Artists of the floating world

Japanese art aspires to the principles of balance and natural rebirth which underpin the ancient Japanese philosophy of life.
Pine Trees by the painter Hasegawa Tohaku (1539–1610). Credit: Getty Images.
Pine Trees by the painter Hasegawa Tohaku (1539–1610). Credit: Getty Images.
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

The quality we call beauty…
must always grow from the realities of life.

Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows

Japanese aesthetics is a rich field of sensuous knowledge. Even if today we do not want to consolidate differences between cultures, but rather strengthen the similarities between them, we have to consider that the aesthetic cultures of East and West have different processes of development. In short, the development of aesthetic processes in the East has gone from expression in pre-modern times to representation in modern times. In the West, the development of aesthetics has gone the opposite way: from representation towards individualistic expression.

This why we must pass through a threshold if we want to approach a Japanese way of thinking and perceiving aesthetics. First and foremost, this is done through intuition. We have to perceive using our own bodies and senses, rather than by thinking conceptually. This means that there is a need for intimacy by perceiving sensibilities, by being affected by the essence of the material: the sensuous properties of matter as colours, nuances, consistencies, scent and textures. Japanese aesthetics has a dimension preceding reason and cognitive knowledge. Intuitive knowledge is direct, without any need for analyses, arguments or logical reasoning. It is about feeling joy, care and love for an object, and affinity to matter and things. But this interconnectedness with matter is not materialistic. Rather, it is a way of feeling an intimate relation to the subtleness of it, how it is perceived, and how we listen and discern our ability to become attuned to certain affects of reality.

To fully comprehend advanced, developed aesthetic language, we must also understand animism. Animism is the worldview that perceives all things – including objects, places and creatures – as animate and alive. Part of this belief is the idea that non-human powers of different kinds, and to different degrees, also affect human beings and human conditions. Microcosmos – that is, the human being – and the macrocosmic universe are interrelated.

Humans are forms of life in between the cosmic and earthly. In Japanese metaphysics, the body-mind is the place where divine intimacy can be activated and experienced, through different practices. This is why the physical senses and sensuous perceptions are the base for the human experience: to perceive matter through the senses makes it possible for kami, the deities or gods, to enter into matter through the human body and mind. This is the point of departure we must comprehend when we investigate the meaning of Japanese aesthetics – and how it is practised rather than theorised. This animistic perspective also views nature as the process, source and power of life. It sees an ‘aliveness’ or a sense of motion as the most crucial aspect in the evaluation of artistic qualities. All things in nature are in a changing process, in cyclical orbits of different length. Animism relates to Shinto, the oldest Japanese religion. In Shinto, nature is the power, source and process of everything, and a very important aspect of the continuous changing nature of things is an appreciation of the seasons.

According to Chinese philosophy, everything we experience in reality derives from the interplay between the differentiated forces of yin qi and yang qi, as a tension between complementary forces. To have qi is to be alive and the dead are those without qi. Qi and dao are related in this way: qi is the force and dao is the way. Motion and strength were highly valued in the artwork of ancient China and Japan. But qi, or ki in Japanese, is related to many things other than artwork: it is a crucial notion in philosophy, the arts, medicine, martial arts and in qi gong. This gives us an idea of ki as a force of life, also physically transmitted invisibly through the air, through smells and vapours. But there is no abstraction in the understanding of ki. It is an immanent force of a spiritual aspect that is manifested in bodies as well as in material objects: spirit in matter.

According to the critic and writer Donald Richie, elegance is a kind of refinement, ‘of beauty in movement, appearance, or manners; a tasteful opulence in form, decoration, or presentation; a restraint and grace of style. Most of the components of Japanese aesthetics carry this connotation of elegance’.

