Classical vs. Naturalistic = Useless Debate
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Author:  Andy Rutledge [ Fri Feb 02, 2007 8:51 pm ]
Post subject:  Classical vs. Naturalistic = Useless Debate

Classical vs. Naturalistic = Useless Debate
by Andy Rutledge

Bonsai by Dorothy Schmitz
Illustration by Will Heath

Aside from the art vs. not and hobby vs. pro debates, perhaps the most divisive sort of debate in the various bonsai communities is that of classical vs. naturalistic stylings. This is unfortunate because it is a debate over what style is king of the second-class bonsai.

The idea that some bonsai are styled in a classical manner while others are styled in a naturalistic style is founded in an attempt to quantify minutiae in bonsai that fail to be great. The bonsai that are set up as examples in these debates are either deficient in artistry or they're deficient in craft (or perhaps health).

Note, however, that I'm talking about bonsai that are lacking as compared to the best examples of bonsai artistry in the world. Surely, it is entertaining to dwell on or carefully examine what is readily at hand, and to look for differences between what we commonly see in our backyards, local clubs and on the internet. However, when comparing the best examples of bonsai in the world there is no artificial difference that would make one effort classical and another naturalistic. There are only excellent, evocative, effective, successful artistic results - and those that are deficient.

And don't go leaping to your Kokufu-ten albums to try and prove me wrong on this point. 90% to 95% of of the bonsai in every one of those books are deficient bonsai - lacking in craft and/or artistry. I'm talking about excellence here, not near-excellence or merely "Japanese" bonsai. Those albums are filled with many artificial-looking "classical" and "naturalistic" bonsai; none of them excellent. No, that dog will not hunt.

In fine art, the preference between Bouguereau and Nerdrum is one of taste. Both of these artists have produced superior art and each is (was) excellent. Regardless of what some may believe, a preference between classical stylings and naturalistic stylings is not one of taste. It is a false argument set up to distinguish what might be beneficial or detracting among lesser examples of bonsai artistry or craft, or simply a means of differentiating poor material from less-poor material.

For evidence in support of this posit, let us look at one of the great resources for examples of great bonsai art and craft; a Kokufu-ten album. If you have issue number 77, turn to the examples on pages 68, 96, 123, 126, and 169. These bonsai are among the best in the world and they leave virtually every other example in this particular book far behind in matters of quality and artistry. Now, not a single one of them is so artificial as to be clearly "classically" styled or "naturalistically" styled. No, instead they are each simply excellent; natural and evocative and devoid of artifice.

Given this fact, the thought of distinguishing between classical styling and naturalistic styling must be born of a preoccupation with artifice and a misunderstanding of artistry. In some cases, this preference is clearly the a celebration of deficient skill and understanding. That is perhaps to be expected when not everyone involved with bonsai possesses great skill. In fact, only a very few individuals are going to have the skill and understanding required to make the kind of bonsai that rank as fine art. that's just the nature of the world.

However, just because we cannot all, nor even most, of us produce the kind of work that is above artifice, it is in no way good to find new and interesting ways to celebrate our deficiencies. Being pleased with our own efforts, no matter their quality, is natural. Examining and comparing readily available examples of bonsai artistry is instructive and entertaining. But equating what makes one deficient bonsai different from another deficient bonsai with what makes great bonsai is folly. It is a worthless activity that detracts from whatever artistic understanding we may be striving for.

When we do this sort of thing, we're making the same sad mistakes already made by the Pre-Rapaelites in the 19th century. When working to improve ourselves, it is better to stand on the shoulders of giants rather than to start down failed paths of the past. One step forward and 10 steps back is not progress. Debate over which artifice is best, classical or naturalistic, is still a debate celebrating artifice.

If you're at all familiar with philosophy, the Allegory of the Cave must seem oddly similar to this situation. However, unlike the hapless inhabitants of the Cave, most of us who engage in this puerile debate know that there is something better, something that so clearly refutes our claims. So why do we insist that this debate has merit? Isn't it time to acknowledge that quality bonsai artistry is beyond such simple artifice?

Reprinted with permission of the author, Andy Rutledge

Author:  Vance Wood [ Sun Feb 04, 2007 6:31 pm ]
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Not that I disagree with you, understanding that I am the first to say my trees are lacking, I think you have offered a conundrum. It would be nice to hear what you think might be a solution to the problem, of course the person that recognizes that a neighbor's house is on fire is not necessarily obligated to extinguish the aforementioned fire, a bucket of water or a line of spit would be at least a token of assistance.

