Thursday, December 13, 2018

Should it be called "Bonsai"? article in the ABS journal

Saimir Ogranaja has asked me to answer two questions for an article in the journal of American Bonsai Society. The article was published recently. Here my contribution:

American Bonsai or Bonsai in America?
Thoughts of Walter Pall

What's your take on this statement? Since Bonsai is a Japanese word for a Japanese art form, when one is involved in the art of bonsai, they should pay attention to and follow Japanese rules of aesthetics. Just like when one is creating Penjing, they should follow the Chinese rules for Penjing. Ultimately, they're both multi faceted forms of expression comprised of art, craft and spirituality practices. If we grow artistic little trees and don't want to abide by their rules, that's fine but we may want to call it something else entirely. 

Bonsai is indeed a Japanese word. It has also become an international word, used in almost all languages for “tree in a pot“. The whole world thinks that this is a Japanese art form. Well, if anything, then it is Chinese. And is it really an art form?

Japanese bonsai is about discipline, knowing rules, respecting rules, respecting masters, respecting the old ones, not sticking out your head, not trying to be something special, something different etc.. This has made Japan successful. But in art it is a burden. Japanese bonsai is generally not treated as an art form. It is a well defined craft. This is changing right now in America as well as in Europe. In the Eastern view a good artist is one who does what he was taught so well that his master could have done it. In the Western view an artist is one who tries very hard and successfully to find something new, to be different, to excel, to be a rebel. This is the contrary of what one should do in Japan. This schizophrenic situation is causing a lot of confusion and constant pain in the bonsai world. Just go to some public bonsai forums and see for yourself. I see a gradual movement towards the Western way of looking at art coming into bonsai. And this will open the door to a new world. If you are accusing someone to not follow the rules I have the feeling that you are not understanding that it’s his job as artist to do so and the top ones create new rules.
Now that this craft is finally turning into an art form we have to live with the fact that some will change more or less radically what we were used to see as „Japanese traditional bonsai“. Whether we like it or not it is bound to happen. In the original question about the name of this game it was stated that this is fine, but should we not call this a new name? Well, we could, but will it be accepted by the bonsai scene? I am afraid it will not. The word bonsai has become an international word and will be used for whatever seems to be a tree in a container – whether we find this to be correct or not.
Usually much to my own surprise when I post some of my creations instead of praise sometimes I get harsh criticism for being so different. A well known person in Europe who is not so friendly once more or less seriously thought a couple of years ago that my creations should be named „Pallsai“ to make sure that this was clearly different from “Bonsai“. It was not meant well meaning, but I was amused. I thought it would be great if a version of an art form were called that centuries after I am dead. Well, it did not happen. The world calls it „Naturalistic Bonsai Style“ and „Fairy Tale Bonsai Style“, fine with me.
Now if someone wants to make sure that he speaks about the Japanese traditional way of doing bonsai he should call it „Japanese bonsai“. But then one should be aware that there is no such thing as uniform Japanese bonsai. The world is changing in Japan too. What once was considered great, now is old fashioned, when once most did nearly the same, diversity is getting to be the game in Japan as well as in the rest of the world.
The English invented a game and called it football. The rest of the world also plays this game and calls it football. The Americans changed this game to be something entirely different and still call it football. They believe that the world calls the old version of the game soccer now. The rest of the world does not so. Taking this as example: Why don’t we from now on call “bonsai” what we do and demand that the Japanese find a new name for it?

Do they even bother with what "bonsai" is in other parts of the world, or do they just grow miniaturized trees without much concern for Japanese or Chinese doctrine? I'm wondering if the need to label it as "American Bonsai" is only an American need, not met by practitioners in other cultures.

Most sure try to do bonsai “right” in Europe very much like in America. They are trying to follow rules more or less. They think they are doing Japanese bonsai in Europe. But the trend is for much more diversity now and much more freedom. What was “forbidden” up to recently now is fine for many. To be different than the rest is becoming a trend. The fundamentalists in Europe hate this just as they do in America. But they are getting fewer and the mavericks are getting more.
If in America some feel a need for “American Bonsai” in Europe this would be “Italian” of “French” because there is not really much of a feeling of being European. The internet makes us one world and a new trend is moving around everywhere quickly. After Classical Bonsai came Modern Bonsai. I think we can call this new world of bonsai Postmodern Bonsai to differentiate it from what was before. As in the real art world also in bonsai there is much more diversity and styles and trends are running in parallel and not in succession anymore. The cycles in art used to take decades if not even centuries in the old days. Now the cycles can be measured in months.