It has taken a long time for western thinking to get its head around the idea of beauty in decay; I am lucky, I grew up conscious of the post-war beat generation inspired creative youth subcultures such as punk and grunge which espoused and visualised 'anti-aesthetics' as a reaction to ever-increasing saccharine and sanitisation. But these cultures were 'sub' they were not mainstream, frowned upon and treated with disdain. However, the mainstream marketers tapped into these subcultures, sanitised them to the point where they have lost their political meaning and now we have TopShop selling Clash and Nirvana t-shirts.
In Buddhist thought, as opposed to traditional Hellenic western attitudes, there is no duality, and therefore is ambivalent to any 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 structure of idealised and cherished eternal youth and wealth, decay is perpetually replaced in our artificial and technologised world, alternatively, the values found in wabi-sabi aesthetics dictate that beauty is coaxed out of ugliness. Natural formation conserves beauty and the closer things come to their state of non-existence, the more exquisite and exceptional they become.
Nature and animals, as existing things, are beautiful in their own right but they do not exist with the knowledge of their beauty and likewise, the same can be said of humans as a species being beautiful in themselves (‘souls do not inhabit nature; they are nature itself’ (Cazenave, 2012), but the consciousness of divided perception of what beauty is sets us apart. As the order of the universe doesn't require beauty, beauty is something other, something mysterious; a feeling, an essence, a perception. 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 beauty of Wabi-Sabi is, in one respect, the condition of coming to terms with what you consider ugly. 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).
Jacobo Siruela's introduction to Masao Yamamoto’s Small Things in Silence (2020) articulates relationships between a return to nature/origin/source and how nature ultimately defines beauty through impermanence. Siruela asks 'But what is nature in its primordial state? Plainly and simply, it is beauty' - and as impermanence is the key defining aspect of nature, we can say that beauty is also defined by impermanence. Siruela refers to beauty being the eternal 'central enigma in art...a yearning, a goal never attained,' which has consequently been almost relegated from modern art. But this unattainability is not singularly to blame for a lack of spiritual value in modern art, it is the demise of spirituality itself in many respects - whilst spirituality is not defined by religion, it is worth noting that religion is in sharp decline (Inglehart, 2020). Nevertheless, beauty is not found in divinity, ‘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), it is the harmonious natural result and consequence of everything that exists, everything that is being. If the truths of life are found in that which is simply being, then beauty is defined by the interminable chain of being.
In reference to wabi-sabi aesthetics, 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).
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.
Inglehart, Ronald F. (2020) Giving Up On God, The Global Decline of Religion. Foreign Affairs [online] Available at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/world/2020-08-11/religion-giving-god?utm_medium=promo_email&utm_source=lo_flows&utm_campaign=registered_user_welcome&utm_term=email_1&utm_content=20210712 [Accessed: 25.06.21]
Lansink, Margaret (2019) Natsukashii, Borders of Nothingness - On the Mend. Available at: https://margaretlansink.com/Borders-of-Nothingness-On-the-Mend-1