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The Artist's Turntable 1: Tradition

Andy Rutledge put the following question to five prominent bonsai artists:

What is the role of tradition in the art of bonsai?

Here are the responses of

Boon Manakitivipart (USA)
Marco Invernizzi (Italy)
Kenji Miyata (Japan)
Walter Pall (Germany)
Dave De Groot (USA)

Boon Manakitivipart

Boonyarat Manakitivipart

I would like to speak about what the role of tradition in the art of bonsai that could be in America.

But first, there are a few traditional things that I would not like to see in America. The first would be the seniority system inside a clan or bonsai family. I believe Americans are more in tune with merit and ability rather than a traditional seniority system. The free market should also be allowed to function without seniority restrictions. Respect and deference for a master is a good thing, but it should not be automatic. It should be earned.

The greatest role of tradition should be the respect for the tree. Respect for the tree must be given on every level.

The cleanliness of my home and office is often secondary. But my work place is always cleaned before and after the workday. Not to use cleaned and sharpened tools is to violate every tradition I was taught about bonsai in Japan.

Moving, lifting, and placing a tree has everything to do with reverence. I don’t often yell, but I will be very direct with a student that treats a tree like a box of wire, or shoves it across a table like a dirty dinner-plate.

In Japan I have never seen a sincere master treat a tree casually. It is a tradition that we should also adopt in America. To see a master place a bonsai on a stand is nothing special to an outsider, but to someone who knows, it is to see reverence and quiet respect.

A simple thing like having two or three possible pots wired and ready to be chosen during a repotting is to honor the tree. Yet I see many who don’t even put screens in their pots until they are finished with the root-work.

Whatever a person’s work is like, one tradition that should continued in my mind is: The reflection of nature should always be in the bonsai. The artists statement should always reflect or evoke a feeling and a trueness of nature. It does not need to be a duplication or imitation of nature, but nature must be within the art.

One tradition I would like to start is for all of us to have the courage to call ourselves Bonsai Artists. I don’t care for Bonsai Maker, Bonsaiist, Bonsai Grower, or ever the words Bonsai Professional. Whether amateurs or professionals, we should have the courage to call ourselves bonsai artists.

An important and old tradition in Japan is display. Bonsai is art. Art is displayed. In the early years of Japan bonsai was exhibited privately. The were no public exhibitions. I still believe in that tradition. It is still nice when a few people of like minds get together just enjoy and quietly talk about bonsai. Friendship, tea, and bonsai is a very good tradition we should keep.

I am not sure I answered the tradition-question. But we should honor and hold on to those things that had value a hundred years ago and will have value in the future. Those things will both help us, and make us feel connected to something bigger than all of us. We should hold on to the traditions that respect the uniqueness and the beauty of all bonsai; and the students, apprentices, and masters that assisted in that uniqueness and beauty.

Marco Invernizzi

Marco Invernizzi

The art of bonsai has many traditions, the first one and oldest is the tradition of nature. Bonsai isn't an abstract form of art. Its connection with the world of nature is very tight, and a good bonsai will never be something that doesn't find a correspondence with the shapes of trees in nature. Most of the time, the way that I choose to teach the right way to style a bonsai is to invite all my students to carefully observe trees in nature. I invite them to be part of a tradition started billions of years ago!

The second tradition is about technique. In my opinion, it's hard to believe that someone can create a very high quality bonsai without good bonsai skills. Rarely, a bonsaiist makes a very beautiful tree just with intuition, but this is just beginner's luck! During a bonsai meeting, all the participants are exchanging secrets and innovation because "experience" is the most important tool for making bonsai; your experience and somebody else's. Experience is the only way to eliminate mistakes and to get a good bonsai from your material in the shortest period of time.

The third tradition is the heaviest to carry on your shoulders; the tradition of the school to which you belong. I studied with Masahiko Kimura, who studied with Hamano Motosuke. Shinji Suzuki, Hideo Suzuki and some of the others best bonsai masters in Japan belong to this school, and I feel connected will all of them. In fact, I visit their gardens every time I go to Japan.

Nobody studies with me right now as an apprentice; I'm too young to be a bonsai master. But maybe one day, one day when my hair will be white and I'll start to talk more about Zen instead of explaining how to wire properly, some young boy or girl will study bonsai with me as I did in Japan. It is very important to me to make them understand that traditions in bonsai are all important. There is no need to always break the rules, particularly before we're able to do things as nature does. She will always do something far better than we can, so bonsai is like an homage to her magnificence.

Kenji Miyata

Kenji Miyata

The customs, institutions, and ideology passed down through Japanese history are the core of bonsai art. People that inherit these cultural traditions through bonsai and its evidence displayed in their work embody traditional bonsai art.

Walter Pall

Walter Pall

I have an ambiguous relationship with bonsai tradition.

First, it is the foundation on which we all build. It is where bonsai as we see it today comes from. To many it is bonsai; there just is no other way to do bonsai for them. We owe it to tradition that we can see bonsai as fine art which is spread all over the world now.

I believe that every bonsai enthusiast must learn as much about the bonsai tradition as possible, it is indispensable. I think what is called "classical bonsai" is by and large what shows our tradition. There are traditional, classical forms (usually called styles) which are designed in the classical style. It is a style that works toward building the ideal tree; an abstraction that shows the ultimate tree. Every bonsai designer must learn how to style trees in the traditional forms with the classical spirit.

