Mass Produced vs Master Produced Bonsai - Only One is Art
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Author:  Editorial Staff [ Thu Jun 25, 2009 11:25 am ]
Post subject:  Mass Produced vs Master Produced Bonsai - Only One is Art

This thread is for the discussion of the article "Mass Produced vs Master Produced Bonsai - Only One is Art" by Michelle Dougherty ... master.php

Author:  Ana Veler [ Sat Jun 27, 2009 6:40 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Mass Produced vs Master Produced Bonsai - Only One is Art

One could fill miles of shelf with books defining art... Still, the one implied by the article sounds uniquely interesting read in the context of this forum: more then once, articles and interviews collected here try to pin down a subtle difference between the eastern and western bonsai traditions - one placing less emphasis on personal authorship then the other.

The wider history of European art, reminds of a similar revelation of alternative historic and cultural options of the - seemingly all too natural! - concept of authorship... on the occasion of the re-insertion of primitive art (**) and Eastern art as reference(*). Those were superficial imports of deadwood imagery with no need of expert watering... Also, none of the arts involved dealt with permanently un-finished items either (for all the philosophical depth of the final artistic gesture, bar Constructivism). [enough already? I have yet to find a parallel between the art of bonsai and the ideas of western art, although the nature of the medium and its economy suggest rich opportunities...]

If one would want to guess whether authorship in the western art of bonsai today may also morph into the traditional unsigned state of this art, what would be the one thing to watch about Bonsai in Europe?


The following sources define my terms pretty well:

(*) Japonisme defined:

(**) Primitivism and Twentieth-Century Art described:

Author:  steve kallio [ Sat Jun 27, 2009 11:36 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Mass Produced vs Master Produced Bonsai - Only One is Art

That was deep. Where's Will's cannibis bonsai? I think I feel the need suddenly.

Great and thoughtful article. I do believe that the mass produced trees hurt the art on the whole but if human nature wasn't settle for less to have it now then it never would have become a problem.

That first reply hurt my head. Some people are obviously waaay better at thinking than myself.

Author:  Michelle Dougherty [ Sun Jun 28, 2009 2:18 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Mass Produced vs Master Produced Bonsai - Only One is Art

Constructivism seems to sum up nicely the ‘final artistic gesture.’ Bonsai is the tangible item facilitating, quite encouraging even, of continued learning, of understanding the world around us, through exploration of something else. The watering issue does limit broader accessibility. ;-)

I think it is possible for the art world and the bonsai community to stage a merger. Western artists have long been experimenting with living materials, and inherent transient natures (slowly rotting fruit depicted in a still life while it decays on a window sill, the whole process being filmed, or a whale in a glass box filled with formaldehyde, or a taxidermy horse decapitated and glued to the wall, or Koon’s famous Puppy, or Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Wrapped Trees, and on and on…).

A more structured working relationship may well develop in the future. While Suiseki are popping up in more and more decorating publications, education is still needed to distinguish them from the old ‘pet rock’ impressions. What if: An edgy, uptown art gallery, decided to showcase a one-man exhibition of Bonsai masterworks? And approached it as a full fledged emerging talent with 15 or so trees, a glossy color catalog, full page advertising in art publications leading up to the show, prices on each tree ranging from $800 to $12,000, wine and cheese, media invitations, and attendance at the event by several cognoscenti…?

When I was in Japan at the Kokufu show this year I observed a distinct difference in cultural attitudes. The Japanese, for thousands of years have been told not to rock the boat, not to stand out as an individual, to contribute to the overall good… In America we generally have quite the opposite philosophy - 'let your light shine, be the best, get the recognition you deserve for all your hard work…' Japanese Bonsai is displayed as a humble poetic offering of beauty and courage, and insight, and we have, in America, followed suit in our manor of hosting displays. A club or organization is in charge, they stand to make a profit in some way, not the artist who submits the work. The species is occasionally identified, but rarely the artist. It is possible we are not as comfortable with anonymity so perhaps internet forums developed as a way to correct this…“wait a minute, that tree that was on display last weekend in the show at the cultural center was mine, I made that.” In America, we tend to ask "who is the artist, who created this, and why, what were the influences, what is the message, how can I learn more about this from the person that created it?" Hence this online project… perhaps.


Author:  Ravi Kiran [ Tue Jun 30, 2009 8:35 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Mass Produced vs Master Produced Bonsai - Only One is Art

Thanks Michelle for a wonderful and thought provoking article. I would go on to say that mass produced stuff is better called as craft and master produced "masterpieces" are art. The difference is quiet distinct.

