“Bonsai exist at the intersection of human creativity and natural beauty.”B. Alexander
What are we “appreciating” when we look at a bonsai? Aside from the astonishment of the bonsai newcomer when first seeing a tree that is 50 years old and only 2 feet tall, or the admiration that the veteran bonsai enthusiast feels while viewing a bonsai that displays small leaves and twigs, short internodes, and spreading roots, I propose that a successful bonsai provides the viewer with an intensified experience of the natural world.
I use the term experience because, as with art generally, there is more to bonsai appreciation than mere looking. Experiencing and appreciating any type of art requires a certain amount of background information. The appropriate type of information required can be determined by considering the nature of the object of appreciation. The field of aesthetics, a branch of philosophy, considers both natural and man-made sources of experience and how we form judgements about them. (1)
The Field of Aesthetics
Aesthetics tries to answer questions such as what counts as art, what makes a good artwork, and ultimately why people like some works of art and not others (“aesthetic judgement”). (2) For most of the 20th century, the field of aesthetics focused on painting and sculpture. Aesthetic appreciation of a painting rested primarily on appreciation of an artwork’s “formal qualities” such as lines and colors that form shapes, patterns and designs. According to this “formalist” approach an aesthetically good painting was one that combined these elements to achieve unity and balance. Knowledge of artistic traditions and styles also contributed to making useful aesthetic judgements about a given painting.
In the 1960s, the field of aesthetics placed a renewed focus on nature and natural objects as appropriate subjects for aesthetic consideration. For many reasons, this was a more difficult task compared to the aesthetic judgement of art objects. First of all, there is no human designer involved. Nature is not an artifact, although nature can and has been influenced by man. Humans are not observers of nature in the usual sense because we are literally surrounded by the natural world, we live within it (where is the best place to stand from which to view nature?). Unlike a painting, a beautiful, scenic view does not have a frame. Nature changes over time. Unlike a play or concert, there is no clear indication of where nature begins and ends. A natural object, if it is alive, responds to external factors on its own.
Given the differences between art objects and nature, what type of background or “outside” information is “required” to make an aesthetic judgement about a forest, a sunset, or the night sky beyond our initial sensory observations of them? Allen Carlson, a pioneer in the field of environmental aesthetics, was a proponent of the idea that we must understand the object of appreciation before making an aesthetic judgement, and that therefore knowledge from fields such as botany, zoology, ecology and geology provides the most appropriate background from which to aesthetically evaluate nature (3).
Bonsai as an Aesthetic Object
As Bobbie Alexander, Executive Director of the National Bonsai Foundation, recently wrote, bonsai exist at the intersection “of human creativity and natural beauty”. When one tries to apply the methods that have been suggested for appreciation of either art or nature to the appreciation of a bonsai, it becomes clear that neither set of methods is sufficient on its own to help us understand a bonsai. Appreciation of a bonsai requires combining the formalist theory’s guidelines for aesthetic appreciation of an artwork with the approach developed for appreciating nature.
Appreciating Bonsai as Art
A bonsai is a natural object upon which man has imposed a design (i.e., an artifact). Just as there are prescriptions for a proper encounter with an artwork, in which we must approach it in a certain way, we traditionally approach a bonsai from the “front”. The pot or other container frames the bonsai. As with a painting, bonsai design incorporates formal elements. These are well known to art students and include line, movement, shape, rhythm, form, proportion, texture, unity, color, contrast, space, balance and asymmetry. The Pacific Bonsai Museum held an exhibit called Elements of Design in 2018 that demonstrated how these apply to bonsai. (4) The way in which the artist combines these elements into the design of a particular bonsai contributes to the strength of the composition and one’s appreciation of it.
The following factors also add to our appreciation of a bonsai by supplying context:
- Information about the provenance of a bonsai (origins, previous owners, previous artists who have worked on it)
- History of any awards/recognition or previous commentary regarding the bonsai
- Awareness of any previous bonsai of the same or similar species or type
- whether it is an example of a specific type/category/or movement in the bonsai art world, i.e. cascade, literati, naturalistic
- Information about the artist, including their country of origin
- Information about the container, the artist who made it or whether it was collected from nature
- Age of the tree and the age of the composition
Appreciating Bonsai as Nature
Aesthetic appreciation of a bonsai requires knowledge of the natural object itself, in addition to knowledge of designer-imposed formal aspects. At the most basic level, one has to know what a tree looks like. For a given tree, its species, category (conifer, deciduous, etc.), characteristic growth habits and seasonal changes, native habitat and range are important. This information is necessary to fully appreciate the bonsai as a natural object.
Consider the concept of age in bonsai. An aged appearance is valued for many reasons. Knowledge of how different trees in nature change with age is useful in interpreting our experience of a bonsai – the presence of deadwood and broken branches or loss of an apex, increased negative space, gnarly branches, exposed roots, or very textured bark can all express age. Researchers on forest ecology have documented changes that occur in various tree species as observed in old growth forests. (5,6)
Familiarity with trees in nature allows the observer to evaluate the appropriateness of a bonsai composition – i.e., what type of design was imposed, does that design “work”? For example, one seldom sees a Cryptomeria bonsai grown in a cascade style, since in nature cryptomeria display a strongly upright growth characteristic that can be used to great advantage by an artist (although dwarf or miniature cryptomeria cultivars with globular forms do exist). A cascade style cryptomeria might seem “unnatural”. On the other hand, such a composition could be striking and thought-provoking,
In addition to being familiar with trees, an observer ideally must have some basic knowledge of the larger natural world in order to truly appreciate a bonsai. Climate change will undoubtedly challenge our current views of nature and of bonsai.
Knowledge of both art and nature is important for experiencing bonsai. Clearly, bonsai are complex aesthetic objects. As Yoda Toru, Chief Curators Division, Toyama Memorial Museum wrote, “So, [a bonsai] cannot be categorized as either “nature” or “art.” It is precisely this aspect…where the contemporary meaning and possibilities of bonsai are latent.” (7) Having understood the complex aesthetic nature of a bonsai, how do we realize those possibilities?
- Kelly, Michael (Editor-in-chief). Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. New York, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998. 4 vol., pp. XVII-521, pp. 555, pp. 536, pp. 572; ISBN 978-0-19-511307-5.
- en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aesthetics /l cite_note-4, Thomas, “Aesthetics”. The World Book Encyclopedia. Vol 1, ed. A Richard Harmet, et al., (Chicago, Merchandise Mart Plaza, 1986), p. 80
- Carlson, Allen. Introduction, p. xx. in Aesthetics and the Environment, London: Routledge, 2000.
- Toro, Yoda. “Bonsai as Minuscule Garden”. Japan Foreign Policy Forum, September 16, 2022. https://www.japanpolicyforum.jp/culture/pt2022091614565812474.html, accessed 11/2022.