Wabi-Sabi: How Perfectionists are Ruining Art

This semester, I’m taking English 355, “Small Press Publishing,” with Professor Jo Van Arkel. I’ve been looking forward to this class since I saw it in the Drury course catalogue as a freshman. The nerd in me is loving every second of this class, and I’ve found that what we’re learning in there is also relevant to a larger conversation about perfection and process.

The class is as much about navigating the waters of publishing as it is about learning to appreciate the physical book as art. Last Friday, Professor Van Arkel was teaching us how to sew together a chapbook, which is a small paperback pamphlet, usually containing short fiction, poetry, or essays. For some people, the act of sewing together the pieces of paper came naturally and, for others, it was sloppy and slow. Our professor explained that one of the things that really make chapbooks and other handmade published materials so great is the fact that they are imperfect and made to be beautiful in a thematic and authentic way.

She then referred to an ancient Japanese tradition called wabi-sabi. Intrigued, I ended up doing my own research about this tradition. There is no Western translation of the tradition, but, according to legend, a young man was tasked with cleaning his master’s garden. After cleaning it to perfection, he was disgusted by the perfection of the garden. He then deliberately spilled some cherry blossoms onto the ground to give it more character.

This ideology is deeply ingrained in Japanese culture. When valuable pottery is broken, instead of throwing it away, it is often bonded back together using gold, making the piece even more valuable than it was originally. Wabi-sabi has a deep connection to nature, and celebrates the changing seasons of life. Japanese people deeply respect their elders, not just as a cultural staple, but they value the physical experience of “old” as art. Liver spots, scars, and wrinkles are signs of a life well lived. It is important to care for your parents when they are old because they cared for you as a baby. Wab- sabi is about nature, cycles, and finding beauty in imperfections.

And if this doesn’t translate to people who work in art or the humanities, then I don’t know what does. I can’t tell you how many times I have stared at my computer, hoping to make something not beautiful, but perfect. As a self-proclaimed perfectionist, I often sabotage my own work by procrastinating until the very end of a deadline and then declaring, “well, it’s not as good as it could have been because I didn’t give myself enough time to work on it.”

I often refuse to look at my own work and accept that the imperfections in my words are what make them mine. New computer programs are on their way to being able to create novels based on algorithms; there’s no way that I can compete with that. We already can see beautiful works of art all around us that are computer generated and contain no flaws because they are not programed to. We are the generation of malls, and iPhones, and plastic surgery. And we have created this standard by demanding perfection in all of our products, art, and even in the people around us.

Eastern culture rejects those qualities because they have no character, no authenticity. My work is beautiful because it comes from me, and it bleeds with my blood. Our bodies are beautiful because they uniquely tell the story of how we came to be. No computer can generate an honest human experience, and that is what we should be asking of one another.

I noticed this in action when I attended the annual Japanese Fall Festival this weekend. At an origami stand, the woman in charge explained that each paper folding technique was correct, and while each of the pieces were different, they were equally beautiful.

It’s easy for me to stand on a soap box as I write from my living room and ask us all to admire the imperfections in ourselves and in our work. And by sharing a tradition that I found inspiring with you, I won’t change the way that the entire Western world operates. But I do encourage each of us to examine our individual arts and disciplines to find what it is that makes our work our own. We are not computers, outputting mass materials, and we shouldn’t strive to be. We are people with stories to tell, and I hope that you can find comfort in your imperfections as we dive head first into the beginning of the school year. Expect wabi-sabi of yourself, your work, and from the people around you and find some peace in this hectic time.



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