The article was very encouraging especially for me as I belong to what can be best described as an advanced beginner category(no where near master class yet!!). However I would never design a tree to confirm to a particular style, but I would rather be led by the tree. A master once said "Listen to the tree" and that is my approach. The end result is a variant of some of the classical styles and at times does not confirm to any classical style. This is a difficult thing to appreciate by many of my local bonsaists.

I am into bonsai for the joy of it and I do not sell my bonsai. Hence I am free to design them the way I feel best not withstanding the lack of acceptance or appreciation.

A true artist must be unaffected and uninfluenced by critique and commercial considerations. Under such conditions a work of art is born and flourishes.

Thanks again for a wonderful article. Long live the "living art" of bonsai.

Author:  Ana Veler [ Fri Jul 03, 2009 10:25 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Mass Produced vs Master Produced Bonsai - Only One is Art

About the "What if": I believe this has been done by Mr. Pall a few years back, Thor Beowulf... Apparently, not the kind of thing to catch on like wildfire. Perhaps, not too surprising - at least, I have a hard time imagining a horde of fairly high end art dealers finding an adventurous business streak after having groomed specialized audiences and their own niche connoisseurship for as long as their careers. 'Events' are always nice! Again 'perhaps', that breed of bonsai nursery that does not own most of the best trees it maintains, is what fulfills the role of galleries for the art of bonsai - unless history resists being transplanted.

Would rather expect continuous bonsai displays in places like the Hombroich spaceplacelab and its brethren - after all, architecture is more of an art of open air projects demanding life-long commitment, although bonsai and sculpture share scale and pots. Besides, idle architecture displays tend to have problems with updates and weeds... and the expectations of ownership seem closest between a 'living art' object, and art to live in...

Do public bonsai collections - few a they might be, connect with other arts and their public?

I did not expect a long response at all - thank you for your time. And definitely not one referring to individualism! Also, your mention of organic materials deployed by modern art makes me think that most of those were picked for their particular rate and manner of decomposition - a neat opposite.

Come to think of it, comparing bonsai with modern art is quite interesting in itself - this is anything but a recent art form, it just happens to be relatively new in some places and relatively old in others (which cannot be said of many things, can it).

There must be a thousand and one significant association between the art of bonsai and instances of western art; all more interesting for onlookers to both - like myself, then of any practical interest... [Oops by now - this is getting too long for a second post!]

Author:  Michelle Dougherty [ Sun Jul 05, 2009 12:37 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Mass Produced vs Master Produced Bonsai - Only One is Art

Thank you Ana, for your insightful responses to my "what if" scenario. They made me think about the topic a bit more, with a new perspective, and isn't that the whole point?

I also appreciate your identifying the comparison of several 'opposites' - one of my art college professors was big on group compare and contrast exercises to help more clearly understand certain ideas.

Sometimes a bonsai tree can be perceived as an opposite of what is 'supposed' to be the standard, which allows for lively critical discussions and quite hopefully expanded definitions and perceptions.

The Pine tree belonging to Mike Page that swirled up so much mental dust a few months ago here on AoB is a good example of what I am encouraging with my article. At some point the bonsai artist must simply, wholeheartedly go forth and create, let all the critics say what they will. I love that this Pine, described by Mr. Morimae when he said, “There is no trace of ego in this tree”, will now forever be associated with the artist who displayed it. Good, bad, right, wrong, correct, incorrect, or otherwise, hopefully a conceptual inspiration to other artists. The aftermath of his presentation of that particular tree...the global internet discussion that ensued, by some of the greatest bonsai minds of our day, the human interaction that was a direct result of his artistic work... it can not be contrived, expected, or anticipated, the artist must simply create.

The work, if it is provocative enough, should generate its own buzz, which enhances our collective experience of the art, which gives us a richer human experience of exchange and understanding, which is why we're involved in bonsai in the first place.


Author:  Ana Veler [ Mon Jul 06, 2009 9:22 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Mass Produced vs Master Produced Bonsai - Only One is Art

Glad to hear you writing the last bit! It is quite satisfying to make up my own mind of where Art begins - whoever came up with the 'eye of the beholder' thing gave the perfect excuse (not sure that was the point, but... what isn't interpretation good for?) , but art - like wine - doesn't feel entirely right drunk alone (for clarity: the analogy is meant between excess of both - drastic hangover versus un-communicable aesthetic infatuation)

Sharing in bonsai appreciation poses a problem: it takes growing some rather demanding greenery to get to talk about it... Perhaps this doesn't sounds too relevant written here, but think how odd this might sound for painting, sculpture, architecture, fashion, literature, most sciences... It is way more common to have 'art' (or science) made by a few, bought, sold or otherwise used by somewhat more, read proficiently by a slightly larger lot still, and appreciated by a great many with virtually no tangible engagement but opinion. Bonsai appears to have entry tickets growing in pots, so to speak (exaggerating, but by how much?), and I'd bet this makes a whole lot of difference to where 'art' begins among western bonsai too...

