Monday, March 7, 2016

Dear Arthur, dear Walter

Hello Walter,

I apologize for the length of time it has taken me to respond to your last letter. All of a sudden I find myself completely swamped at work, with so much to be done with the trees and outside in the garden, too. I expect you are experiencing this as well, although I do not know how closely the seasons correlate between my part of the world and yours. Added to this horticultural demand I also have a concentration of off-site educational programs at this time of year and the time commitment to these activities is substantial. Which reminds me - soon you will be sitting in judgement of the next bonsai generation! Good luck with that, and I hope your nerves do not get the better of you.

A little while back you shared here a comment from a reader of your blog regarding our open discussion:
Walter Pall wrote:Some may know that I copy this Arthur/Walter conversation on my blog. Here a comment by Christopher Schmuck:


...We all alter our natural environments in one way or another and in doing so separate ourselves from our natural roots. With the rise of civilization comes buildings, pavement, technology, man-made structures and devices created to make our lives easier. Perhaps somewhere along the way we have removed ourselves from our original environment. We plant trees, shrubs, and flowers in parks, yards, and gardens in an effort to redevelop a place where tranquility and a peace-of-mind can be found. When we do so we strive to bridge the gap between humanity and nature...

This is a good statement regarding what I think is a critical element of our impulse to cultivate miniature trees and landscapes. The one alteration I would advise is to make it more declarative: We HAVE removed ourselves from our original environment. There is no question about this, and we (as a species) did it with the greatest intent! Apparently our forebears found it discomforting to be hunted down and killed by hungry carnivores, or endlessly harassed by parasites, while spending the greater part of their waking hours scrounging around for something to eat or searching for a warm, dry, protected place to sleep at night. Throughout our collective history we humans have sought to insulate ourselves from the brutal realities of life in nature. We have succeeded to a substantial degree, too, so much so that a great many of us find ourselves longing to reconnect with certain elements of nature we miss, since beating the whole unruly mess of it into some crude form of submission. Wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, national forests, state and community parks all do this on a larger scale, and home gardens, pets and plants in pots do this on a personal scale. I think the inclination to reconnect to nature (excluding the uncomfortable parts where we get eaten by other creatures or die from exposure to the elements) is certainly being expressed by people doing bonsai, but in varying degrees of consciousness from person to person.

It is worth noting that there is a distinct difference between Classical, Neoclassical and Modern bonsai styles on the one hand, and Naturalistic bonsai on the other, as regards the relationship between the human being and the subject plant. In all cases the human assumes the superior position in the relationship. In the classical, neoclassical and modern styles, however, the human domination of nature is front and center in the concept, with abstraction firmly winning out over any inclination toward messy realism. Naturalistic style is predicated on the observation of nature and there is conscious effort to convey as much as possible of what has been observed. Naturalistic bonsai still involves manipulation of the plant by a human, it is still ultimately an abstraction of nature, but within that style of work the human consciously tries to be on a more balanced plane with the natural world. The bonsai naturalist seeks to learn more about the ways of trees in nature and have that knowledge inform the design of his/her trees in pots. In the other styles, there is a relatively small pool of pre-determined, acceptable forms - templates, if you will - and the grower's objective is to mold the material of the plant into one of them. Naturalistic bonsai is more free-form, intuitive and emotional. Classical, Neoclassical and Modern bonsai are more clearly defined, lend themselves well to standardization and bonsai when done in these styles is more of an intellectual pursuit. True, the deadwood component of modern bonsai tends toward the more free-form, intuitive mode, but the desired look is one of fantasy and not of nature (plus it apparently needs to be clean and neat and really, really white.)

Going back to the subject of possible motivation for doing bonsai, I want to reference something posted a good while back by IBC member Richard S. The whole entry is worth rereading (here is a link: http://ibonsaiclub.forumotion.com/t12772p540-american-bonsai-at-the-nc-arboretum#172587 ), but let me here quote a couple of particularly pertinent parts:
Richard S wrote:
Anyway, it seems to me that the ultimate objective of all art is to express something of the emotional relationship between the artist and their subject. But what, in bonsai terms, is the subject?

The obvious and intuitive answer of course is trees, which to some extent I suppose must be true but I think that for most of us it goes a little deeper than that.

I would argue that the tree is in fact the medium not the subject! The subject is in fact nature or perhaps even man's relationship with nature...

