should emerge. There is no guarantee they will, but they can.

Let us take, as an example, those ferocious on-line debates in which you used to engage. You had some alternative ideas to offer the bonsai world so you put them out there in the various bonsai forums. Many people disagreed with your perspective and they voiced their opinions in response to yours. Some of these opponents reacted viscerally and made their responses into personal attacks on you for daring to disturb the perfect balance of their bonsai concept, and you battled back against them, often in-kind. All over the world people were reading these forums and absorbing the various ideas being offered for consideration, and I was one of those people. Your ideas influenced my thinking. I read what you had to say and I read what others said in response and I weighed the arguments and decided what you said made sense. It did not matter that at that time I had never heard of you. All that mattered was that you had something to offer and you put your ideas out there in a well articulated manner, where they could be accessed and evaluated against other ideas. Some of those other ideas were espoused by people I had heard of and regarded as authorities, at least to the degree that I supposed them to know more than I did. In a democratic competition of ideas, yours won me over.

Now, the parts where these conversations went off the rails and burst into flames was grand entertainment, not unlike the good old days of gladiators beating each other to death in the arena, and the on-line bonsai community gathered around in their virtual togas and cheered lustily and offered thumbs up or down when a combatant was knocked to the ground. You were spectacular in that arena Walter! But the verbal bludgeoning part of it was not what changed my thinking. I do not know that it changed anyone's thinking, it was just blood sport. So I think it is fair to conclude that the ugly (but entertaining) part of it is unnecessary. It is the sharing of minds that matters. That is how I see it, anyway.

That is why, in my thread on the IBC forum, I do not choose to engage in debate with people who hold obviously opposing viewpoints. I post my thoughts and ideas and pictures of my work so that anyone who is interested can access them and make up their own minds about them. I take it as a given that my views will not appeal to everyone, and if anyone is so inclined they can voice their opposing opinion because it is a public forum and that is why public forums exist. If such a person raises a worthwhile point or asks a question for some reason other than attempting to start a fight, I will answer them. But if someone approaches me painted up like Mel Gibson in "Braveheart", beating their naked chest and waiving a sharp stick at me while shouting OOGA! OOGA! OOGA! or something roughly equivalent, I will just ignore them. Likewise, if a person chooses to reply in a more respectful manner but all they have to offer is a reiteration of conventional thinking that is already out there and I already know and have rejected, I do not feel any need to reply. The idea they espouse can sit there next to mine in the marketplace of ideas and shoppers can choose what they like.

But enough about forums. You approach them your way and I mine, and we have our differences in that regard. In other regards our thinking is similar, and an appreciation of Naturalistic bonsai is certainly an area of agreement. Thank you for providing the concise definition I requested. If you will forgive me, I repeat it here with a slight modification made for the sake of allowing it to be more usable as a standalone statement:

"Naturalistic bonsai compared to what generally is known as bonsai is like the difference between realistic and abstract painting. Naturalists try to create something that looks like a genuine tree. General bonsaiists try to create something that looks like a bonsai. And they are not aware of it."

It is curious to me that this statement of yours has provoked no response from the people who have previously voiced their opinion of naturalistic bonsai as a dubious concept if not an outright fraud. Perhaps they are simply content to let your point of view stand unchallenged next to theirs in the marketplace of ideas, or maybe they are afraid of crossing you on a public forum. (Who dares step into the ring with Walter Pall - The Munich Masher, The Austrian Annihilator, The Tyrolean Terror!) I have noticed, Walter, that the bonsai community seems to divide itself into 2 camps regarding you. Some love you and the rest fear you. Machiavelli would be proud.

I have a response to your statement, Walter. I want to know why. Why are so many people in bonsai seemingly not aware that their bonsai creations do not look like genuine trees?

I enjoyed reading your account of how you came to recognize for yourself that the bonsai you commonly saw and those you were originally making yourself did not look like the trees that you could observe everyday growing in nature all around you. I had never heard you speak of that moment of recognition before, but it was more or less exactly as I would have guessed it to have happened. I had a similar awakening. You had to grope your way along in the dark, piecing together information gathered from your fortunate encounter with Dan Robinson and some inquisitive reading of John Naka, coupled with your intuition and a lifelong love of trees in nature, to arrive at an expanded level of awareness as to certain forces at work in the conventional ideas about bonsai styling. I had the lifelong love of trees in nature as well, but I also had the benefit of some rudimentary fine art education and exposure to the ideas you were putting out on the Internet. But in both our cases there came a time when we first recognized the disconnect between the natural example of trees as we knew them to be and the way they were represented in bonsai form, and in both our cases we found this to be both puzzling and troubling.