I looked up the pine tree you mention, and, I would say that remembering my first impression of it from reading the forum a while back might make the point here too: the thing feels striking among trees potted or not, as blank verse is among both prose and pentameters! Would have rather used an analogy with an art that does have as wide a public (counting everyone who knows what 'poetry is, who made or make it, how, where and by whom it is actively enjoyed, rather then just the letter bunch) AND a strong connection with the art of bonsai already... but... I am simply not familiar enough with any Asian arts to appreciate their relation with critique and readership, that seems to be at stake here. And, as said above, the connection between western art and bonsai seems fantastic ground for speculation, although rather barren of reference.

'Enough is enough (jotting down opinion in public is one irresistible indulgence), I guess...

Your article and our talk also made me notice another (thanks to the other recent AoB front page bit),

and read twice through this bit ... mpics.html

[citing with apologies for insistent reading ... are blogs supposed to be cite-able?]

Author:  Walter Pall [ Mon Jul 06, 2009 9:49 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Mass Produced vs Master Produced Bonsai - Only One is Art


everything written on the net is citable. But not everything is worthwhile, as you know well. Most of it is hogwash. You can always cite me from anywhere.


Author:  Gene Deci [ Wed Jul 15, 2009 10:07 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Mass Produced vs Master Produced Bonsai - Only One is Art

I am not sure why a bonsai created to reveal its message gradually, one which requires extra effort on the part of the beholder to be appreciated is inherently any better than a tree that is more immediately accessible. That is a slippery slope. John Naka may have said it best: “Don’t make your tree look like a bonsai, make your bonsai look like a tree.”

Nice, thought provoking article.

Author:  Ana Veler [ Fri Jul 17, 2009 5:45 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Mass Produced vs Master Produced Bonsai - Only One is Art

Then, what makes trees accessible as aesthetic objects? I am guessing that for quite a few people trey are lumber, or weeds good for shadow, occasionally revered for scale or hated for busting sidewalks, etc. I do not mean this as a rhetorical question, and here's why:

If literature is any indication, art objects that are both accessible and suitable for diligent contemplation end up on the top of the history pile. Only there really aren't that many of the kind in any art form, and there's hardly any simple yardstick for the lot...

For once, I surely do not 'get' many of the trees exposed here. The fact that insiders to the Art spend allot of arcane vocabulary on them ;) makes the obscure ones worth looking at longer then the ones that need no introduction at all. Then, the obvious ones stop being quite so obvious. Not an entirely unpleasant process, and not entirely about the vegetal mass in question either. Inasmuch, the art work and language is what makes trees accessible rather then the other way around.

Clearly, I only have one vote and one view to give, and that's too few even for art matters that typically have non-trivial definitions of popularity...

Author:  Gene Deci [ Sat Jul 18, 2009 2:33 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Mass Produced vs Master Produced Bonsai - Only One is Art

The first bonsai I ever saw was not remarkable in style, species or message. It was a red maple, (acer rubrum) a common tree in Eastern Unite States, done quite simply in the informal upright style. It looked like nothing more than a miniature version of grand old trees I had seen hundreds of times. But that was the wonder of it. It was a perfect miniature growing in a pot, a living miracle. I was a complete neophyte then and I have since learned to appreciate the art necessary to produce that impression. I have also learned to appreciate trees that evoke more exotic reactions. But I still am most moved by bonsai that look like miniature versions of old, but ordinary, full-sized trees. No hidden messages, no jargon required – but perhaps the hardest of all bonsai to do well.

I am first to admit that the trees that are ordinary where I live are not the same trees that are found elsewhere in the world. But there is nothing wrong with bonsai reflecting the grandeur of nature from all different regions. As you point out (I think), Ana, the aesthetics have more to do with trees than with bonsai.

Author:  Michelle Dougherty [ Sat Jul 18, 2009 5:45 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Mass Produced vs Master Produced Bonsai - Only One is Art

Thank you Ana and Gene for your participation in this discussion.

Okay now... Stop me if you've heard this one:

Five artists walk into a bar...

Each is handed a piece of white paper and asked to depict a Red Delicious apple.

The first artist is a 3rd grader from Mrs. Johnson's art class who creates a charming crayon depiction, beautiful in its simplicity, with no sophistication, and no one seems to mind the peanut butter smudge in the margin.

The second artist is a Folk Artist whose bohemian style incorporates a rusted disk with a welded old bent nail as the stem, a single 'leaf' made of a broken oyster shell is glued on (the items, including the welding torch, happened to be handy in the trunk of the car).

