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Wabi-sabi (wikipedia.org)
63 points by wslh on Oct 16, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 33 comments

This concept is useful, but I believe the wikipedia page is inaccurate in its description. For instance, I don't think that Ryōan-ji (the famous rock garden) illustrates wabi-sabi at all, and the teahouse is marginal. The teacup, on the other hand, is excellent.

The long narrative history of older meanings of the two words is also not very helpful. Here's a much better summary (http://www.nobleharbor.com/tea/chado/WhatIsWabi-Sabi.htm) that reads in part:

"So now we have wabi, which is humble and simple, and sabi, which is rusty and weathered. And we've thrown these terms together into a phrase that rolls off the tongue like Ping-Pong. Does that mean, then, that the wabi-sabi house is full of things that are humble, plain, rusty, and weathered? That's the easy answer. The amalgamation of wabi and sabi in practice, however, takes on much more depth."

And I don't think ikebana (floral arrangement) is generally a reflection of wabi-sabi, much less haiku (section entitled "Wabi-sabi in Japanese arts").

Anyway, kind of a mess. Someone should fix that ;-)

"Wabi sabi" is a not a commonly used (or known) term in contemporary Japan, although it has been popularised in western art circles to exemplify a Japanese art. A more used term in Japan (as far as I have been told - I am not Japanese myself) which has a related meaning is 'mono no aware' ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mono_no_aware ).

[edit] to plug a book on Japanese culture (as it was, rather than as it is now) to anyone with the time or interest, I highly recommend Bernard Rudofsky's 1965 book 'The Kimono Mind'.

Mild disagree on your first sentence: It has featured prominently in several TV profiles of local artists, including in self-aware commentary by artists about the aesthetic values they are aiming for. It's entirely possible that a Japanese person might not be familiar with it, in the same manner that baroque might be a baroque reference to many Americans, but my impression is that it is well within the realm of 常識. My wife (Japanese) was surprised when I asked her to confirm that.

I do agree that it gets thrown about as The Essential Guide To The Monolithic Japanese Art Tradition quite frequently on the other side of the Pacific, though. (Those are sarcasm caps.)

I just read this yesterday in the New Yorker piece about JD.[1]

  When he was a teen-ager, Dorsey told me, he read a book about tea
  ceremonies and was impressed by the Japanese precept of wabi-sabi,
  which holds that the greatest beauty comes from organization with a
  dash of disorder. “The monks rake up leaves, then they sprinkle a few
  leaves back,” he explained.

From the timestamp and the URL — Oct 21 — was it published too early?

It's not abnormal to see time stamps like that with print publications - they often publish to the web in advance of the print edition coming out, but it makes sense to use the print edition as the 'reference' edition when it comes to dating articles.


Just noticed that part.

From Wikipedia:

  Started as a weekly in 1925, the magazine is now published
  47 times annually, with five of these issues covering two-
  week spans.
Perhaps that's when its slated to appear in the print edition?

This is an excellent term to throw around carelessly with your designer friends.

My wabi-sabi based startup just raised $100m.

Reminds me of one of my favorite bits of rock criticism from the early oughts, Farm Report Wabi Sabi:


'Then my favorite fellow Bubba, Jesse Gutierrez, came by to swallow some beers. He told me that he’s been studying Japanese esthetics, and that what I was talking about was "wabi-sabi," the beauty of the humble and the imperfect. Wabi-sabi, declaimed Jesse, his thumbs hooked into the straps of his overalls, was developed to its height by 15th-century tea masters who found that the finish of Chinese Ming porcelain began to cloy. They started buying and exalting absolutely plain Korean peasant ware, stuff that was cracked, distressed, flawed. It reminded them of the beauty of nature, autumn leaves on a stone path.'

I love how the East codifies aesthetics like this. My favorite is shibui which loosely translated (i'm told) means that every single detail of the object is simultaneously both useful and beautiful.

It's mostly a Japanese thing. In Chinese we don't have a lot of words for particular aesthetic qualities. However, if you want profane homophonic puns or pithy four-word idioms ...

Is "pithy four-word idiom," in Chinese, a pithy four-word idiom?

Yes, if "四字成语" counts.

So it's not an idiom and the word "pithy" isn't in there, so it isn't quite as recursive as TLA.

Or maybe we had, but lost them in the history.

You probably lost those words when Qin Shi Huang decided to burn all the (non-legalist) books and bury all the scholars [1]...but there is always YinYang (also Taoism), which at least emphasizes contrasts. Let a hundred schools of thought flourish!

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burning_of_books_and_burying_of...

Well Yin and Yang has more to do with philosophy than aesthetics and is used in martial arts and TCM rather than in design or art, so it doesn't really correspond.

Sort of weird to lump a whole region together. I'd agree though that traditional Japanese aesthetics include a lot of great descriptive terms: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_aesthetics

Saw your first sentence coming. Just getting past read the generalization "East" in the parent comment and thinking "Oh, somebody is gonna finger point and get up in arms about it!", then I see your comment :)

Hm? Not up in arms, just politely noting an inaccuracy. It seemed unnecessary to pull out the Edward Said quotes.

Oh, I did not mean to describe your comment exactly as such. That was a polite and concise point-out by you. "Up-in-arms" was what I was expecting to come, not yours. I just found it amusing to immediately read your first sentence just as those thoughts were flowing in my head. Sorry for confusion.

See also, an Italian analogue: sprezzatura. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sprezzatura

Pared down to its barest essence, wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. It’s simple, slow, and uncluttered-and it reveres authenticity above all. Wabi-sabi is flea markets, not warehouse stores; aged wood, not Pergo; rice paper, not glass. It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind. It reminds us that we are all but transient beings on this planet-that our bodies as well as the material world around us are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace liver spots, rust, and frayed edges, and the march of time they represent.

-Tadao Ando

It's another way I guess about looking at fashion and what you wear without care (or a little bit of care at least).

I don't see how it is related, sprezzatura means something completely different.

I am Italian, I have at least a vague idea of what Wabi Sabi is (I study ShoDo with a Japanese teacher), and you are wrong: the two terms are not even close, sorry.

This reminds me of BMW's asymmetric design concept car X-Coupe [0]. I remember reading something like "a little bit of asymmetry is more beautiful than perfect symmetry" in an auto mag back in 2001.


er... no!

Said car is so not wabi-sabi on so many levels it is hard to begin. It has no character, as in the character that an object develops over time. It is not natural or made from materials that are on their way back to nature. Sure it is asymmetrical but all cars are - the exhaust pipe, the petrol cap and the steering wheel.

If you want an automotive analogy, I would look a lot further back, to those cars you find in Cuba, to that Fordson tractor abandoned in a field or a Soviet era truck somewhere in East Europe.

When I first head of wabi-sabi, it was to describe the aesthetic appeal of raw denim made on heirloom equipment -- the uneven weave caused by loom chatter, how dye gets everywhere, the uneven fade patterns, the leg twist caused by the skewed direction of the twill weave.

It sounds too much like Wasabi for my taste :-/


Perhaps. An item gains wabi-sabi through stressors increasing imperfection?

Sound's like Taleb's Anti-fragile to me.

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