Many kinds of elegance exist. Each kind expresses something specific. It is a language of aesthetics and the sensuous that has its own grammar. Elegance is socially derived, and therefore aesthetic notions in Japan are theories of taste. Historically, refined tastes developed among the aristocracy and the wealthy. The Heian Court culture in the 11th century was a highly ‘modern’ community, with developed tastes, poetic refinements, elegance in gestures and behaviour, and with rich articulations in language. The writer Murasaki Shikibu (973–1014 AD) who wrote Genji monogatari [The Tale of Genji] is a great source for getting a concrete idea of this sensibility, and she lived over a thousand years before Marcel Proust. In the same class is Sei Shonagon (966–1017 AD), author of The Pillow Book. This text is quite contemporary in its style of writing; it lists what is beautiful or ugly, delightful and funny, as well as descriptions of characters and atmospheres. In the twentieth century, the neo-sensualists Yasunari Kawabata and Junichiro Tanizaki followed up the sensibility of female writers from the Heian era. Yukio Mishima’s writings also give the reader an idea of what Japanese aesthetics is about, in terms of affect, sensibility, restrained passion and the relationship between the concrete and the abstract.

The sensibility to things is visible in everyday activities and objects; flowers, gardens, clothing, food, crafts, architecture and design. The everyday aspect derives from Shinto, which embraces life in its all affirmed aspects. The boundaries between fine art and craft in Japan are porous. Craft is valued as highly as fine art, sometimes more, considering, for instance, the prices of utensils for tea ceremonies and vessels for ikebana [flower arrangement]. The commonplace also derives from Daoism, a philosophy of earthly life, where the art of artlessness is the highest value, and the art of life is the way. An important person for mingei, the folk craft movement in the 1920s–30s in Japan, was Soetsu Yanagi (1889– 1961), a Japanese philosopher.

Tao or dao means ‘the way’, and this is a method – not a theory, but a practice for life and for art. It is a practice with no doctrines or rules, and no texts to interpret or analyse. Tao is an activity that takes place in the body and mind, transforming the practitioner. The idea of tao is that it can be almost anything: a way of art, music, craft, garden design, flower arrangement, pottery, scent, calligraphy or martial arts. It can be a way of searching for enlightenment through introspection. But, nevertheless, tao can also be a way of affirming desire, love and pleasure according to Taoism, which has affected the Japanese way of thinking and acting through the centuries. Tao is a body-mind practice that emphasises the body and the senses. It is an affirmative way of embracing life, and its multiple expressions. All ways are different aspects of immanent life, and are used to explore life and to develop oneself and one’s soul. Thus, the divine and the earthy are tightly entangled in East Asian cosmology.

Calligraphy, origami, pottery, silk textiles, kaiseki ryori [gastronomic food in the setting of tea ceremony], kōdo [the art of fragrance], and ikebana, [flower arrangement] are all examples of ephemeral and perishing art forms, highly valued in Japan because of their momentary aspect. Aware is a literary and aesthetic ideal cultivated during the Heian period (794–1185). It often describes the bitter-sweetness of brief and fading moments: ‘At its core is a deep, emphatic appreciation of the ephemeral beauty manifest in nature and human life, and is therefore tinged with a hint of sadness; under certain circumstances it can be accompanied by admiration, awe, or even joy’. The notion of aware was revived by the doctor and scholar Motoori Norinaga (1730–1801). As the anthology Keys To Japanese Heart and Soul puts it: ‘According to Norinaga, aware is a combination of two interjections a and hare, each of them was uttered spontaneously when one’s heart was profoundly moved’. Norinaga studied literature, and in particular Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji monogatari. He arrived at the conclusion that in pre-modern Japanese aesthetics aware was an important ideal. He coined the notion mono no aware, translated as ‘a deep feeling of things’, or ‘the pathos of things’. In Norinaga’s view, mono no aware is a ‘purified and exalted feeling, close to the innermost heart of man and nature. It tends to focus on the beauty of impermanence and on the sensitive heart capable of appreciating that beauty’.

