Transformation and Maintenance

Over the last year or so I have come across a number of podcasts and news articles that suggests that a soupçon of wabi sabi can be added to pull a room together, much like The Dude's carpet in The Big Lebowski. The purist in me has always found that a little unsettling. From my perspective wabi sabi is not something that is added so much as allowed to evolve, nor is it something that can be engineered into a thing, whether an object, machine or system. Planned obsolescence or corner-cutting is not going to foster wabi sabi, but merely inert decay. There is a chance that wabi sabi can be engineered out of a thing in a (quixotic) effort to make it impermeable to the elements and avoid its demise in the face of whatever an object may be vulnerable, be it tempests of wind and rain or curious 7-year-olds.

In his book Wabi-sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, Leonard Koren makes a comprehensive list of aspects of wabi sabi and contrasts them with modernism. It is a list that I have referred to quite regularly and I have seen it cited by other writers, including Richard R. Powell. One distinction between Koren and Powell is that Koren makes a contrast maintenance (modernist) and degradation (wabi sabi) and Powell does not. To further flesh this out, I ought to quote Koren's descriptions in full. Of the modern, Koren says it, "needs to be maintained" and of wabi sabi he says it, "accommodates to degradation and attrition."

Last summer, I emailed each of them to inquire about this distinction in their delineation of wabi sabi and the modern. I caught Koren in the middle of preparation for the launch of his latest book What Artists Do and unable to divert his attention to my question. Powell responded to say that he did not feel maintenance or degradation fit on either list, adding that all things degrade, but that wabi sabi was not necessarily present in everything that degraded. He did go on, however, to talk about the degradation that was apparent in an old camera he bought for $20 and notes that the camera is appealing to him because of the:

"variability in the colour of the metal, dents and dings, and fading in the lettering and it smells of cigar smoke. You can just feel something from it, a mellow beauty. The old tools inherited from my grandfather are the same, especially the chisels and square. They are still very functional, and have been maintained, but they are definitely wabi sabi, due in part to the build up of stains and the deepening of colours with age." (Powell, 2018) 

Rather than opposing each other, degradation and maintenance intersect in Powell's view.

When I have pondered the distinctions between Koren's and Powell's opinions about maintenance and degradation, the practice of kintsugi -- the repairing of broken pottery with gold in the joints where the pieces of pottery have been rejoined -- helps makes the case for Powell's sense that these intersection. Kintsugi is often mentioned alongside wabi sabi for what they share philosophically and aesthetically. It could be argued that kintsugi is, at least nominally, a type of maintenance. Maintenance, if we are to consider it an aspect of wabi sabi, as opposed to the modern, must be linked to a sincere attachment to the object that surpasses.  There ought to be a degree of attachment between owner and item that motivates the owner to continue using and keeping it.

If the essence that characterizes an object is acknowledged and respected, then maintenance and degradation are part of a pact does what it can to respect that essence.  When kintsugi is deployed to restore damaged pottery, the difference having a bowl or having a pile of shards is in the loss of the bowl's essence or its artisanship and its utility. The use of gold to rebuild the bowl expresses appreciation for what the bowl was, aesthetically and emotionally. The appreciation of the object leads to a repair that transforms the bowl and emphasizes the value it had before it was damaged.

Maintenance has occurred, and the appreciation of the bowl preceded its damage and helped ensure its transformation. Within the parameters of wabi sabi, there are occasions where the appreciation occurs because of the degradation as Powell so poetically attributes to the old camera. From this perspective, a rose would be appreciated throughout its life cycle and the futility of fixing its life cycle at a certain point reduces our understanding of its essence and turns it into a commodity.

If Koren's designation of maintenance as modernist is to be considered as opposed to degradation, it would likely apply in cases where an aversion to degradation or change prompts maintenance in the name of maintaining a status quo that is purported to be ideal.  The regular botox injection is this type of maintenance. Aluminum and vinyl siding, despite their promise of being maintenance-free, would be obvious examples of degradation-averse materials that have ascended because of their convenience and the promise of outlasting wood.  These rejections of decline assert a commitment to an ill-formed ideal. Consider the bleak drabness of 40-50 years old siding. As a testament to technology or the modern, they are poor, laughable calling cards.

Beyond the botox and vinyl, however, are the assertions that new services and systems are also impermeable to time, decay or obsolescence. In this era of ever-improving technology, it is easy to assume that new services and systems truly have the burnish and promise of being complete, eternal (or assured eternal software updates) and perfect, but these too require the type of maintenance that is reserved for those things which strive to maintain a less-than-ideal, but still rigid, status quo. Technology and -- I'm not sure whether to say even or especially -- the latest technology still results in interactions between user and interface that are transactional rather than transformational.

Despite the comforts that the modern and the carefully engineered might promise, we would still be better served by systems and services that have idiosyncratic elements or aspects that dare to charm and enchant us with aspects, and even flaws that leave the opportunity for something transformational to occur as a result of our use or interaction.