Then again, perhaps for some the subject isn't Nature or Trees? Perhaps it's Orientalism or Japanese art & culture?...

I think Richard was feeling his way around this topic at the time, because what he wrote and the way he wrote it indicate a good deal of doubt in his mind. But I have few doubts about this any more. I have been thinking about it for more than 20 years now, and I think at this point the picture has come mostly into focus for me.

In bonsai, plants (typically trees, but also shrubs, vines and herbaceous species) are the medium. The subject is not nature by itself but the human relationship to it. Those many bonsai practitioners who favor imitation of the Classical style, a Japanese construct, may very well be expressing what is for them a more broad appreciation of Japanese art and culture. I shy away from the term "Orientalism" because it has shadings of cultural insult in its lumping together of a broad swath of diverse peoples from a vast area, but the term has some legitimacy in this application. Westerners who do Neoclassical bonsai are indeed engaging in a form of Orientalism, although I think there are quite a few who do it unknowingly. At the very least, neoclassicists are parroting the view of the human relationship with nature that held sway in Japan in the middle of the 20th century. It is often said that Japanese culture shows a close affinity for nature and I would not argue against it, but it seems to me that their traditional concept of nature is largely one of keeping it under tight control. Classical, and by extension neoclassical, bonsai presents a view of nature that has been cleaned up and made more comforting and understandable through the agency of coherent organization.

Bonsai modernists, on the other hand, are still expressing themselves through a style that had its origin in Japan, although I think Orientalism plays a much less significant role in this case. I like the term "Modern" for this style! Modernism in its original construction, which had nothing to do with bonsai, is a philosophy that arose in the late 19th and early 20th century. It is a product of industrialism and technology, the explosion of human population and the growth of cities. In my conception of it, modernism is a completely human-centric ideal. Modern bonsai takes the neatly organized and smoothed out view of nature embodied by classical and neoclassical bonsai and heightens it to an extreme. It is no longer a matter of concern that a bonsai should even faintly resemble a tree in nature. Instead, we have a vision of trees as reinvented by the human mind, new and improved! Modern style bonsai takes the medium of plants and uses it to express the human fascination with our own ability to subjugate nature an remake the world in our own image.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who follows my IBC thread that I am now completely given over to naturalistic bonsai. My own personal motivation for doing bonsai is to heighten my awareness of nature, particularly wild trees, and to creatively share my appreciation of these things with other like-minded people, and naturalistic style feeds directly into both of those objectives. It is also a stimulating challenge to work in that more free-form, intuitive way, calling upon knowledge built up over years of studying first hand the forms of trees growing in nature. I have another reason for doing bonsai, and it too, as it happens, works best with a naturalistic approach. That reason is perhaps the most important of all for me, and is, in fact, the very point I have been working up to with these open letters to you, with this whole "American Bonsai at the NC Arboretum" thread. It will have to wait, however, until the next time I write you.

In the meantime, I wonder - what is your motivation for doing bonsai? I know it is not primarily for the sake of making money, because I see no signs in you of a person under financial duress. You are retired from your original profession after what was apparently a successful career, and you could just as well have whiled away your waning years playing golf. Your enormous need for the spotlight might be seen as a motivating factor, but you are talented enough that you might have projected yourself out into the world in some other line of endeavor. You might have gone into politics and run for Chancellor of Germany, for example. But instead you chose to design little trees. Why, Walter?


Hello Arthur,

[quote="Arthur Joura"]I think the inclination to reconnect to nature (excluding the uncomfortable parts where we get eaten by other creatures or die from exposure to the elements) is certainly being expressed by people doing bonsai, but in varying degrees of consciousness from person to person.[/quote]

I think so too. I find that folks who live in cities and especially those who never lived in the countryside have a very romantic view of nature and bonsai. Often they are over-idealizing nature – not seeing how ugly and brutal nature can also be.