Aware refers back to Manyōshū, the oldest collection of Japanese poetry in existence, compiled from 759 AD during the Nara period. The meaning of the word is akin to ‘a colour or a perfume to a sentence. It bespoke the sensitive poet’s awareness of a sight or a sound, of its beauty and its perishability’. While its meaning has changed over time, the genealogy of aware is to be found in the Kojiki, (711–12) an ancient Shintoist collection of myths, and the Nihongi, the oldest text of Japanese history, completed in 797 AD. Mono no aware, as Norinaga explains it, has a double meaning: the ‘sorrow, grief and sadness’ is in tandem with ‘happy events’ and ‘funny situations’, and ‘excitement’– and thus aware takes a first step as ‘aesthetic feeling’. The ‘pathos of things’ means, according to professor of aesthetics Ōnishi Yoshinori, ‘the aesthetic excitement and by intuition to the very metaphysical bottom of the ‘universal thing’ and the ‘universal Being”.

We have certainly paid attention to the organisation of space in traditional and contemporary Japanese compositions, whether it is the arrangement of food on small plates, or how to make use of the tokonoma – the niche in the wall for displaying ikebana artwork in the tatami room. We are now facing the concept of void and its importance in Japanese aesthetics. Ku means emptiness, but not in the sense of poverty and lack, it means rather a state of latent, or unactivated, virtual power; a potential for being filled. The negative void of emptiness is always in tension with the positive concreteness of materiality and form. This tension between form and emptiness, matter and void is a law of nature, one that enables a natural and living balance. Ku is a Buddhist concept that also connotes a kind of asceticism. Parallel to ku is the notion of mu – ‘nothingness’. Nothingness is not the same as emptiness; mu is a daoist metaphysical notion that means both nothingness and fullness. The metaphysical enigma is that these states imply the same condition, a great thought to reflect on. The symbol of mu is the circle, enso.

In contemporary Japanese aesthetics we find a kind of refined simplicity. This simplicity is often related to purity, or a sense of sacred cleanliness. Purity is a strong element in Japanese aesthetics, deriving from Shinto practices, namely purification rituals of four different, but related fields: body; matter; mind; and soul. These Shinto rituals of purification have a strong relevance in Japanese secular society today: they are the basis for simplicity and minimalism – in gestures and deportments, organisation of space and arrangement of items, all these visible things have concealed aspects of metaphysical aesthetics. A visible composition includes an invisible aspect, such as attitudes and ideological content, deriving from purification.

Oneness is the point of departure. The source is One, it is eternal, abstract and potential. It is nothingness and fullness at the same time. Darkness is its abode. The Tao Te Ching, in chapter forty-two, describes how tao is related to duality, in Chinese yin yang:

The Tao gives birth to One. One gives birth to Two.
Two gives birth to Three. Three gives birth to all things.

This depicts how oneness and duality are two sides of the process. The source divides itself and becoms two forces; yin and yang, female and male. A tension arises between the positive and negative poles, and this is three – the power of desire. Yin and yang can be comprehended in many symbolic ways – as warm and cold, soft and hard, dark and light.

All things have their backs to the female. And stand facing the male.
When male and female combine,
All things achieve harmony.

There is a bit of yin in yang, and vice versa. These are metaphorical notions, which give us images of metaphysical laws. Desire is the fundament of everything created. All things are related to this bipolarity, and this gives force to development. Desire is the driving force for achieving harmony, and harmony means to be in tune with tao. The states of yin and yang are always in motion. Nothing is fixed, all is continuously changing in different rhythms, and turns from the extreme state of yin to the extreme state of yang and back again. The philosophy of change conveys that motion is the basis for being alive. If things become fixed, they die. Motion generates new energy, including new ideas and the desire to realise them. This is the dynamic process of creation, the development of nature. Thus tao teaches that life is a recycling process. Birth and death lead to rebirth. And rebirth is always as a new figure. Matter is rebirthing as well as beings, and all are interrelated to tao. This is the metaphysical base for all aesthetics. Art forms in Japan are a combination of a strict organised form [kata] and spontaneity of making and of movement. There is a tension and a motion between the fixed and the changeable. Oneness and duality are not contradicting.

