Monday, May 23, 2016

The Wabi Sabi of Creativity

Fighting insomnia on Saturday morning, I got out of bed and headed to the sofa to read myself back to sleep without blinding The Mrs. with my lamp. More deliberately than I would admit, I left the book I was reading, Don Delillo's Zero K, on the bedside table. Delillo is 79, an age where a fan has to appreciate each work for its arrival; the assurance that mortality is being fended off, the novelist is still assaulting each mountain of thought, plot and character and surveying a unique world from that summit.  As fond as I am of his work and eager to have his latest, however, I have found the new novel a bit too familiar.  As with several recent Delillo novels, a mill- or billionaire pursues an ambitious endeavour in an isolated location in a remote location, virtually sealed off from the time and place that Delillo is trying to comment on.  The elements seem the same and I'm not engaging the way I had with past novels.  I'll finish the book and be awed by the sterling sentences, but I needed a break, something to shake off my conclusion that writers often write the same story over and over until they get it right.

For the palate-cleanser, or a quick gust of non-fiction to refresh my mind for the Delillo, I took down a book on creativity by the gentleman with the "oh, that guy" anonymous fame (or infamy) earned from high wire walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in 1974.  His feat, or as he would put it, crime, has since been documented in the movie Man On Wire and again in the feature film The Walk.

As I sought the tonic for my insomnia and avoided the Delillo, Philippe Petit's book, Creativity, The Perfect Crime, came down from the bookcase.  At this point, there is the risk of slamming it with the note that it did or did not knock me out.  I eased back to sleep, but it engaged me quite deeply and sleep revisited after a few notions came to mind for my to drift off to.  One of the first things he mentions in the book is the contradictions that an artist or a creative person must live with or burrow into.  In this case, a good book putting me into a dreamstate is the contradiction.  The world, despite the arguments or conclusions many might resort to, is not as simple as that.

Petit's own comfort with the contradictions and ambiguity he delves into throughout the book is just one sign of his affinity for wabi sabi. As Petit nears the conclusion of his book, he directly acknowledges wabi sabi, telling the reader to be guided by it. Prior to that mention, the book is peppered with references. The most obvious is his comment, "I've seen Time devour Art with avidity -- and I love it!" He finds great energy in the passage of time and what it does to art and the world.  Apart from that, he talks about the familiarity that he develops over time with the tools that he has used in juggling and magic. He embraces the contradictions of his art and life and strives to strike the balance between them. These elements and his clearly expressed aversion to formulas or linear thinking are just a few indicators of his affinity for wabi sabi.

Screengrab from
Philippe Petit's book, much like his 2012 TED Talk follows the path from his early interest in magic and how it proceeded to interests in juggling and then the wire.  At first it is hard to think of walking the wire as a creative feat.  It is more of a physical one or one of nerve and audacity, but as Petit describes it, the feat is composed of the same elements of will, spirit and intimacy with the tools of the trade that any artist must attain to work and create at the height of their capabilities again and again.

Petit asserts that creativity is grounded in passion, tenacity, intuition, faith, improvisation and inspiration. There are risks, rehearsals, obstacles, surprises and miracles to add to things that you (not an artist, creative person or someone with more chops than you) you wish to pursue or achieve. He adds that it is absolutely necessary for you to protect and even wall in that creative spirit or component of yourself to give it the chance and freedom to grow and go into the direction it desires to go.

In this privacy and self-protection, Petit makes the best case I have seen for wabi sabi guiding an approach to life that is original, personal and self-actualizing. (It is a far stronger case than appeared in Agneta Nyholm Winqvist's work on wabi sabi. There are too many premanufactured paths through life followed by people who have committed to an ornate combination of rationalizations and consumer choices to find the fulfillment that comes from an elegant, personal, formula-free approach to living in creating. There is no trace of "I'm doing this job I dislike 50 weeks of the year so I can go to that all-inclusive" in his ethos. There is an elegance in his work, the path he has sculpted for himself and the excess with which he has pursued his passion.