[quote="Arthur Joura"]It is worth noting that there is a distinct difference between Classical, Neoclassical and Modern bonsai styles on the one hand, and Naturalistic bonsai on the other, as regards the relationship between the human being and the subject plant. In all cases the human assumes the superior position in the relationship. In the classical, neoclassical and modern styles, however, the human domination of nature is front and center in the concept, with abstraction firmly winning out over any inclination toward messy realism. Naturalistic style is predicated on the observation of nature and there is conscious effort to convey as much as possible of what has been observed. Naturalistic bonsai still involves manipulation of the plant by a human, it is still ultimately an abstraction of nature, but within that style of work the human consciously tries to be on a more balanced plane with the natural world. The bonsai naturalist seeks to learn more about the ways of trees in nature and have that knowledge inform the design of his/her trees in pots. In the other styles, there is a relatively small pool of per-determined, acceptable forms - templates, if you will - and the grower's objective is to mold the material of the plant into one of them. Naturalistic bonsai is more free-form, intuitive and emotional. Classical, Neoclassical and Modern bonsai are more clearly defined, lend themselves well to standardization and bonsai when done in these styles is more of an intellectual pursuit. True, the deadwood component of modern bonsai tends toward the more free-form, intuitive mode, but the desired look is one of fantasy and not of nature (plus it apparently needs to be clean and neat and really, really white.)[/quote]

Great, this is music in my ears. You got it.

[quote="Arthur Joura"][quote="Richard S"]
Anyway, it seems to me that the ultimate objective of all art is to express something of the emotional relationship between the artist and their subject. But what, in bonsai terms, is the subject?

The obvious and intuitive answer of course is trees, which to some extent I suppose must be true but I think that for most of us it goes a little deeper than that.

I would argue that the tree is in fact the medium not the subject! The subject is in fact nature or perhaps even man's relationship with nature...

Then again, perhaps for some the subject isn't Nature or Trees? Perhaps it's Orientalism or Japanese art & culture?... [/quote]

I think Richard was feeling his way around this topic at the time, because what he wrote and the way he wrote it indicate a good deal of doubt in his mind. But I have few doubts about this any more. I have been thinking about it for more than 20 years now, and I think at this point the picture has come mostly into focus for me.

In bonsai, plants (typically trees, but also shrubs, vines and herbaceous species) are the medium. The subject is not nature by itself but the human relationship to it. Those many bonsai practitioners who favor imitation of the Classical style, a Japanese construct, may very well be expressing what is for them a more broad appreciation of Japanese art and culture. I shy away from the term "Orientalism" because it has shadings of cultural insult in its lumping together of a broad swath of diverse peoples from a vast area, but the term has some legitimacy in this application. Westerners who do Neoclassical bonsai are indeed engaging in a form of Orientalism, although I think there are quite a few who do it unknowingly. At the very least, neoclassicists are parroting the view of the human relationship with nature that held sway in Japan in the middle of the 20th century. It is often said that Japanese culture shows a close affinity for nature and I would not argue against it, but it seems to me that their traditional concept of nature is largely one of keeping it under tight control. Classical, and by extension neoclassical, bonsai presents a view of nature that has been cleaned up and made more comforting and understandable through the agency of coherent organization.

Bonsai modernists, on the other hand, are still expressing themselves through a style that had its origin in Japan, although I think Orientalism plays a much less significant role in this case. I like the term "Modern" for this style! Modernism in its original construction, which had nothing to do with bonsai, is a philosophy that arose in the late 19th and early 20th century. It is a product of industrialism and technology, the explosion of human population and the growth of cities. In my conception of it, modernism is a completely human-centric ideal. Modern bonsai takes the neatly organized and smoothed out view of nature embodied by classical and neoclassical bonsai and heightens it to an extreme. It is no longer a matter of concern that a bonsai should even faintly resemble a tree in nature. Instead, we have a vision of trees as reinvented by the human mind, new and improved! Modern style bonsai takes the medium of plants and uses it to express the human fascination with our own ability to subjugate nature an remake the world in our own image.[/quote]

Wow! I am moved to read all this. We have come a long way in the past fifteen or so years. I remember well that my first writings were a bit clumsy about this as the idea was so new and someone had to try to pout it in words. Now this sounds so smooth and philosophical – really sophisticated.


[quote="Arthur Joura"]In the meantime, I wonder - what is your motivation for doing bonsai? I know it is not primarily for the sake of making money, because I see no signs in you of a person under financial duress. You are retired from your original profession after what was apparently a successful career, and you could just as well have whiled away your waning years playing golf. Your enormous need for the spotlight might be seen as a motivating factor, but you are talented enough that you might have projected yourself out into the world in some other line of endeavor. You might have gone into politics and run for Chancellor of Germany, for example. But instead you chose to design little trees. Why, Walter?[/quote]

Yea! Chancellor of Germany. Why not President of the USA? The time has come for all sorts of outsiders, for lateral thinkers, for rebels, for folks who stir the pot! Yes, indeed I seem to be one of them. But Chancellor? This would be the ultimate punishment.

