Art creates an emotional link between the artist and the audience. The work of art favors what is clear and genuine and for most the simple over the complex. We view art as beautiful and possibly related to our common experience of what we all consider beautiful.
Our collective sense of what is beautiful or aesthetically pleasing may arise from long term common experiences and beliefs that evolve from religion, philosophy and common beliefs about what is good, what is sinful, what is comfortable and what may not be so. There are deep dwelling origins to these ideas and they are not the same for every culture.
The Greeks saw virtue in strength and heroism and developed other ideas through their mythology. Christianity and many of the other religions honored the meek and the humble, the idea of humility, and the idea of honor itself. Art in the West developed out of ideas of the Greco-Roman world and religious ideas in the West that were also advanced and developed through Renaissance philosophers as well as others who followed.
All these ideas about what art is, what it does, and what it is for, have been widely discussed. Yet there is little agreement leading to precise or fundamental definitions of art. It is still so difficult to define art. Indeed, it may be impossible to define. We cannot completely say what it does for us, and how it influences our consciousness. All art and its appreciation may come to us through our unconscious response to it.
Nevertheless, how art is understood may differ substantially from culture to culture. The differences may be partly understood in the sense that what is beautiful and potentially art may be very different in one culture relative to another. That is, how something strikes you may be greatly dependent on how the culture over many years or even centuries has prepared you to be affected.
Non-Western perspectives on art are very different from those in the West. Some of these differences may be linked to fundamentally different religious and philosophical ideas at the base of the culture, creating a different social context and basis for understanding art. Japanese culture and it’s idea of art represent a case in point.
The Japanese world view or aesthetic is centered on transience and imperfection. To the Japanese beauty is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. These are ideas partly derived from the Buddhist marks of existence (impermanence, emptiness and absence of self). In the Japanese ideal “nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”
The chill, lean, withered, rustic simplicity is revered as is the unrefined and simple style in art. A chip or crack or an imperfection in a work of art may give it value in that it is something that we can meditate about. The culture thus places value on imperfection, flux and impermanence in all things. These are engrained values in the culture, which has a deep sense of fatalism. It is a nation which is a collection of geologically active islands which builds many structures from light wood and paper, as those structures hold together very well during massive earthquakes. Nevertheless, few structures in Japan last. Most structures are torn down and rebuilt every 20 years. It may not be too surprising to see a role for disaster built into the Japanese artistic psyche. In their personal practices, Japanese seek good posture, spiritual power, strength, coordination and balance. One can also see a desire for simple elegance, quiet perfection, dignity, sincerity and humility in the Japanese bonsai and in tray garden art, haiku poetry, and the Tea Ceremony.
Many of the Japanese ideals contributing to their view and understanding of art overlap with those of the West. While there are significant differences there are also similarities. Yet, both in the East and in the West, we continue to ask “what is art.” We get many answers to that question.