So, here I finally arrive at the primary point I wished to explore today and suddenly find I have already buried you under an avalanche of words, and used up all the time I have at present, too. Perhaps this is just as well. I will gladly step back from the keyboard for now and allow you to take the lead in carrying the discussion forward, should you be inclined to do so. You are the recognized authority in this matter, and although it is well understood that you enjoy and produce other styles of bonsai "in parallel" with naturalistic style, still I think there is no one better than you to discourse on the subject. Let me offer this: Do you think many other people in bonsai recognize the difference between conventionally designed bonsai trees and real trees in nature? Your definition quote suggests you think they do not, but perhaps they do and they do not care. Why should they? If indeed they do not recognize the difference then why do you suppose they do not? Is it not obvious? I hope you will humor me Walter and share your thoughts. I think these questions are useful keys to unlocking the box so many people have built around bonsai as we know it today in the Western culture.





Dear Arthur,

Arthur Joura wrote:
"Naturalistic bonsai compared to what generally is known as bonsai is like the difference between realistic and abstract painting. Naturalists try to create something that looks like a genuine tree. General bonsaiists try to create something that looks like a bonsai. And they are not aware of it."

It is curious to me that this statement of yours has provoked no response from the people who have previously voiced their opinion of naturalistic bonsai as a dubious concept if not an outright fraud. Perhaps they are simply content to let your point of view stand unchallenged next to theirs in the marketplace of ideas, or maybe they are afraid of crossing you on a public forum. (Who dares step into the ring with Walter Pall - The Munich Masher, The Austrian Annihilator, The Tyrolean Terror!) I have noticed, Walter, that the bonsai community seems to divide itself into 2 camps regarding you. Some love you and the rest fear you. Machiavelli would be proud.
...
I have a response to your statement, Walter. I want to know why. Why are so many people in bonsai seemingly not aware that their bonsai creations do not look like genuine trees?

I think they don't question what they are doing. They are doing it as a craft. While nowadays most will agree that bonsai is an art form they don't practice it like one. (btw, fifteen years ago many if not the majority were of the opinion that bonsai was NOT an art form). So what is the difference? In a nutshell the craftsman has learned what he is doing and just does it. He does not question it, it's not his job to innovate, but to produce. The artist questions what he does, he questions everything. If something was not done before that's a good reason to do it. This is the western understanding of art by and large. The eastern art concept is more as we see craft. So this is one of the keys to understand the present bonsai scene: bonsai is seen and practiced as an Asian, namely a Japanese art form. And that means that it is practiced as a craft in western understanding. We praise an artist as a rebel, who rocks the boat. In Japan a rebel is a bad person, who rocks the boat. And that is not done. So it is not questioned what we produce as long as it looks like a good bonsai. And a good bonsai looks like a tree - everybody knows this. Or does it?


Arthur Joura wrote:Let me offer this: Do you think many other people in bonsai recognize the difference between conventionally designed bonsai trees and real trees in nature? Your definition quote suggests you think they do not, but perhaps they do and they do not care. Why should they? If indeed they do not recognize the difference then why do you suppose they do not? Is it not obvious? I hope you will humor me Walter and share your thoughts. I think these questions are useful keys to unlocking the box so many people have built around bonsai as we know it today in the Western culture.

Arthur, you make me wary. Let me tell you a story around this.

In February of 2002 I went skiing and had a small camera with me. I made a couple of shots of the mountains and trees at the timberline. At this time it was quite something to be able to make good photographs with such a small camera which would not bother you while skiing. I was quite active on the Internet Bonsai Club Forum and showed these photographs. I showed this particular larch and asked what folks though about it. While today I neither think it was a great photograph nor that the larch was great in particular, at that time folks said it was a great tree, a nice tree, a good shot - no disagreement. So then I asked: 'can we not take this larch as an example to style our trees?'.  Only a few thought that it could be worth a try. The majority said no. One in particular, Rainer Goebel, was absolutely against it. Rainer at that time was the big man on the forum, he had the last word and he knew it. But it would not have been me if  I had not insisted that we should look for new ways and this would be one to consider. Rainer answered along the lines: 'Walter, I know you are not stupid, but you sound very stupid in your stubbornness. You insist that this should be an example for bonsai. It must not be and cannot be. Because it does not look like a bonsai.