Author:  Vance Wood [ Sun Feb 04, 2007 6:47 pm ]
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You can make the point that discussing these things is useless debate. But this entire issue begs the question of what to do about what you have so obviously discovered as a problem. Once the bonsaist gets past the technical and horticultural points and has grasped a modicum of understanding in the basic styles where does he/she go to grow beyond the obvious and documented?
Not meaning to be critical of you but your article seems to have the flavor of, look where I am and at what I can do and understand that you cannot and probably never will. I know that is a harsh assessment but no less harsh than what you have implied here. In saying that it is hopeless to discuss these matters is in essence saying: If you don't know, no one can tell you. That, may even be true, I am not sure. But it is certain that if it is not talked about, and has caused people to think about it, things will pretty much stay the same. The good bonsaists will hide in the shadows and the bonsaists that want to grow will continue to grope in the dark.
We can always find the assorted idiots and hobbyists that thinking they know everything there is to know, offer suggestions to beginners and whom ever they can get to listen to them. The serious bonsaist will be left in the dust trying to go down that road seldom traveled into bonsai excelence.
I love your articles and I love your insight but it is not enough for you to tell us we all fall short, you need to tell us why and what to do to fix the problem.

Author:  Walter Pall [ Tue Feb 06, 2007 12:24 pm ]
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A useless debate indeed.
Useless because to debate about these things a minimum of understanding on behalf of the debaters is required of what they are talking about. From reading all the most entertaining and often fierce debates on the internet since many years I have the feeling that these minimum requirements are not met.
What is classical? Well, the overwhelming majority will think that they know exactly what that is. I am afraid they don't. Classical is a moving target. There is an enormous difference as to what classical bonsai is between the perception in Japan and in the western world in general. There is something like a "western classical style". Too many say classic and mean sterotype bonsai.
What is naturalistic? I am afraid that even less know what they are talking about here. Too many say naturalistic and mean unstructured, untidy, sloppy, poor craft - to avoid the word art here.
So how can one debate then when everyone has a different perception of classical and naturalistic? Well, one can debate, but it is a worthless debate.
So let's debate anyway.
"However, when comparing the best examples of bonsai in the world there is no artificial difference that would make one effort classical and another naturalistic. There are only excellent, evocative, effective, successful artistic results - and those that are deficient."
How can someone come up with such a bizarre statement? It is like saying 'When comparing the best examples of paintings in the world there is no artificial difference that would make one effort abstract and another realistic. There are only excellent, evocative, effective, successful artistic results - and those that are deficient.' What a statement!!
"Regardless of what some may believe, a preference between classical stylings and naturalistic stylings is not one of taste. It is a false argument set up to distinguish what might be beneficial or detracting among lesser examples of bonsai artistry or craft, or simply a means of differentiating poor material from less-poor material."
First of all it does not make sense to compare classical with naturalistic. It only makes sense to compare abstract with naturalistic. Classical bonsai is indeed abstract usually, but so is modern bonsai.
And then what proof is there to the above argument other than the author just saying so.
I really wonder what exactly all this is about.
Well, I certainly agree that all too often people compare poor art with poor art. And I also agree that too many are hiding behind rules and think they understand classical bonsai because they know all the rules. And I certainly agree that way too many have no clue of what naturalistic really means and are trying to cover their poor art with the label 'naturalistic', meaning for them 'not following any man made rules'. And it is just poor craft they re talking about.
So what's new?

Author:  Dorothy Schmitz [ Tue Feb 06, 2007 12:58 pm ]
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how would you like the term "methodological" naturalistic style?
The naturalistic style implys a very systematic approch to bonsai for me,
which makes it even more difficult to a achieve a successful design than with the classical way.
To me,the apparent "disorder" of free branches and the random
arrangement of foliage including the distribution of jins seems to follow a sophisticated plan,though aimed to evoke a feeling of simplicity.
When we create a bonsai in the "classical" style(this term is very dynamic,
I agree),we actually utilize design elements deriving from the so called
"naturalistic" approach:
The free branches,asymmetry,the quality of jins and shari,dimension.
This is why I feel the word"methodological" could define "naturalistic"
a bit more.

Author:  Attila Soos [ Tue Feb 06, 2007 5:02 pm ]
Post subject: 