In pre-modern times many aesthetic practices were related to both personal and collective transformations of mind and body. Thus, teachings were held in communities, between master and disciples, and were secret teachings. One example of these are those of Zeami Motokiyo. These are based on his experiences of, and thoughts about, the performance art Noh, founded by Motokiyo and his father Kan’ami Kiyotsugu. His most well-known text, Fushikaden [Transmission of Style and the Flower] was written around 1400–18 AD but was only rediscovered in 1908 in a secondhand bookstore in Japan. Deeply related to the art of Noh is the notion of yugen – profound, mysterious, cosmic beauty. It derives from Chinese Taoism, with roots as far back as the 10th century. The first symbol connotes darkness and confinement; a spiritual relation to ghosts and spirits and other worlds, along with: imprisonment; mystery; quiet places; solitude and secluded things; deep water; cosmos; and a cosmic sublime. The same dictionary notes that gen originally described a dark, profound, tranquil colour of the universe. Yugen is linked to the feminine yin in the yin-yang-philosophy. Yin is receptivity and openness, but is also a closure, a spatial womb, and an inner cosmic realm. As we have seen previously, the yin-yang philosophy is about interrelated opposing forces that are continuously changing. Neither force dominates the other; they are reciprocally, fluidly interconnected. Thus, yin-yang thinking does not enhance static ideals; it signifies reversal, stillness as death, and animation as life.

Today the character yūgen, as it is used in Japanese aesthetics, encompasses a meaning close to ‘the beautiful sublime’, one that is defined as dim, weak, faint, and indistinct. It is an immanent notion that departs from the real concreteness of physicality, while sliding from invisibility to visibility as a layered transversal in the between-ness of the real and the phantasmagorical.

The Way of Tea – chado – expresses a view of art as life. It concerns everyday movements, everyday objects. In the art of tea we see how attention is given to proximity values – small scales, ephemeral experiences and hapticity. An aesthetic ideal is the tea master Sen no Rikyu’s (1522–91) taste for the subtle, understated and the subdued. Japanese taste was early on divided into a number of different preferences, or particular aesthetic types: shibui, wabi and sabi. The latter expresses a refined natural style that is imperfect, asymmetrical and austere. This is the taste of the way of tea. Shibui means understated and astringent, and is a medieval notion applied to colour, design, taste, and voice as well as human behaviour. Shibui is an adjective designating ‘a subtle, unobtrusive and deeply moving beauty’ that is austere, subdued, and restrained. The Japanese philosopher Kuki Shuuzo describes shibumi as signifying ‘understated, astringent’ that signifies an inactive relation to the other. He likened it to the tannins of unripe persimmons, or the astringent inner skin of chestnuts. But the connotations in Japanese also include quietness, depth, simplicity and purity. The antonyms are gaudy, showy, boastful and vulgar.

The anthology Keys to the Japanese Heart and Soul outlines the meaning of wabi: ‘an aesthetic and moral principle advocating the enjoyment of a quiet, leisurely life free from worldly concerns. Originating with medieval hermits, it emphasises a simple, austere type of beauty and a serene, transcendental frame of mind’.

As we see, wabi is not only about material properties, but also ethical values related to a life of self-cultivation – and it has a metaphysical meaning. Wabi is a central concept in the aesthetics of the tea ceremony, and is also manifested in poetry as haiku and waka. Sometimes wabi is reduced to being translated as ‘raw’, ‘rough’ or ‘rustic’, which is inadequate – it only depicts its surface. Thus, we have to confront the notion of wabi as something that has both internal and external features. The three parts of wabi are first, simple, unpretentious beauty; secondly, imperfect, irregular beauty, and thirdly, austere, stark beauty.

1. Simple, unpretentious beauty
According to tea master Jakuan Sotaku: ‘wabi means lacking things, having things run entirely contrary to desires, being frustrated in our wishes’. The original sense of wabi, then, embraces disappointment, frustration, and poverty.

Always bear in mind that wabi involves not regarding incapacities as incapacitating, not feeling that lacking something is deprivation, not thinking that what is not provided is deficiency. To regard incapacity as incapacitating, to feel that lack is deprivation, or to believe that not being provided for is poverty is not wabi but rather the spirit of the pauper.