Why am I doing bonsai? Ask my psychiatrist. Sigmund Freud was quoted telling the story of someone having asked him to help an obviously lunatic great artist. He said 'sure I could help him, but then he would stop to be a great artist'.

It takes really a lot of insanity to do what I did. Around 25 year s ago I left a very well paid high level job in an highly reputed industry to be poor from then on, to be a bonsai gardener who tries to be an artist. Well in a nutshell: my wife is still with me! What a great wife to have!

When I was very young I remember that frequently art was an important subject at the family breakfast table. Many of my relatives were some sort of artist: theater actor, singer, poet, composer (the sister of Schubert is one of my ancestors), lunatics everywhere. On both sides, father and mother. One of these sticks out – my grandfather, the father of my mother. He was a professional painter, making a living painting people and landscapes. I have never met the man as he died one day after my birthday as a soldier of the German Reich. What I understood was that he HAD to paint in the German Realistic Style. AH had only one field where he was actually trained professionally. This was painting. He failed to ever be able to make a living as painter. His education and frame of mind were backwards looking, holding on to the thinking of before the beginning of the 20th century - old-fashioned realistic, contrived way of doing the art. When he had made a career as Chancellor (here we are again) he insisted in ruling the way painting had to be done in Germany. At one point there was the infamous burning of Degenerated Art. Hundreds of great modern paintings were burned in public to show to the world what was good and what was bad art. My grandfather somehow had suffered form the fact that extreme fundamentalists had commanded him to paint in a certain way to be able to make a living while his heart was more with modern ways. He believed much in the freedom of artists – which did not happen in his world. Our family believed that artists not only had the right but the duty to be free, to go new ways, to do the unthinkable, to think outside the box.
I definitely wanted to become an artist. While I had lots of talents in many fields it was painting that intrigued me a lot.
When I was around 14 my father had a long talk to me. He was a very successful famous theater actor at the 'best German speaking Theater' before the war and never returned afterwards. He made it clear that about the worst profession I could choose was some sort of artist. They do not make many to feed a family. And the art world is full of bitterness, of envious folks who try to ruin you as soon as you stick your head out above them. An artist has to prostitute himself to be successful. How right my father was! So the decision was to NOT become an artist and choose some honest profession instead.
The other thing I remember very well is that we were keen gardeners after the war. It was normal for folks who had a garden to grow vegetables to feed a family at that time. But in addition we had what I remember as the most affluent flower garden in town. I remember folks walking by never missed to stop and look over our fence to see the wonders. So gardening in every form was one of my favorite pastimes and interest too. But it was made clear to me that gardening was certainly not a profession that a gifted person like me should ever wish to do for serious other than as hobby.
Another thing that I remember well is the family's urge to excel. The best garden in the district, the best skier in the country – no, in the world. I remember my father saying in all earnest 'WE don't do it below world champion'. And all of my sisters became world class skiers, one got an Olympic gold medal in downhill racing. In Austria (by that time Austria was again a self sufficient country, not wanting to have anything to do with Germany) this is more than becoming Pope. So poor little me, while I was the better skier I was a male.

Many years later I had made a career in an honest field, being very well able to feed a family. The future looked bright - from outside. But I was not really happy.
And then I found bonsai around the year 1979. When I understood what it was about I realized that bonsai was invented just for me. A very complex very demanding art form combined with very high level gardening skill required. And it was peaceful, good for a person who likes to work alone, healthy, not costing much, no need to fight the world, n o need to prostitute myself. This because I managed to fix it in such a way that I do not depend on making money with it – while I, of course, will always take some fee because one cannot have enough trees or pots. And then I see the world on someone else's budget. There are worse professions around.

I do bonsai because I have to. I have some ideas why that is so, but maybe I am wrong. I only know that it is my life and it will not cease to be. Chancellor!!! What a ridiculous idea. A chancellor would have almost no time for bonsai! Life is possible without bonsai, I admit – but it would make no sense.


And my father was right!

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