The term naturalistic is a very unfortunate one. That's because it begs to be misunderstood.
There are many reasons causing this misunderstanding.
One is that most people believe that bonsai should be inspired by, and should capture the essence of nature anyway. So, people may ask "what are we missing here, aren't we supposed to reflect nature in our trees, regardless of the style?".
Another reason is that the body of "rules" that developed throughout the history, were originally formulated to translate nature's rules into a set of tools that artists can use to reflect nature in their works. In which case, the skeptics will ask again, "why do our trees have to be different from the so-called naturalistic trees?".
A third reason would be that people confuse the term "naturalistic" with "natural growth", meaning that we should leave the tree more or less undisturbed, to dictate its own shape. This is of course, a blatant misunderstanding of the term, so it needs no further clarification.
However, the first two reasons are a valid concern to those who are trying to understand what "naturalistic style" means.
And there is an other issue that causes even more confusion: is the term "naturalistic" really a style, or does it refer to the artist's approach, or the artist's philosophy to creating bonsai.
If it refers to a particular philosophy, then it can be done through many different styles, or in other words, there is more than one way to Rome.
Considering all the above questions, and even without trying to answer those questions, it is little wonder than the average bonsai enthusiast is confused, when it comes to defining the term "naturalistic".
To make things worse, there is also a great confusion about what "classical" means. And Walter eloquently described the problems in that particular area.
So, if there is no set definition of "classical", and neither is one for "naturalistic", then how can anyone take a rational, or even "scientific" approach, and accurately compare the two?
When asking the above question, I am not implying that there is no such thing as classical or naturalistic. These terms are here to stay, and there is nothing we can do to deny them. But both terms are wide open to intermpretation (as they should be), and so each of us can come up with one that is potentially diametrically opposed to an interpretation coming from somebody else.
One shouldn't believe that there were no similar discussions in other art forms, such as painting. And it took a long time before the recognized styles and movements of today's art history became widely accepted. In order for a style or movement to be recongized a such, there is a crucial condition: critical mass. There must be a number or artists, with recognizable similarities in their works, that prompt the public to recognize a new movement.
In the case of bonsai, classical vs. naturalistic is a relatively young discussion, not even a decade old, with very few players that feel free to follow their own personal approach to bonsai. It is expected that this discussion will go on for a long time before there is a clear-cut verdict.

Author:  Attila Soos [ Tue Feb 06, 2007 6:30 pm ]
Post subject: 

In order to invalidate the premise of this article (or, If we fail, that would mean that Andy's premis is true), we could do the following:
First, we could post some examples of what "classical" means. We need to agree (not exactly, but, at least, in broad terms) on how a classical tree looks like. The condition for such a tree would be:
1. It was created in the distant past (50+ years)
2. It must be representative of a large number of trees created during the same period. In order to qualify to be "representative", the trees posted for this purpose must have distictive similarities.
This would be a valid and methodical approach to establish what "classical bonsai" means.
Once this first step is done, it gets a little easier, since now we have some basis for comparison.
The next step would be to post some trees that, in the poster's mind, qualify as "naturalistic"
And the final step would be to explain why the naturalistic tree is stylistically different from the original pool of trees. These differences don't have to be glaring. They may be suble and hard to detect for the untrained eye. But for the experienced viewer, it shouln't be too hard to see them.
It would be important that these naturalistic trees have something in common (just like in the case of classical trees), so that the distiction can be done without too much effort and imagination on the viewer's part.
So, this is the challenge. If done, this thread could be used as a reference to settle this debate once and for all.
It could be done here, or it may be necessary to create a new thread just for this purpose.

Author:  Vance Wood [ Tue Feb 06, 2007 6:55 pm ]
Post subject: 

I think that it is unfortunate that for the sake of a word, DEBATE, we are side tracking ourselves into the valley of the damned where dwell the gods of rhetoric. Who gives a coprolite, or even an unfossilized representative of the medium, who wins this debate. The other word used here is useless, yes if we debate it is useless, if we discuss and try to figure out what we mean and how it is we understand what we think we mean maybe we can all learn something that takes someone to a higher level. If it is just debate it is useless, it is only an exercise in persuasion and word skills and that doesn't grow bonsai.

Author:  Will Heath [ Tue Feb 06, 2007 6:58 pm ]
Post subject: 

From debate springs understanding.

Author:  Attila Soos [ Tue Feb 06, 2007 7:47 pm ]
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Debates are never useless, if they seek to unveil the truth.
Andy wrote this exactly for that purpose: to stimulate debate. Otherwise, he woudn't have spent his time writing it.
So, anybody up to the challenge, to define classical vs. naturalistic with actual pictures. Pictures are the only way to take this beyond empty phrases.
Regardless of the outcome, we will have something to base our assumptions on. The virtue of an open debate is that the participats are not afraid to find out the truth, even if it goes against their own wishes.