This means the transformation of material insufficiency so that one discovers a world of spiritual freedom unbounded by material things. This feature gives matter an artless, wabi beauty.

Here is a famous image to recall by the tea master Murata Shuko, in Kisho Kurokawa’s Intercultural Architecture, The Philosophy of Symbiosis: ‘A prize horse looks best hitched to a thatched hut’. This means that the unexpected combination of an exclusive horse in conjunction with a very simple hut gives another kind of uncommon and guileless beauty ideal, rather than a general and common view of beauty. It is about artlessness.

2. Imperfect, irregular beauty
Shūko also said: ‘The moon is not pleasing unless partly obscured by a cloud’. Cracks and tears, if properly mended, are not disliked in chado. Utensils do not need to be perfect. There is a famous story about the tea master Sen no Rikyu, prizing a cracked vase at the temple Onjōji. And the Seppo tea bowl is particularly admired because it has been repaired.

3. Austere, stark beauty
This third aspect is about a tranquil, austere beauty, a cool, stark beauty, colourless, and non-vivid, more like an ink wash monochrome. This was Sen no Rikyu’s ideal of ‘spring of grass amid the snow’. At first, this is the extreme of yin, a cold withered beauty; but as there is sign of ‘aliveness’ under the snow ‘it is the merest tinge of yang at the extremity of yin‘.

Sabi is a term that is used in conjunction with wabi, to form the well- known notion of wabi-sabi, often used in terms of Japanese aesthetics and minimalism. ‘Sabi points toward a medieval aesthetics combining elements of old age, loneliness, resignation, and tranquility, yet the colourful and plebeian qualities of Edo-period culture are also present’. This quality is interrelated to wabi, through the viewpoint of simplicity and austerity. The deliberate selection of the simple is a choice to withdraw from the glamour of things. Poverty is not emphasised, but rather, sabi is a conscious decision based on an instinct; a refined taste and the ability to value simplicity because of its elegance, and not from the point of view of status.

The word was originally a verb, sabu, meaning ‘to decay, to fall into ruin’. Sabi can be traced to the poetry of Man’yōshū where the adjective sabushi – ‘lonesome’ – is used.

In medieval poetry, sabi comes to mean ‘withering’, and is thus related to images of winter, colourlessness and bare nature. The poet Basho (1644–94) found sabi in this haiku by his disciple:

Leonard Koren, the author of Wabi-sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers, describes sabi with the nuanced keywords: ‘fragility, imperfection, impermanence, incompletion, irregularity (odd, misshapen, awkward, ugly forms), unpretentiousness (unstudied and unassuming), things modest and humble, things unconventional, and anonymity’ – in other words, ‘a fragile aesthetic ideology’. Moreover, sabi implies a temporal aspect; the word also means ‘rust’. Thus it depicts the metallic patina of rust and the tarnished patina of things used or old. Koren is very precise in his descriptions of how sabi is embodied in matter: ‘discolouration, rust, tarnish, stain, warping, shrinking, shrivelling and cracking. Sabi comes with nicks, chips, bruises, scars, dents, peeling, and other forms of attrition that are testament to histories of use and misuse’.

Iki is a traditional Japanese aesthetic notion; more of a kind of refined taste. The word is still in use, but its meaning today is reduced to the informal word for ‘cool’. Iki is composed of internal and external modalities. It is related to an external trait that is tangible and has a real nuance, texture and body. The internal aspects of iki deal with ethical codes that derive from two sources of self-cultivation; bushido [the way of the warrior, the samurai], and Buddhism. The internal features of iki give it a profound and noble character that cannot be expressed only by means of tangible matter (that also includes the body and its appearance). Iki has developed in an amalgamated, abundant culture, and embodies paradoxical contradictions between ethical codes of behaviour from the codes of bushidō; an urban secular lifestyle of ‘the floating world’ based on pleasure; and the meditative Zen-consciousness of renunciation.