BECAUSE IT DOES NOT LOOK LIKE A BONSAI.  What a monstrous statement! I was tempted to answer right away, but fortunately did not. I went skiing instead. On the lift I thought a lot about this. How could it be that a reasonable person in general who has seen a university from inside would say this? How was it possible that practically everybody felt that the tree was great - and most could not see it as example for bonsai? It's like having a good looking lady sitting on a chair in front of you and everybody agrees that she is good looking. I ask 'can we not paint her?' and the answer is 'You cannot paint her, she does not look like a painting'. You would be offered  treatment for such a statement.

While I was aggravated and irritated I came to the conclusion that it was not the intention of Rainer to make me mad, while he did. The answer was: he sincerely believed that this was the truth. And I came to realize that he was not the only one to think that way. It was normal to think so - it was what we were lead to believe the art of bonsai is all about: It is about creating a beautiful bonsai. Period. And it was my task to question that and find a way to create something that looked like this larch and not like a bonsai. While I had done this already for a couple of years At this point my thinking became clear about it.

So this larch as silly as it may be marked a great turning point in my thinking and possibly later on in the thinking of by now quite a few people.
This pathetic larch is like the urinal of Duchamp I would dare to say if this statement were not megalomania.

So I am aware that I am tuning in a circle here. You are correct Arthur, folks do realize that their bonsai don't look like real trees and they don't question this, they don't care. For them it is as it is supposed to be. This is what makes my  ideas so irritating - they feel disturbed in their cozy world. And at the same time many think that their bonsai obviously look like real trees. They have gotten so used to the caricatures of real trees that they mistake them for the real thing.

This is like at the turning point of classical painting vs. impressionist around 140 years ago. Mainstream was clearly classical 'realistic' painting. The proponents of the classical way were absolutely under the impression that they were producing or looking at what the world really looked like. Then came the Impressionists and showed them what realism really was. They painted in sketches, mostly outside instead of inside with real colors ass they saw them. These paintings were so strange in the beginning for the proponents of the old 'right' way that they seriously thought that Impressionists were suffering from eye disease if not from some sort of mental disorder. In hindsight the Impressionists really at least tried to show the world as it is while the classical ones tried to show the world the way it should be and like it was always shown, like they wre taught to see it.

So to answer this question, Arthur, I believe in bonsai today we are at the turning point still at which the painting world was around 140 years ago. You are 'officially' trained in this, I am only a dilettante student who once thought about studying this 'officially'. So you be the judge whether it is so. The classical school believes that they are showing the trees like they are while they only show them in a mostly stereotype way as they THINK they are, as they were taught to see them. And the new wave shows the trees as they really are and still meet a lot of opposition for their blasphemy. Traditional bonsaiists think that they make trees to look like trees while they make them to look like bonsai.

So it is still not clear what the bonsai crowd thinks about this issue. Whenever I mention something like 'the overwhelming majority of bonsai don't look like trees but like bonsai' I get the impression that I am not understood. Most really don't see it. They really think I am speaking nonsense. Well, maybe I am. But they don't smell their own scent. So I insist: `General bonsaiists try to create something that looks like a bonsai. And they are not aware of it'.

Anyway, it is very important at this point to repeat that it is not necessary to like the naturalistic way. You can hate it, that's OK. But one should respect it and not resort to personal attacks against the proponents. And it is also important to note that this is not an either-or situation. One can well do several styles and be an integer artist. Also one can enjoy many styles and be an integer bonsai connoisseur. And one can like a person while being radically against his ideas. Yes, it is OK to like Naturalists and not like their work.

7 comments:

JK said...

Seems to me a little useless conversation, or is it meant to build up a legend? Is there a real audience discussing such therms of bonsai? And in which way that might be helpfull?
A rose is a rose is a rose...

Anonymous said...

Touche! Building up legends is a significant part of bonsai world.

