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October 12, 2005

Wabi-Sabi and Market Culture

The Japanese tradition of wabi-sabi celebrates the imperfection of life.

Whenever I read critiques about the spiritual emptiness of consumerism and mass culture — familiar diagnoses that are more or less accurate — I often come away feeling discouraged. After all, the splashy superficiality of consumer culture is the pervasive reality of our lives. It is always available, highly developed and utterly normative. By contrast, a wholesome and viable alternative is ill-defined. It tends to be a grab-bag of “don’t“s — a set of negatives that invite cynicism, not a coherent and compelling “positive” that is inspiring on its own terms.

It was a thrill, therefore, to learn about Leonard Koren’s Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers (Stone Bridge Press, 1994). The book is a short, poetic introduction to the Japanese philosophy and aesthetic of wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi cannot be easily summarized, let alone articulated in rational language, but it amounts to a worldview that honors the simple and unpretentious, the earthy and the imperfect. It is a “be here now,” human-scale sensibility of life. It shuns the slick, brassy sensationalism of modernity and market culture, and celebrates the cosmic beauty and greatness that can be found in things small, plain, irregular and overlooked.

Koren occupies a spot in the design world akin to Christopher Alexander’s place in building design and Carlos Petrini’s in food and eating. Each is a spiritual visionary. Alexander is the author of A Pattern Language, a classic guide to satisfying architectural design, and Petrini is the founder of the Slow Food movement, which emphasizes the pleasures of locally grown organic foods and the prolonged, convivial enjoyment of meals. (Reporter Pilar Viladas has a nice profile of Leonard Koren in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, October 9, 2005). I’d love to hear what these courageous fellows might say to each other over a lingering dinner (of slow food, of course).

I am a neophyte to wabi-sabi, so I invite correction, but Koren gives a compelling account of the feelings, moods and attitudes of the aesthetic. Wabi-sabi can be seen in familiar objects — clothing, furniture, everyday implements, natural artifacts – and especially in the formal Japanese tea ceremony. The design principles celebrate minimalism, but not asceticism. “Pare down to the essence, but don’t remove the poetry,” Koren advises. “Keep things clean and unencumbered, but don’t sterilize.”

One goal of wabi-sabi is to foster an appreciation for “the evanescence of life” and the irrelevance of traditional categories of the market and social life. Accordingly, wabi-sabi focuses on “the intrinsic” and ignores “material hierarchy,” Koren writes. “The normal hierarchy of material value related to cost is pushed aside. Mud, paper and bamboo, in fact, have more intrinsic wabi-sabi qualities/value than do gold, silver and diamonds. In wabi-sabi, there is no ‘valuable’ since that would imply ‘not valuable.’ An object obtains the state of wabi-sabi only for the moment it is appreciated as such… . Things wabi-sabi have no need for the reassurance of status of the validation of market culture.”

More than a design aesthetic, wabi-sabi contains an implied sense of the cosmos and the proper relationships of human beings to objects: “Wabi-sabi is exactly about the delicate balance between the pleasure we get from things and the pleasure we get from freedom from things,” writes Koren. It is “the state of grace arrived at by a sober, modest, heartfelt intelligence. The main strategy of this intelligence is economy of means.” E.F. Schumacher meets Gandhi?

Does the commons have an aesthetic? Why not? Markets tend to foster a distinct vision of the cosmos and human satisfaction. Why shouldn’t the commons have its own general orientation toward life? Wabi-sabi strikes me as one interesting version. It offers a sovereign vision of “being in the world” and a pre-market sense of value. Its sensibility is morally thoughtful, intuitive and richly allusive. Spare, textured, appealing. We could use more beacons of this sort.