Nearly all the arts in historical China and Japan derive their aesthetic principles from Taoism and Zen Buddhism. The two great philosophical traditions proved compatible specifically with the culture and psychology of Japan. The hallmark of a Chinese or Japanese masterpiece free of modern influence continues to be the naturalness and uncontrived, even "accidental" appearance of the work. The artist works with and harmonizes nature and its universal accidents. The guiding principles are wabi and sabi.
"The term wabi-sabi suggests such qualities as impermanence, humility, asymmetry, and imperfection. These underlying principles are diametrically opposed to those of their Western counterparts, whose values are rooted in the Hellenic worldview that values permanence, grandeur, symmetry, and perfection. ...
Wabi-sabi is an intuitive appreciation of a transient beauty in the physical world that reflects the irreversible flow of life in the spiritual world. It is an understated beauty that exists in the modest, rustic, imperfect, or even decayed, an aesthetic sensibility that finds a melancholic beauty in the impermanence of all things." (Juniper, Andrew)
The contrast to Western principles of aesthetics is rooted in the contrast to Western philosophical premises of power, authority, dominance, engagement, and control, whether of others or of nature. The art produced by such a culture is a visual and tactile expression of its values. The two cannot be separated. Nor, on the other hand, are wabi and sabi usually separated in wabi-sabi art.
The design principles of wabi-sabi fall into several categories; of course fine arts like poetry, drama, and literature, have not physical objects, embody these principles in a different way:
Seven Aesthetic Principles
Chan's aesthetic principles are seven. The three core principles are simplicity, tranquility, and naturalness.
Simplicity is application of the minimum and the appropriate. No more than these is ever needed, yet a profundity of aesthetic experience results. Tranquility suggests the quality of feeling refreshed and touched within, but with solace and calm, not excitement or over-stimulation. Naturalness is the avoidance of contrivance. The artist attempts to make the artwork appear to have always been part of nature, as if no human intervention ever took place. The object (a garden, a path, even a fence) seems to have been a propitious result of natural accidents.
From wabi come two core principles: non-attachment and subtle profundity.
Non-attachment gives the work its fresh and original feeling. The object is somehow familiar but does not depend on anything else. Subtle profundity is the notion of depth. Chan calls it the "intimation of inexhaustibility." The term inexhaustibility is better than Wordsworth's "immortality," for here the object resounds within us and itself with endless possibilities and nuances, at once hidden and successively revealed.
From sabi come two core principles: austere sublimity and asymmetry.
Asymmetry rejects symmetry in form and balance in order to conform to nature. It is a balance of object against space, of place and proportion. As noted, this is the opposite of historically Western aesthetics, where painting, music, and poetry all conform to an almost mathematical prescription for symmetry. Austere sublimity reduces the object and its context to the essential. All non-essentials burden the viewer and interfere with the aesthetic experience, so that the object, now bereft of the superfluous, conveys the sublime. This is minimalism of a sort but not modernism by any means. Austere sublimity maintains a strong emotive element.
Of course, aesthetic principles remain abstractions if not applied to our lives as much as to art. This application can be made in pursuing the various arts and crafts or creating the elements of our daily environment. While aesthetics may move us to change our relationships to material objects in our daily lives, they should provide essential insight into our culture. The principle of simplicity, organic sources and harmony with nature have practical application for a philosophy of life and for what may be called a philosophy of solitude, a politics of simplicity, or even a politics of eremitism. As Juniper concludes,
Wabi-sabi, as a tool for contemplation and a philosophy of life, may now have an unforeseen relevance as an antidote to the rampant unraveling of the very social fabric which has held [us] together for so long. Its tenets of modesty and simplicity encourage a disciplined unity while discouraging overindulgence in the physical world. It gently promotes a life of quiet contemplation and a gentle aesthetic principle that underscores a meditative approach. Wabi-sabi demotes the role of the intellect and promotes an intuitive feel for life where relationships between people and their environments should be harmonious. By embodying the spirit to remind itself of its own mortality, it can elevate the quality of human life in a world that is fast losing its spirituality.
Koren, Leonard. Wabi-sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 1994.
Juniper, Andrew. Wabi-sabi: the Japanese Art of Impermanence. Boston: Tuttle, 2003.
Chan, Peter. Bonsai Master Class. New York: Sterlin, 1988.