By Will Heath
"In relation to art, it is used to describe a movement, artist, or group of artists which produces work which is considered to be breaking away from tradition and which steers art in a new direction." - http://www.csa.com/discoveryguides/art/overview.php
Bonsai is changing. Bonsai is evolving. Bonsai is undergoing a transformation unlike anything that has been seen since the Japanese refined what they learned from the Chinese and forged the foundations of the art.
This transformation can be directly attributed to a handful of people. Those who have broken away from tradition and steered the art in a new direction, through their design of bonsai, and their promotion, sponsorship, writing, and showcasing of such work. These few individuals are the Avant-garde of the art of bonsai.
It is no surprise to those in the know that these individuals are quickly lifting the bonsai into the realm of fine art. However, these Avant-garde of the bonsai world often face ridicule, prejudice, and outright dismissal by the so-called retardataire, the French term for latecomer or for those bringing up the rear.
Being Avant-garde also may not be a commercially viable alternative, compared to the more traditional options. Prior to the 19th century, artists who worked on commission had to be very careful to respect and conform to the pre-set expectations of their patrons. At the very most, they had to sneak their innovations or new ideas past the patrons while appearing to be predictable, comfortable, non-startling and non-threatening - otherwise their livelihood could be at risk. Nonetheless, this conversative set of incentives did not entirely stifle initiative or innovation, as the works of that period plainly show.
In the world of bonsai, when someone produces art that is outside of the normally accepted and largely expected traditional styles, they are often faced with spending a rather large amount of time explaining to the masses why they did so. One example that comes to mind is the time Walter Pall spends explaining the Naturalistic style.
The people who pay demand something that they can understand and often will not consider anything radical. There are as always, a few notable exceptions but they are rare in this day and age.
This practice forces those who dare to go outside of the socially accepted norms to either give up any commercial interests and retreat into the privacy of their own gardens, to compromise and tone down their art in order for it to be more popular, or to spend a great deal of effort justifying their work. Either option muzzles the artist, stifles the advancement of the art form, and sends a loud and clear message to other practitioners that stepping outside of the accepted norms will have consequences.
The mixture of alienated advanced artists, viewers, patrons, and consumers who feel that they are outside of the current norms, and the retardataire who either cannot understand or refuse to understand the importance of innovation and invention bear a certain resemblence to the circumstances behind the Romanticism Movement. In fact, it is often said that the Avant-garde is a spin off of this movement.
The 19th century Europeans were heavily influenced by the romantic idea of "struggling artists" who were judged to be such if they seemed to be against current trends, felt unappreciated, or produced work that they felt was not understood by the public. It seems the Europeans developed the "struggling artists" concept in order to explain away inappropriate innovation (anything outside of the accepted norms) and to justify such perceived radicalism in the arts.
In the end, it is far easier to condemn something as being Avant-garde that one can not understand, that one finds threatening, or that one can not see a commercial interest in then it is to try and comprehend it, to appreciate it, or to take the measure of it.
As with all things, time is the ultimate judge of worth, what is Avant-garde today may well be the expected norm tomorrow. It could also well be long forgotten. The only certain thing is that art cannot grow - or perhaps even persist - without innovation, creativity, and invention.
It is my personal opinion that the Avant-garde artists and promoters of such today are a vital part of bonsai and that they are instrumental in raising bonsai to the position of fine art. Without these individuals, bonsai would be static and eventually stagnate. With them, we are on the threshold of a new era in bonsai. I applaud them and welcome the opportunity to be part of this evolution.