The third artist is a self-taught Impressionist inspired by Monet, who uses pastels to subtly capture the essence of the apple's shape and roundness through wispy light repetitive strokes.

The fourth is a traditionally trained french artist, who also works for an engineering firm as a consultant, whose realistically painted apple seems so life-like it could be lifted from the page, in an ultra detailed trompe l'oeil style that perfectly captures the shine of the red peel and the delicate curl of the fresh green leaf.

The fifth artist's avant garde attitude and experimental tendencies lead to some serious pondering about the true nature of the apple and how it relates to the viewer, ultimately he splashes red paint in a blob which runs a bit before congealing, then he crumples the paper into a bowl shape, fills it with a handful of dirt and plants a single apple seed.

Each is a response to how the art should be created. Each can find an appreciative audience (even if it's just Mom sticking it on the refrigerator).

Gene, I appreciate your sentiment that the tree should 'look like a tree' and doesn't necessarily need deeper meaning. If all the tools at our disposal are capably employed with skill and patience, our work can indeed approach the level of mimicking nature's grace and majesty in a single tree or planting. It certainly doesn't just grow that way in the pot all by itself though. An artists intention, then is to create a tree that looks just like a tree growing wild (somewhere in the world and geographical images vary wildly, a tree growing in the desert in California does not look like a tree growing in the tropics of Vietnam, or on the coast on Japan, or in a valley in New Zealand, etc.).

I refuse to engage in yet another exhaustive art vs. craft symposium (I believe if you are following rules to imitate something that has already been done - it is a craft, if you are using the rules to create something new and stretching beyond what has been done already - it is art, which is the position of my article). Super-Realistically depicted trees 'contribute' just as much to bonsai as other approaches to the art. It is, however, only one approach (as hopefully my little story above illustrates). The realistically styled tree hopefully, even unintentionally, creates deeper emotions, or layers of response from the viewer. Maybe as a child a tree like that grew down the street from their home and they met their childhood friends once a week to swing on the old rubber tire hung from the branches (this creates a good feeling) - or maybe a beloved pet died and was buried under a similar tree with elegant drooping branches (so it creates a sad memory), maybe that maple you referred to would remind me of the leaves changing color each autumn in Aspen, Colorado, near where I grew up and create a happy response for me too, even if it is just a subconscious response of appreciation and relaxation... I would hope that the creator of the tree wants some kind of a response and not, "Oh, it's just another tree...." What artist in the history of the world has endeavored to create 'just' another painting, or 'just' another building, or 'just' another garden, why would anyone bother with JUST another tree? It has to say something.

We are all drawn to things or repulsed by things, we like them or dislike them, we feel good about them, or not, BECAUSE of something. Why do you like the image of the natural maple? Why do you feel that the tree can not have more to 'say'? Why are we learning more about how we create 'art' to create better art? Why is bonsai so captivating to begin with?


Author:  Ana Veler [ Sat Jul 18, 2009 7:38 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Mass Produced vs Master Produced Bonsai - Only One is Art

Gene, you spelled out precisely the position I was trying to describe the opposite of... but that is closer to what I am trying to say I usually expect! Sorry for being so dense...

Besides, I sympathise with your view as well. Never knew what to make of art without a whole lot of well-spoken opinion around to enjoy listening to.

Now that you mentioned red maples, I realize I have never seen an old one in person - the species is only known to me from urban landscaping; mostly 'young' trees by tree life span standards.

Reflecting your post, I must admit that for me... old trees are fascinating mostly because of girth: I know most of the really old ones in town - only about a dozen approaching two centuries, two older. It takes very sheltered circumstances to get a mammoth of a tree anywhere close to the 'model' of the species (in the sense of botanical atlas forms) - and none of these have it. I don't think I ever had a reason to give this a thought until now, but... I think that the old 'perfect' trees I recall are from old landscaped estates seen while travelling. To me, these are as much a form exagerated by age as any old trees on which other long-standing circumstances of growth become grossly magnified.

Sometimes outwordly forms do not even take allot of time, just compelling circumstances. And this is where, I believe, bonsai seem to be doing something fairly similar to what happens in nature - wilderness and lansdcaped estates included (most obvious intersection: yamadori; right?).

This is all trees themselves have to do with aesthetics for me. The rest is in the tradition of interpretation built around them - past and present.

Not sure how enthusiastic I would be about miniature trees if there wasn't more about them. But again, I never got the point of painting on rice grains and such - might be quite a feat (or spiritual experience, whichever) to make them, but the result looks a whole lot like any other gimmick.

Author:  Ana Veler [ Sat Jul 18, 2009 7:52 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Mass Produced vs Master Produced Bonsai - Only One is Art

Michelle, your apple leaves me wondering: different ways of bonsai are not usually spelled out as art currents, are they? Hm....

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