Author:  Richard Bickerton [ Thu Feb 08, 2007 2:53 am ]
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I have read the posting by Andy Rutledge many times now, looked at it from many angles and am still having a hard time finding the point. I have read his web book, some articles, looked at his website and enjoyed them. I have read his posts on forums and found they stirred debate. In this one, I don?t find much. Absolute judgment, when dealing with art is best left to browbeating professors victimizing helpless students unable to defend themselves. It appears, the argument here is, if you really know good art, and am in total agreement with the author, there is only one style of Bonsai, that being the Right Style. It also seems this style is immutable. I know it takes a degree of skill and insightfulness that I don?t possess to recognize these things, but I just don?t see it. I was however glad to learn that real artists don?t resort to artifice when creating idealized versions of real things. Even the choice of artists was a bit Odd (sorry, can?t resist a bad pun.) I believe that Salvador Dal? getting tired of hearing that he did not have the skill and technique to create real art, sculpted a perfect replica of the Venus de Milo, winning praise from all his critics only to turn it into a chest of draws (let forget Dali the person for the sake of this story.)
I have always felt that the difference between Eastern and Western philosophy was that in eastern philosophy you wee presented with something, told to plug it into your life, and what you felt it meant was correct. An hour latter, you had changed, so did the meaning, and that was also correct. In Western philosophy we try to tie things in place, by using bigger and better definitions of each word in our treatise, or absolute meaning.
Change is scary, but I?ve forgotten my dictionary. So I will leave reminding all of the words on the wall of a paradigm driven shop
Shift Happens
BTW- I believe, at least from some of the pictures that I have seen, that some of Walter?s bonsai can be considered as being the best of the best. I am looking forward to your upcoming demonstration at New England Bonsai Gardens
Hope I made some sense here, my tongue was in my cheek, and I kept biting it.

Author:  Mark Arpag [ Thu Feb 08, 2007 7:03 am ]
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It is never a boring ride when you are at the wheel. Regards to Nick.

Author:  Shaukat Islam [ Sun Feb 11, 2007 4:52 am ]
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I agree with your post and you have made a very valid point there.

Author:  Ron Sudiono [ Wed Aug 29, 2007 4:12 am ]
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I like to join in this ?terminology debate?.
I suspect that we do all this ?differentiation? to say something with a reason. It is this context of the individual reasons that I?m interested in. So, I ask every responder to look at his/her context, ? think a while .. and write a response again, not about this subject, but about your context, aim, need, etc.
My context/reason is that I?m studying bonsai history. One approach is to study the different developments in bonsai styling like in the art of painting.
My definition of ?classical?, not only in bonsai but also in cars etc, is as common and simple as ?ever lasting?, or at least ?be seen as good and beautiful for a long time and in different places in the world?. Yuji Yoshimura (1921-1977) defined what he tought to be classical, neo-classical or contemporair bonsai as follows: he believed that bonsai development in Japan could be devided into 3 periods: the former period began around year 1800, the latest period around the year 1950. In this latest period new bonsai styles as literati and the broom style were for the first time accepted as a style. This was all about tree form, not about the style of the bonsaika in work. Fortunately, he also has said something about styling. He stated that the bonsai which was styled outside Japan to be neo-classical or contemporair, but, to my regret, no other comment was delivered to explain the differences.
My definition of ?naturalistic? is a movement which is a new reaction against something ?not naturalistic?. I see for example that Kimura was/is the pioneer in what I call ?magical? or ?abstract? bonsai/style. In Japanese garden art this development is also happened. Gunther Nietschke and David Slawson wrote about the transformation from natural styled gardens via symbolic gardens to abstract gardens; he used the phrase ?transformation from land-scape to mind-scape? to express this swift from nature-based or -inspired to man-centered with his ability to think absractly as the egocentric focus. Well, in this analogy, I see the ?naturalistic? bonsai/style as a reaction against Kimura?s abstract bonsai/style. I still struggle with some unanswered questions: Is it a kind of ?back to nature? movement as a negative reaction against ?too much egocentric man-styled bonsai? or is there another kind of explanation ? Are we just getting bored and just need something "new" or what ? How big is the impact of this movement at this moment and the near furture, who are the promoters ?
The term ?modern? bonsai is merely to distinct old and new, like ?contemporair? in relationship to ?classical?.
Please respond in order to develop more knowledge, understanding and insight in bonsai (history).

Author:  Attila Soos [ Fri Aug 31, 2007 4:45 pm ]
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I see the term Naturalistic as an attempt to expand the range of forms and elements beyond the boundaries generally accepted by the bonsai tradition. In short, an attempt to break free from tradition. The underlying explanation is "if we can find it in nature, why not try to represent it through bonsai". The self-imposed condition is that we should be able to incorporate these new forms into an interesting and creative design".
One can argue that it's nature is a reaction to break as many bonsai taboos as possible, but I think that the approach is more pro-active than reactive (to expand and enrich bonsai, that is).
Naturalistic bonsai takes pride in imitating nature. It recognizes that the purpose of bonsai is NOT to imitate nature, but rather to evoke the artist's feelings about nature. But it also says: Why not imitate nature, if this can create a credible result?
Naturalistic bonsai can only described in the context of "abstract bonsai" or "traditional bonsai". It has no meaning in the context of "good bonsai" or "bad bonsai", since these terms can be applied to any bonsai.

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