Talking about the aesthetic taste of the Japanese (biishiki 美意識) makes sense only when considering both the classical and the modern perspective. However, for the sake of this short post I’d like to simply touch one topic, namely the socalled Yohaku no bi 余白の美.
Yohaku no bi originated in the medieval Japanese aesthetic principle described as the “beauty of the remaining white”. Yohaku designates the white space, the unfilled space, a gap or margin, which bears a aesthetic significance for the overall impression of a scene in a room, an image, etc.
To understand this concept a casual acquaintance with ink painting (sumie 墨絵) is helpful. Perfection in this form of art requires the selective restraint with a minimum use of black ink, so that the remaining empty spaces express the actual theme.
Therefore, Yohaku no bi can also be translated as “the beauty of the defect”, or “the beauty of the void”, summarized in the phrase “less is more”, ascribed to Mies van der Rohe.
Although Lara Wendy Preston Chamberlain’s drawings clearly outlines Arakaki Sensei, there is also a lot of Yohaku no bi to be found in it. It is found both in the physical painting itself as well as in the artistic expression, or lets say in the heart of the painting.
In art the term refers to artistic content which is not explicitly visible, to that which is omitted. In Zen Buddhism this idea of emptiness as a defining element is expressed through the concepts of kū 空 (void) and mu 無 (absence, nonexistence). It is in fact a kind of conscious subtlety, restraint, or simplicity.
Talking of kū 空: think of the pauses in the kata of karate and kobudō not only as a technical functions, but also as an aesthetic expression. It is just as in music, where notes, arpeggios, and chords without rythm and pauses would simply be perceived as noise. In martial arts, Miyamoto Musashi’s “Red-backed Shrike on a dead tree” is a perfect example.
In the practice of karate and kobudō, there is a lot of aesthetics. Each branch of karate has its own specific aesthetics which are not completely explainable by function only. Budō has its own aesthetics, both philosophically as well as in physical expression. So when studying karate as a martial art, that is Budō karate – as opposed to health karate, sport karate, or entertainment karate etc. – than it conveyes not only techniques, not only “culture”, not only history, but also aesthetics.
These aesthetics are not only in the power or the technical application, but also in the kokoro or the heart that lies at the bottom of it. It is these aesthetics, or the lack of it, which are part of expert assessments, knowingly or not.
This said, simply saying “my karate is ugly so it must be good” is very very wrong.
Talking about aesthetics in martial arts is unpopular as unpopular can. I think a lot of the rejection certain Westernized Japanese martial arts receive in the homeland of budō and bujutsu are simply for their aesthetics, which must really hurt a Japanese. Look at modern sports karate: it is to a large part the specific aesthetics that win or loose. What would be a Japanese koryū without its aesthetics? Only because karate for a long time had a quite unsophisticated aesthetics (as compared to Japanese koryū) it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist or that it is unimportant. Take the dōjō interieur, the badges, the philosophies, the culture of Okinawa karate, and you will see the aethetics are there. You just don’t trample this down by saying “ugly works so ugly is good.” It is not.
So, to achieve a diversified discussion there is a technique in journalism. Namely, writing three articles on the topic, from three different perspectives. As a small blogger I don’t have the manpower to do so. Therefore I have to opt for one perspective. This does not mean that I do not know or do not seek to apply different perspectives. It simply means I decide for topics that are usually left out.
© 2015, Andreas Quast. All rights reserved.