I’ve been mulling on this subject for some time now, chasing ideas that run like cloud shadow across the surface of my thoughts. I can’t pin them down any more than I could render actual cloud shadows in the real landscape stationary. That seems fitting, since one of my themes is Impermanence. I think that tonight, I’d also like to reflect on the function of quality and the pursuit of it. I do regard myself as a craftswoman, and I am relentless–almost to the point of obsession–in my quest to refine my craft, to understand it more deeply.
I have spoken of the overwhelming moments of self-doubt. Perhaps I will always feel this, no matter how objectively “good” I get at writing. I think, in a way, this is the thing that drives me most ferociously to try new approaches, to excise and edit the way I do. I stumbled across a quote not long after my last big post. While I’m not technically a beginner, I feel like one. Hence, this resonated with me:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
You have all traveled with me through various artistic projects, pain points, and flights of fancy. You’ve been patient with me while I worked out how I felt about being broken, and that’s another topic I’d like to talk about, with abstractions and digressions, of course. The Japanese have this cultural concept that stems from Buddhism. It embraces the Buddhist concepts of impermanence, suffering, and non-self, known collectively as the Three Marks of Existence. I don’t pretend to grasp them in their fullness, but I find the pursuit of understanding useful in this case.
The Dialectic of Inflexible Standards and Deviation
The philosophy of Wabi Sabi, which you see as a central tenet of Japanese art, particularly in Zen gardening, takes as its unifying concept an acceptance of transience or imperfection. It is essential beauty drawn from an embracing of that which is not necessarily inherently beautiful or perfect. A Shokunin or craftsman seems to see perfection not as something to be attained, but as a recursive journey centered on deeper understandings and endless refinement. As a craft is practiced, there is a constant dialogue of the artist with the medium.
Mistakes or errors are taken as a matter of course. Apprentices study for years, repeating single lessons or tasks many times until a certain standard or form is attained. At which point, they progress to the next lesson. There is an understanding that a tremendous amount of time and effort goes into learning the basic forms first. Only once all of these have been mastered does the craftsman enter a space where elaboration is permitted. But that part is also taken as a matter of course–that at some point, elaboration and reshaping will take place. What the master has spent years learning is not perfection of form, but the rules and relationships that will enable them to bend, break, reduce, and reshape the medium in which they work. They are learning the grammar and syntax of their particular Way.
The Flaw as a Window Into Beauty
I went through months where I looked inward, noted my many flaws and scars, and saw only ugliness. But recently, I began to understand more deeply a thought process which had been purely academic before. The Japanese regard signs of wear as marks of an object’s journey, its history. They do not shun or seek to conceal what more Western philosophies might call flaws. At the same time, several arts of repair have come to my attention, which do not erase damage, but highlight it, and make it a thing of beauty, an art form that cannot be repeated.
The ceramic mending technique of Kintsurukoi or Kintsugi involves repairing broken vessels with lacquer that has been laced with gold, silver, or platinum. It makes of each damaged vessel a unique art object. The history of the break is not erased or effaced, but highlighted and transformed into a singularly beautiful aspect. My contemplation of this concept touches on personal, cultural, and ideological breakage.
We must not seek to deny the history of our individual or societal journeys. I think about damage and what Western cultures seem always to do with what they view as broken–tossing it out. Kintsurukoi is a curation method, reestablishing the usefulness of an object, and heightening its purpose to that of an art via the beauty of the mending practice.
I know that this is not an original correlation, but it is one with intense, personal meaning. My emotional breakage caused me to see myself as no longer useful, an ugly purposeless thing. But in light of what we’ve just talked about, and my contemplation of healing, I see that my scars are things of beauty. I feel the tracery of gold, here and a bit here. I see that the mending that has taken place subtly, without ignoring or denying the injury, has rendered me more myself than ever. I think about perfect or flawless objects, and I finally understand on a bone-deep level that they are objects without soul or history, without depth or lasting interest.
Craft As Both An Extension of the Artist and of Non-Self
Perhaps all craftspeople, artisans, and practitioners of a Way or Tao are driven to convey meaning, impart a packet of time and sensation to an audience. It is, in a manner, one method of anchoring ourselves to the world. What differentiates an artist from an entrepreneur is a matter of priority and focus. It is the recursive relationship between the individual and the art form that trumps considerations of money or renown.
The pursuit of refinement and more effective communication of the respective packet draws a practitioner inward. You can see it in their gaze; they are actively engaged in a form of meditation that deflects every distraction. The concept of perfection in this dynamic is not a truly static ideal. There’s no Platonic version of “best” or “truest” floating out there in the ether, waiting for us to catch it. Rather, it is our inner Horizon Line. It’s different for everyone, and as we pursue it, it takes on different faces. We learn as we go, and we never really expect to catch it.
Rather, there is an expectation that we will refine our techniques, our understanding of both ourselves and our crafts within the context of the inner landscape. There’s a strange duality to an artist at work. We are both more fully ourselves and yet we also become our work and lose track of ourselves. It’s in the focus. Whenever I watch craftspeople, I notice how they seem to disappear. Oh, they’re still right there in front of me, but they aren’t there.
What I’m looking at is an art form, a pouring of some other type of energy out into the world through the hands or body or voice of a meat suit. They become more purely spirit and cease to be conscious creatures with food preferences and favorite songs. It’s not that they are empty, but that they are so overwhelmingly full that everything else is shoved to the sides, crowded into small corners and forgotten. It’s a bit like watching the Floating Nowhere Headspace in another, but of course, I can’t watch myself in that state of mind or I wouldn’t actually be in it. I’d still be Erin the human being, not The vessel Where the Self Is Not.
Cycles, Flaws, and Growth
I remember something that someone I once knew said to me about the projects they created for an Architecture class in college.
“Nothing is precious.” I didn’t really understand it at the time, but looking back on it I see that he was right.
The impermanence I speak of isn’t an impermanence of total proportion, but one of static form. Just as you and I and everyone we will ever know will one day die, our form going back into its component elements in one way or another, so too work changes. These words may be worked over, refined, elaborated or excised at some point in the future, because they both are and are not precious. The flaws that cause me or another to break a work apart are, in essence, the seeds of the next work.
And there’s a sort of endlessness about that concept, that every iteration, every system, contains the elements of its own destruction, which are in turn the means for building the next system. There’s a little Baudrillard there, but it’s definitely paraphrased.
I think, for now, I must curtail this entry. It’s late. I’m sure I’ll make changes, edits, corrections–but for now, here it is: What I want most profoundly is to live each moment as deeply as possible, to fill myself to overflowing with the possibility of Yes. I desire to know the grain and heft of absolute gratitude and to bring forth things of beauty that move people–not with their flawlessness and not so I can be wealthy, but because those things are True. I want to create art that causes the deep dark spaces within others to echo in answer to it. I’m not there yet, but I will continue to work towards that end until I find my own.