Moreover, as naturalistic style strives for trees not to look like bonsai, it might behoove "naturalists" to drop the term "bonsai" altogether.

A bonsai is a bonsai is a bonsai. But not when it's "naturalistic".

Mark

Anonymous said...

I concur with JK's assessment of this being pointless. We don't need to defend the existence of forums or a different style of art, any more than we need to defend difference of opinion. And we certainly do not need evangelism and a series of interviews that thoroughly beat a dead horse.

Are artists really that weak-minded that they require external approval of the messages they convey? If so, they're probably practising a form of masturbation, not art.

I find naturalistic bonsai to be very pleasing. I think Walter is a fantastic artist. I do not need anyone else's consensus in order for me to hold those beliefs.

Anonymous said...

Vance Wood is clearly the troll in this situation.

First he says he does NOT want to create an environment for confrontation, it's a matter of personal opinion, but there needs to be a line drawn:

"I don't wish to create an environment for an argument when after all at this point we are discussing aesthetics and personal opinion and personal taste. The contradiction exhibited by some of these trees is apparent but what is the alternative? You can opt for pure naturalism and have trees that are as interesting as a walk through a mosquito infested swamp. Where do you draw the line without making a case for the ubiquitous crapsai, where art does not matter?"

The next day he changes his mind and decides to stir the ****, and asks people to take the bait. He creates a controversial statement that's been proven to incite arguments on the forums, and asks people to form an opinion:

"And so_____we run head long into the conundrum, when is it art and when is it poop? If I mould a turd into the shape of ??????? is it art or is it poop? I realize this is strident, but it is a logical question and it is after all, at the heart of the art debate today, and sadly in bonsai as well.

I know this is a really pecular question that really can be answered both ways. Think about it:--------I'll be back."


The trees of Walter and Dan's trees have way more character than anything Vance Wood has brought forth in his 50+ years of bonsai. Love them or hate them, they are art in the truest sense! Sadly, after looking at his Art of Bonsai trees, this man is in no position to be judging what should or should not be considered art. He is Reiner Goebell all over again, attempting to get the biggest building in town by tearing down everyone else's.

Anonymous said...

Intellectual argument is never pointless. It is only by challenging and defending points of view that we progress. It was some old Greek guy who said 'the life which is unexamined is not worth living'. This is true with any human activity be it making small trees in pots or even small pots of tea.

Recently I went to my first bonsai meeting and realised that many of the people there were making version Japanese bonsai - I call it the 'Karate Kid style'. (I suspect that it is style particular to bonsai classes in Western nations - leggy junipers mostly, like no tree that ever grew in nature) I was told by some well meaning folk that there were these 'rules' and by implication I was breaking them. They were paining by numbers. They were not trying to create an impression of nature they were making 'Bonsai'.

If you spend more time looking at bonsai than looking at trees you will make bonsai. I try to make tiny little trees in pots.

Thanks Walter. I think many of you trees look like very bad bonsai indeed. And that is a compliment.

Marco Giai-Coletti said...

When I started bonsai, I studied as many trees around me as possible and I couldn't understand why no real trees looked like bonsai. Then I read Naka's quote about making the bonsai look like a tree and saw a YouTube clip where Walter explained it by means of a metaphor of people in a cave. That made it clear that nobody was questioning what they were doing. I love my little trees in pots even if they don't look like bonsai.

The conversation is not pointless at all because debate opens minds. Imagine what kind of primitive world we'd be living in if pioneering minds were always silenced. Ironically, Kaizen is at the heart of Japanese industry.

Anonymous said...

I think that Terence Mckenna said it best:

"Culture is your operating system."

Different operating systems can run different software, which form different outputs to the same raw data. Two different people can look at the same bonsai, and hold completely opposite opinions of it.

I think the most you can hope for is to present your bonsai (or any art for that matter) as raw data, and let everybody's software process it their own way and form their own output, without trying to say that another person's output is incorrect or inaccurate.

For each person, their viewpoint is their own reality. Unless they change themselves, opening themselves up to accept that their ideal is not the ideal, then attempting to explain the merits of naturalistic bonsai to someone such as Vance Wood or MichaelS is the equivalent of attempting to run Microsoft Office on Ubuntu Linux. Pointless.