Petit is confident -- no, certain -- that "chaos always brings order." He might even argue that the apparent order of a life that complies and conforms with the rules may be an illusion of order hiding or merely postponing chaos.  He says that, "if you start with the rules, your creation will be stillborn." That applies to life as much as art. Great creations and great lives absorb the curves and reversals that are encountered and integrates them into the person and their work. 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Perfection and Vulnerability in the Kitchen
In an earlier post here, I discussed Ikea furniture and its lack of wabi sabi.  In short, when Ikea furniture starts to age or deteriorate, it possesses little charm and there is even less potential to restore it or extend its life in a manner that still presents an appealing object in the home environment.  I would be remiss if I were to overlook Martha Stewart's approach to the home setting and the by-the-book or buy-the-book advice she dispenses.  She has developed a valuable brand over the years and earned a cult following as well, but there is a certain word that gets tossed around quite regular by Ms Stewart and in association with the advice she dispenses.

The word is "perfect" which rings up a total of 18,700,000 oh, sorry, 18,300,000 hits when googled with "Martha Stewart."  Be it a desktop calendar, a roast turkey, hard boiled eggs, a bow, or a turn at the podium during the Bieber roast (159,000 hits), there is the link between the domestic diva and that word.  However, no matter how thorough the steps may be outlined to complete any of the tasks that Stewart has mastered, the outcome for the Martha-wannabe will all-too-often be frustration.  Perfection becomes a goal and there is nothing less than that to satisfy either Martha Stewart or any of her followers who strive to achieve that pinnacle in what they assume is a zero-sum game in providing a setting for the home and the family.

For all the aspects of the home that Ms Stewart delves into there is a consistent motif but there may not be as evident a sense of integration of the components that she brings together.  The kitchen cabinets that are branded with her name incite that impulse to approve the perfection but there is that hint of a mother shooing the elementary schoolers out for fear of disturbing the appearance or the ultimate resignation that the off-the-shelf perfection did not unfold as hoped.  There is a chance that the failure to meet the Stewart criteria leaves the consumer vaguely disappointed with the austerity of the (predominantly white) products she offers those hoping to festoon their kitchens with her touch.
A wabi sabi approach to a kitchen setting would not attach itself to such a combination of veneer and modularity with an eye to revising a place or its purpose.  Such an approach would work around the imperfections in the setting and the materials to create an inviting space with the warmth, functionality, authenticity and uniqueness that reflects the people who live, eat and clean in this space. There are patinas of wood grain and ceramic glaze instead of the plastic of white foil to keep the eye, the touch and perhaps even the ear attuned to the sensuality of the space rather than the slick arrogance of the prefab Stewart offering.  What would she propose one do with the exposed pipe overhead?

The arrogance extends beyond the conforming design or solution that is proposed as "perfect." Last year during a speaking engagement in Calgary, Martha Stewart was asked to grapple with the word "vulnerability."  Brene Brown who spoke at the same conference that morning charged the term with an appropriate measure of empowerment by asserting that vulnerabilities are exposed when we are taking the risks to achieve our potential.  Stewart, however, merely regarded vulnerability as something to be overcome, whether by a) ignoring in a fake it till you make it approach that sounds a bit macho or b) denying that it exists by ignoring via a rationalization that posits that vulnerability is weakness and further to that exists merely to be suspended or swatted aside like so many pesky mosquitoes.  In Stewart's mind, vulnerability probably does not exist as an opposite or the heads-to-tails companion to something such as courage, which is required if we are to achieve our potential.  My thought has often been that courage is defined by facing ones fears or vulnerabilities.  Opposing that, where is the courage in facing something other people fear, [but you don't]?

