Wabi-sabi for artists, designers, poets and philosophers
A Japanese term defines an aesthetic, a philosophy, and a way of life governed by the modest beauty of imperfection, and this book provides a wonderful introduction...
Attempts to define beauty are as old as the idea of beauty itself. But the aesthetic feeling always bears something indescribable, a quality which, rather than appealing to our rationality is born of our intuition, somewhere without a name inside us, in a region to which words rarely have access. For this reason, among many others, the book Wabi-sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers, by Leonard Koren, has a special value. The book is dedicated to defining the Japanese term —a word once unknown in the West, and a word known everywhere now, especially in works on Japanese aesthetics and philosophy.
Published for the first time in 1994, and republished in 2008, this small book might be described, above all, as a simple one. It’s possible to read it in one or two hours. Even its editorial quality emulates the wabi-sabi, a concept defined by Koren as: “a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional.” In Japan, these principles touch on aesthetics, spirituality and philosophy, but also on the pragmatism of everyday life, equivalent to the precepts of beauty which still apply in the West and which we’ve inherited from the Greeks —powerful as they were in their influence.
Koren begins by setting a provisional definition for the term, but not before assuring that, although the wabi-sabi is an intrinsic part of the life of any Japanese person, when one asks for a definition, commonly, one is left without words: this fact reinforces the difficulty of the definition of the concept, at least through spoken language. Wabi-sabi has been called “the Zen of things” as it exemplifies many of the spiritual and philosophical principles of this philosophy.
Giving a brief history of the term, Koren launches into a description of the universe of wabi-sabi starting with its metaphysical base: everything in the universe is directed towards or comes from nothing. Then the author describes the three main spiritual values of the concept: 1) truth arises from the observation of nature, 2) “greatness” exists in ignored and inconspicuous details, and 3) beauty may be extracted from ugliness.
In its most pragmatic aspect, the wabi-sabi defends two central principles: an acceptance of the inevitable and an appreciation for the cosmic order. Moral principles include ridding ourselves of everything we don’t need and focusing on intrinsic qualities, while ignoring material hierarchies.
Wabi-sabi, defined by Koren as an aesthetic system, suggests and emulates the processes of nature and, therefore, celebrates the irregular, the intimate, the unpretentious, the earthly and the simple. The book is a discreet and brief treasure, especially for those with minds inclined toward the artistic, the aesthetic, and toward philosophical tasks, because Koren succeeds in delineating with words (in an attempt of defining something nearly indefinable) a term whose very nature largely exceeds words.
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