Besides the styling of trees there is a whole bundle of other traditions in bonsai. It is the pots and the way of potting, the display in a tokonoma, with stand, accent object and scroll and a lot more. In the spirit of Asian art it is absolutely acceptable and expected that others try to copy the well known masterpieces and all aspects of the tradition. Every divergence from this path is questionable.

The other side of the coin is that this is just not my tradition. It is an Asian tradition, mainly a Japanese tradition. While I have the highest respect for it, I wonder whether bonsai in my part of the world is about rigidly following a foreign tradition and, if it is, whether it is then worth my time. Well, I don't really wonder, I just refuse to accept this. I believe that the Asian tradition can be used as a great starting point, and then we go from there. As long as westerners try to copy Japanese masterpieces, bonsai is not a universal art form at all. Copying is not considered art in the western tradition. An artist must be creative and that goes beyond copying. We must find our own ways, which might become tradition eventually. One starting point would be to question the underlying philosophy of traditional bonsai; of creating and ideal tree. I am well aware that this opens the door for all sorts of nonsense and atrocious creations. I am also well aware that this notion is not helpful for the average bonsai enthusiast who looks for help and reassurance. But it opens the door at least and enables us to create art and not just copies. One must, however, always keep the deep respect for one's teachers.

Dave De Groot

Dave De Goot

All human communication can be said to consist of two main parts; a vocabulary and a context. The vocabulary is a set of stimuli – perceptible to the senses – that serve as the “building blocks” of communication. Context is imperceptible to the senses. It is the set of shared intuitions, experiences, or understandings that makes the vocabulary operative or meaningful. In other words, it is a sort of blueprint that allows us to arrange the building blocks into a coherent or serviceable structure.

The vocabulary can be aural (either verbal or nonverbal), visual (either figurative or gestural), or tactile. Aural includes spoken language, ululations such as grunts, moans, growls, whines, etc., audible signals (bells, foghorns), and music. Visual includes written language, visual signals (traffic lights, flags), Sign language, body language, mime, dance, and art such as painting, sculpture, installations, etc. Tactile includes Braille text, mechanical signals (roadway “rumble strips”, electric fences) and touches (for support, affection, punishment, etc.).

The context in its broadest sense can relate to our place in the order of nature. Baring the teeth by a human is more often a sign of pleasure – smiling – than is baring the teeth by a dog, for instance. Usually, however, context is provided by our culture – race or nationality, profession, or some other discipline such as sport or art. A woman disrobed before a man, for instance, will have vastly different intent, and draw vastly different reactions, depending on whether the context is a nightclub stage, an artist’s studio, or a physician’s office.

Cultural background and traditions are more important to the arts than to some other forms of communication. Communication that is objective and precise – say an operator’s manual for a car – does not really depend on a knowledge of the history of auto making, for instance, to be understood. Fine arts such as poetry, art, music or dance, however, because they are relatively imprecise and emotional, require more mental participation by the audience in order to be intelligible. The more one knows about any art, the more likely one is to appreciate it; and the greater one’s knowledge of the cultural origins, history, techniques of an art, and the greater the knowledge of an individual artist’s life and personality, the more deeply will one be able to understand and appreciate their work. How a viewer responds to a work does not, of course depend on the artist’s intent. The viewer and artist may have completely different takes on a given work, each of which is valid. However, the apex of pleasure in a work is when artist and viewer unite in a common understanding. In the Japanese cultural tradition, for example, a host may place a figure of a kabuki actor in a tokonoma. While a foreigner or uniformed guest may not even notice the figure, a sensitive and informed guest will recognize the symbolism involved; that the kabuki actor plays for applause, and that the host is therefore wordlessly expressing his desire to please his guest. There is an intense pleasure gained by this kind of intellectual bonding, when both host and guest find common understanding through shared experience. Obviously, this requires a knowledge of tradition.

The traditions of art are often encapsulated in the rules that guide the basic structure of works. Music has rules of voiceleading and harmony, photography and painting have rules of composition, Literature and theater have structural norms (exposition, conflict, resolution), and classical ballet has a standard repertoire of positions and movements. Of course, it is important to understand that rules in art are NOT legislation, but rather descriptions of common practice (what artists do “as a rule”). It is this tradition, these rules, which create the context for understanding individual compositions. Of course, works of art, as free expression, often depart from the expected course in order to create a particular effect. In my travels, I often critique bonsai exhibits, and I will occasionally come upon what appears to be a very original, very novel element in the design of a tree. I appreciate it in any case, because I personally have supplied the recognition of it’s uniqueness, but I will sometimes wonder if the element is a “mistake” – created out of ignorance of the norm – or an intentional effort to gain effect. My enjoyment is always greater if I believe the element was intentional, and that therefore the artist and I have achieved a sharing of insight and appreciation.

Those who deny the existence of rules in art, or the importance of tradition – are taking a naïve position, as it is the traditions that create the context that make any work intelligible. Even the artistic rebel would be at a loss if there were no traditions, for it is only against the backdrop of tradition that his rebellion has any meaning. In summary, I would urge all who love bonsai to never ignore their own native intuition and originality in creating their works. That, after all, is what divides art from craft. I would, however, urge all bonsai practitioners to learn as much as possible about the contributions of all cultures to the bonsai tradition, for it is this kind of knowledge and insight that will make their own creative work broader and more sophisticated, and their own pleasure in bonsai much deeper.