Monday, March 16, 2009's all about inner essence (Books - Japan Through the Looking Glass by Alan Macfarlane)

Japan Through the Looking Glass was a nice break from about ten hours of midterm studying yesterday, a true escape. In his second chapter, Alan Macfarlane gives us an idea of why Japan was a shock to his western sense of esthetics, ideas of living spaces and gardens, attitude toward the human body, and toward sex.
I live in a world which has, since the Renaissance and scientific revolutions, adopted a number of binary oppositions or divisions. Art is distinct from life, craft from art, popular taste from high culture, realism from symbolic art, the Baroque from the Gothic style, the urban from the rural, sports and games from ceremonial and religion, the material body from spiritual purity, nature from culture. I initially found the Japanese experience very puzzling because it challenges all of these separations.

A great deal of Japanese art is allusive and symbolic, referring to something else. Expanding the mind, it words indirectly. There is a desire to avoid the obvious and realistic in favour of the suggestive and the more profound. It is, as in Roland Barthes's title, An Empire of Signs. This is because artists are trying to convey not the surface of things, as in realist art, but the inner essence, which can only be transmitted to the observer indirectly by symbols. This is illustrated by the story of a Japanese painter who was commissioned at great expense to paint a picture of a garden with trees. After some time he came back with a largely empty canvas. Only in one corner was a sprig of cherry with a small bird perching on it. His patron asked why he had not filled up the rest of the frame. The painter replied, 'If I had filled it up with things, where would the bird be able to fly?'
Those are two example of what I both like and find a little limiting about this book. What I enjoy is that Macfarlane writes about a subject I know very little about in extremely readable prose - it's concise writing, he offers examples, but not too many, and I leave off reading having learned something new. However, I find the tone a bit...public television. It sounds like a get- your-dose-of-culture-in-fifty-minutes-voiceover. I'm not sure why that's irritating me, it's doing its job. Maybe because it is so expected. In fact, I read that second excerpt thinking that it was what I expected it to say and yet it wasn't quite right. First of all - what is more profound about the suggestive over the realistic? If you're going to make a sweeping statement like that, then don't take my agreement for granted. Second - Western artists have for 150 years been trying to depict the inner essence rather than outer look of things - isn't that what fauvism, impressionism, cubism, and expressionism were all about? I'm not sure that this is a good example of a contrast between Japanese and Western art. Filling up a small bit of a large canvas does not really seem to me an example of symbolism or of something distinctly non-Western. Matisse did it. It seems to me a compositional choice to express something through absence. This paragraph is irritating to me in that it uses words I expect - symbolism and inner essence - when talking about art - but these are such general terms. And if the example given is depicting inner essence and symbolism, the words used did not tie the image described to what I understand those terms actually are. I guess I found the discussion of art a little glib. I wouldn't have minded a few more words in the cause of specificity. But all in all I enjoyed my small dose of Japan and returned to my studies of the photoreceptors of the retina refreshed.

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