In Buddhist thought, as opposed to traditional Hellenic attitudes, there is no duality or distinction between what is beautiful (new, divine, symmetrical, regular) and non-beautiful (old, asymmetrical, irregular, ugly). Jacobo Siruela suggests this is what Rodin was talking about when he claimed ‘in nature, everything is beautiful’ (Gsell, 1910). In a materialistic and technologised world of idealised eternal youth and wealth, decay is perpetually replaced. However, the values in wabi-sabi aesthetics dictate that beauty is coaxed out of ugliness because natural formation conserves beauty - the closer things come to their state of non-existence, or the more something undesirable is embraced more exquisite, stronger and exceptional they become.
Kintsugi (金継ぎ, 'golden joinery', also known as kintsukuroi 金繕い, 'golden repair'), the ancient art of mending broken ceramics with gold lacquer, serves as a philosophical metaphor for embracing our own 'cracks' and by learning to accept and embrace our flaws we can become stronger and more beautiful because of it. Margaret Lansink has incorporated this practice in her Borders of Nothingness photography project to reflect on the flaws in her broken and now mended relationship with her previously estranged daughter (see fig.1).
Nature and animals, as existing things, are beautiful in their own right but they do not exist with the knowledge of their beauty. The same can be said of humans as a species being beautiful in themselves, Jon Casenave said ‘souls do not inhabit nature; they are nature itself’ (Cazenave, 2012). The consciousness of a divided perception of beauty is what sets us apart. Beauty is a subjective idealism living in the human heart and gaze. It is these idealistic human constructs that have led us to operate in dualistic terms - dualisms that distinguish 'flaws' between permanence and impermanence, perfection and imperfection and completeness and incompleteness.
The universe doesn't require beauty. Beauty is something other, something mysterious; a feeling, an essence, a perception. Leonard Koren stated "Wabi-sabi suggests that beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else. Beauty can spontaneously occur at any given moment given the proper circumstances, context or point of view. Beauty is thus an altered state of consciousness, an extraordinary moment of poetry and grace" (Koren, 1994:51). Koren is not only talking about perception but is also alluding to spatial-temporal dynamics.
In writing the introduction to Masao Yamamoto’s Small Things in Silence (2020), Jacobo Siruela articulates how nature ultimately defines beauty through impermanence. Siruela asks 'But what is nature in its primordial state? Plainly and simply, it is beauty'. If impermanence is the key defining aspect of nature, we can say that beauty is also defined by impermanence.
Siruela also refers to beauty as the 'central enigma in art...a yearning, a goal never attained'. He asserts that 'beauty' has been almost relegated from modern art but suggests this unattainability is less responsible for the lack of spiritual value in modern art than the demise of spirituality itself. Nevertheless, beauty is not found in divinity as Siruela points out: ‘Beauty can no longer be idealistic; our age is not even in a position to claim such transcendence. We are too prosaic; and not dreamers enough. The sense of beauty cannot return through transcendence but through impermanence.’ (Siruela in Yamamoto, 2020). Impermanence is the harmonious natural result and consequence of everything that exists, beauty is defined by the interminable chain of being.
Koren, Leonard (1994) Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. California: Imperfect Publishing.
Gsell, Paul. (1910). Rodin on realism. He Interprets the Beauty of Ugliness, (trans. from La Revenue) Boston Evening, 15.03.10.
Yamamoto, Masao. (2020) Small Things in Silence. RM Verlag SL; 1st edition.
Lansink, Margaret (2019) Natsukashii, Borders of Nothingness - On the Mend. Available at: https://margaretlansink.com/Borders-of-Nothingness-On-the-Mend-1