There is a connection between the design we choose to surround ourselves with and the attitudes that are embodied in design.  In the case of Martha Stewart, the hermetically-contained disavowal of her prison experience and what she may have learned there sounds at best like spin and at worst suggests an inability to grow. In contrast with the openness with which Brene Brown, on the same day, disclosed her flaws, doubts and challenges about her body image and the foundation of her marriage, there is a distinct discomfort with things that are not resolved, square and binary.  The perfect bows, roast turkeys and chocolate chip cookies ultimately assert a discomfort with the imperfect or an intent to exploit others' discomfort by appropriating that overused word "perfect."

I have no idea what Brene Brown's kitchen looks like and will not hazard a guess.  In her ability to not only live comfortably with the the apparent paradox of courage and vulnerability but to examine both sides of that coin indicates a mindful wisdom that would promise a long, enlightening discussion over tea at a wobbly kitchen table.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Perfection and Potential

In the time I have been reading about wabi sabi and blogging about it, I have been self-conscious about the possibility that it is a vanity project. The thought has regularly crossed my mind. I wonder if my aspiration to push this ancient Japanese aesthetic -- which is primarily a visual one -- to areas of business, politics or beyond might be a bit self-indulgent, off target or disrespectful to the principles of wabi-sabi. There is the risk that I may just be pushing wabi sabi too far when I write about burger joints I consider overrated, the warmth of vinyl, Ikea furniture, dull PowerPoint slides to mention a few of the windmills I've tilted at here.  There has been this latent doubt that I have just used the vocabulary of wabi sabi to make stands about things I like or dislike rather than really delve into the aesthetic and how it might apply. Ultimately, however, I have delved into the topic because there is relatively little on the topic available in English and I blog here to scratch an itch that has festered for nearly 20 years. It has been a rewarding scratch from time to time.

Earlier today I was at a conference and listening to a keynote by Robert Kelly, a Professor of Education at University of Calgary.  During his address a slide came up that listed the following three bullets as they pertained to Collaborative Creation in Education:

1. The Principle of Infinite Potentials
2. The Principle of Interrelatedness
3. The Principle of Perpetual Change.

As Dr. Kelly continued his presentation the three points stuck with me.  They sounded familiar and I went through the familiar quest for a word on the tip of my tongue or brain.  After a few moments I recalled three principles of wabi sabi:

1. Nothing is perfect
2. Nothing is complete
3. Nothing is permanent.

The three tenets are briefer, less academic and more poetic for their conciseness. The parallels, though, breathed fresh life into a topic that I thought I was becoming stagnant in revisiting as (in)frequently as I have.

The triads above are quite revealing in the ways that they align.  Perfection, for instance, would mean the reduction or elimination of potential, a far cry from the infinity available when we grapple with the imperfections that we try to work through.  If we choose to settle for something that no longer has the potential for growth is neither perfect nor ideal, but imposes a closure on life, relationships or opportunities that will ultimately whither for all the readily redoubled efforts to retain
some mediocre status quo.
This assumption about a perfection based upon limited potential comes with an assumption of completion and isolation that would prompt me to cite the inevitable decay of a shopping centre that is hermetically sealed off from its surroundings save the odd skylight to complement the fluorescents with some natural light throughout the day.  Compared to a downtown, which is always a work in progress, this setting grows stagnant quickly and over time repels instead of attracts people.

The pursuit, or even the mere acceptance, of ongoing change demonstrates not only an appetite for growth and achieving potential but it also allows wabi sabi to be interpreted as a guide to growth rather than a philosophical acceptance of decline and deterioration.  Kintsugi, the craft of mending damaged pottery with gold, demonstrates an exceptionally optimistic belief in infinite potential and the possibility of beauty as a complement to flaws, destruction and renewal.

The leap from discussing tangible objects to regarding processes, relationships, solutions to problems or new creative opportunities seems a less daunting one in light of the parallels between wabi sabi and creative collaboration that I encountered today. The willingness to continue to add or augment and push for growth and improvement are much closer to the centre of wabi sabi than would appear to be true after a cursory glance.  And so I will push to see what I can add to this discussion and this ancient aesthetic.