‘A living philosophy must be able to understand reality’ begins the philosopher Shūzo Kuki (1888–1941), who was the main interpreter of the notion of iki in Japan. Iki is composed of internal and external modalities. Iki is recognized by certain sparse, tangible and haptic material qualities or atmospheres. Iki is not a general taste – things that are said to be iki are quite rare – but it is about a certain style. According to Kuki, the intentional structures of iki are three: the basic tonality of iki is bitai, which means a ‘coquetry’ directed at a person of the opposite sex. Kuki claims that ‘iki na koto’ [things iki] connote relationships that are out of the ordinary. It aims to convey a dualistic attitude, a slight erotic tension. This hint at desire is just this – it is not a realisation. And as such, it is ‘protecting a possibility as a possibility’. The second aspect of iki is ikiji, an idealistic mindset: ‘pride and honour’. This sprightly ideal derives from a code of conduct from the moral ideal in Edo culture, the samurai life-style bushidō. The third feature of the intentional structure of iki is akirame, a Buddhist concept that means ‘renunciation’, ‘resignation’, and ‘acceptance’.

Forms of postures, gestures and manners are important aspects of aesthetics in Japan. Kata means form, and bodily form, for those who are acquainted with martial arts. Daily gestures such as pouring tea, rising up from the floor, closing a door, or bowing are made with an awareness of form. Iki can be seen, according to Kuki, in a ‘bending of the perpendicular line through the centre of the body to form a curve’.

‘It is no coincidence that striped designs are considered iki‘, he continues. Vertical stripes represent light rain. Parallel lines express lightness. Stripes in an umbrella formation, or converging to one point, are not expressing iki, according to Kuki: ‘In order to express iki, a design must be visually disinterested and purposeless. Radiating stripes having a centre, have achieved their goal’. And complex patterns do not represent iki either. Patterns containing curves do not normally become a pure expression of iki, and representational design, as opposed to geometric design, never characterises iki, according to Kuki.

Iki is expressed in spatiality as well; when it comes to architecture, iki is distinctly expressed in a dual relationship to forms or material, not in a plurality of mixed forms. The sukiya-style teahouse, which is the simple teahouse in the style of wabi, is the best example of iki architecture, according to Kuki. It is an intimate room of four and a half tatami mats, and invites a contemplative spatiality. The choice of duality in material and form express the iki taste, or awareness: in other words, it is a cultural creation, a construction. The creation of a dual contrast in material structures and textures is an expression of iki. Kuki guides us to look at the ceiling, which has two different textures, and the floor, which has two different materials, tatami and wood. This kind of simple, refined and strict composition are expressions of iki. Iki taste cannot succumb to complexity; it is simple and dualistic, avoiding curved lines. In pattern design iki is expressed through texture and non-figural pattern, and the scale is small.

The genealogy of iki derives from the Edo era in the seventeenth century, and depicts the urban taste of connoisseurs, who visited the pleasure quarters, which were strictly regulated in closed areas. At that time, female artists and entertainers of different social grades worked in these areas. ‘The floating world’ was a subversive subculture, almost totally confined in its own realm, and not accessible for the general population. The highest ranked geisha, the tayu, was a goddess of art and beauty, akin to a non-human creature embodying the essence of shibumi and sabi. Tayus can be compared to the hetaerae in ancient Greece – highly educated courtesans, not simple prostitutes. Their lifestyles were like an embodiment of Nietzsche’s amor fati – a fate that one has to accept, making the most of its potential. They were not depraved women; rather rare artists of the highest rank; musicians, dancers and singers. Gei-sha literally means arts person. They embodied a supra-sensuous ideal.

