Version: v1, Published online: 1998
Retrieved January 30, 2023, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/aesthetics-japanese/v-1
While the terms ‘aesthetics’ and ‘philosophy’ were only introduced into Japan during the Meiji Period (post 1868), Japanese culture has nevertheless witnessed the proliferation of various arts and theories of art for over a millenium. Given that ‘aesthetics’ generally connotes a scientific, often taxonomic approach to the inquiry into beauty and art, it may be preferable to consider Japanese art and theories of art from the perspective of different ways of artistry, rather than impose on it alien categories and assumptions. Even our understanding about what constitutes art must alter when we consider such arts as the production of incense, the tea ceremony, the martial arts or flower arrangement, most of which do not have precise analogues in the West; or if they do, are not considered arts alongside poetry, drama, music and painting.
One of the hallmarks of Japanese art is the emphasis on an awareness of nature. Not only is the natural world a rich storehouse of images and metaphors for use as subject matter, but it is also the means whereby the practices, values and aspirations of the art are defined. Significantly, art itself is seen to be catalysed directly by an encounter with the natural world. All living beings, we are told, are given to song. Yet the natural world also came to be a shibboleth in society among the members of the Japanese court, where a finely honed seasonal awareness came to attest to the refinement and sensibility of the individual. Of all the arts, poetry was seen as pre-eminent, in part because of poetry’s powers to influence the spirits inherent in the natural world. Even the emphasis on place and place-names in Japanese art may be traced to an understanding of the Japanese landscape and language as sacredly imbued.
Another feature of Japanese art and theories of art is its orientation toward the human. In other words, we may define Japanese art as ‘expressive–affective’ in its configuration, stressing the experience of the artist as well as the response of the audience in encountering such a work. In fact, the two roles of artist and audience are related through the focus of the work of art, which usually frames a single moment and its quintessential significance, hon-i, which is unchanging. The quality which ideally characterizes both artist and audience is makoto or sincerity, underlining the point that the function of most Japanese art is to make us feel, rather than think.
As in a number of other traditions, Japanese ways of art are bound up inextricably with issues of religion and religious practice. Not only did Shintō animatism have a profound impact on how Japanese viewed their landscape as well as their own lives, but other imported systems of belief also influenced the course of artistic development, especially Buddhism. Buddhism darkened the hues of classical Japanese art by introducing ideas such as mappō (Latter Days of the Law), which saw the present as degraded and corrupt with respect to the past, and mujō (inconstancy), or the awareness of the ephemerality of this phenomenal world. In Mahāyāna Buddhism, art was perceived as a means of religious awakening, both in the case of poetry viewed as a form of intense meditation (shikan) and as parables whereby the truth could be disseminated obliquely (hōben). This paved the way for the pursuit of various forms of art to become a path (michi) to spiritual awareness. The relation of teacher and student in an art form closely resembled the relation of spiritual master to disciple, a feature which is echoed in the various ‘secret’ artistic treatises whose form, approach and significance suggest esoteric Buddhist manuals setting forth precepts for future generations.
Japanese theories of art also concerned themselves with various aesthetic ideals, distillations of the changing notion of beauty in each era. From aware (the beauty inherent in transience) and miyabi (courtly beauty) during the Heian Period (784–1185), to yūgen (the beauty of mystery and overtones) and sabi (the beauty of desolation and loneliness) in the medieval period, finally to wabi (the beauty of dearth and the humble) and karumi (the beauty of playful lightness) during the Edo Period (1600–1868), to mention only a few of the many ideals, we see an evolution of ideals as a response to cultural and historical change.
What becomes evident in any survey is the assumption of an underlying unity, as in the notions that the impulse toward art is natural and universal; that art functions as a bridge mediating the experience of artist and audience; that sincerity and heart are to be privileged above all other qualities; and that the discipline of art can be a means of spiritual awakening. But we also discover that ideas, such as play, are critical to all forms of art in Japan. Other issues have surfaced periodically in various art forms in the course of Japanese history, such as the struggle between tradition and innovation or the debate about art as spontaneous versus art as the product of careful cultivation (that is, the question of artifice in art), or the question of the singularity of Japanese art.
Viswanathan, Meera. Aesthetics, Japanese, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G106-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/aesthetics-japanese/v-1.
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