Daoism, Confucianism, Shintoism and Buddhism are the main think- ing styles that have affected Japanese aesthetics. Metaphysics explores the fundamental nature of reality; life and its existence and relationship with natural laws. This is expressed in the form of ‘arts of self-cultivation’, unique in East Asian art. Arts of self-cultivation in Japan are pottery, calligraphy, ikebana, gardening, Noh and many kinds of crafts, and also martial arts. The self-cultivation aspect derives from both Buddhism and Shinto, and implies many different ways – do – to go in order to seek enlightenment. It is about the process, not the outcome; the object as a result. This means that the aesthetic value lies not in a product, but its values are higher, perishable and ephemeral. In the West, ethics is detached from aesthetics, ever since the philosopher Immanuel Kant divided ethics from aesthetics, leaving aesthetics today to stand independently. Before Kant, the two were interrelated. Things that were beautiful, it was implied, were also true or good. Today we need to rediscover many aesthetic and ethical interrelationships, but we are in need of another way of talking about aesthetics and ethics, beyond the older paradigms. To explore in what ways aesthetics and ethics are related is a new and important issue.

‘Ethics’ in this context means not moral dogma, but individual values and a contextualising of the aesthetic in a broader view than only the field of the arts. This is the main difference between Japanese and Western aesthetics today, regarding the different development of cultural histories. We also have to be reminded that in Japan, there exist two parallel paths of aesthetics: pre-modern Japanese and modernism from the West. Japanese culture is an amalgamation of many different periods of culture, mostly adopted from China’s different dynasties, along with some different religions, philosophies, and thinking styles, and recently, Western modernism.

Japanese intuitions are notions of powers, and express affects. Japanese intuitive notions are compounds of complex codes, which serve as keys to various aesthetic tastes. However, these tastes are not subjective, but operate as collective aesthetic agreements between people, a confirmation of the relevance of these different kinds of purely existing tastes. Reality is described through multiple sets of sensory moods, tastes or compilations of properties of matter. These differ from each other through careful shifts of nuances, and operate as key words, images of taste, or styles.

The delicate articulated notions of beauty and refinement derive from metaphysics, and deal with profound and complex ethical meanings. We can comprehend this adequately only by practice, and through develop- ing an individual discernibility to sensations. Sharing using language; developing a grammar for aesthetic relationships, becomes a collective communication of aesthetic values concerning life and the art of life. This is a way of practice through whatever art form one is inclined to. Only by immersing oneself with one’s body and mind can a transformation take place. The body-mind is the passage. By exploring ways of self-cultivation one is continuously open to change in the thinking and reassessment of one’s own life.

This essay originally appeared under the title ‘From Concrete to Abstract’ in ‘Japan’s Past & Present’, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2020

Elisabet Yanagisawa Avén

Elisabet Yanagisawa Avén has a background as independent fashion artist. She has been lecturer in fashion/costume at Konstfack, Stockholm. Yanagisawa is doctoral student at Gothenburg university in Artistic Research. Her thesis “Proximus sensibilis – the Abyss of the Surface” is about non-representation and artistic processes, intuitive concepts in Japanese aesthetics and congruent aesthetic ontology and epistemology – Spinoza, Bergson and Deleuze. She is curator of historical and contemporary art: at Värmlands Museum she has curated the exhibition of the art collection “Insight & Outlook” (2019); “The Cloud of Unknowing – abstract contemporary art with Sophie Tottie, Madeleine Hatz, Sigrid Sandström, Nina Roos and Martin Erik Andersen (2017); “Japan and Racken” (2017). She is currently teaching at Beckman’s School and works as an independent artist and writer.

Subscribe to Engelsberg Ideas

Receive the Engelsberg Ideas weekly email from our editorial team.

By subscribing, you consent to us contacting you by email. You may unsubscribe at any time, and we’ll keep your personal data safe in accordance with our privacy policy.

Related

A billboard with an image of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is surrounded by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) flags as supporters gather to celebrate election results outside the BJP headquarters in Mumbai in 2019.

The fake history of civilisational states

So-called civilisational states, including Russia, China and India, invoke fake histories to justify and buttress their contemporary political settlements. But those who cannot let go of the past are always at risk of finding themselves imprisoned by it.

Subscribe to Engelsberg Ideas

Receive the Engelsberg Ideas weekly email from our editorial team.

By subscribing, you consent to us contacting you by email. You may unsubscribe at any time, and we’ll keep your personal data safe in accordance with our privacy policy.