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When Good Art Goes Bad

Combining Bonsai and Other Works of Art

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By Andy Rutledge, USA


Well, it has happened now several times over the past few years, in several venues around the world and it’s time to say something: Displays of bonsai combined with other examples of Western art do not work. At least such is overwhelmingly evidenced by the efforts presented thus far. So stop it. No, really.

Okay, so what about the idea of grand purpose and daring-do in artistry? Yes, there can be honor and reward in sticking one’s neck out, in braving new territory. Art quality is somewhat subjective, after all, which means that boundaries are only vaguely defined. Pushing boundaries comes naturally to artistry. But in the cases we’ve been presented as yet, it is not boundaries that are being left behind, but artistry.

These sophomoric exhibits do more than waste time and effort for those involved. They harm the art of bonsai. These days, bonsai art is struggling in many parts of the West to gain exposure and credibility. But artless and incoherent efforts do not lend gravity to that enterprise. Rather, they make bonsai seem silly and frivolous.

Blame it on poor upbringing

These sorts of exhibits fail for three simple reasons. The first can be remedied quite simply (but seldom is), but the second may in fact render the whole endeavor quite hopeless. But the third is the most important and presents the most significant hurdle. I put it to you that even under the best of circumstances, an attempt to combine bonsai with examples of Western art is utterly futile if quality artistry is the aim.

The first failing demonstrated in most of these exhibits is that both the bonsai and the works they’re displayed with are simply no good. The truest test of art quality is its ability to communicate ...something. In most of the bonsai and other-media exhibits I’ve seen, the bonsai are simply poor trees that are poorly composed, poorly potted and poorly presented. Likewise, the "art" they’re displayed with is usually dull, lifeless and uncommunicative. I guess the exhibitors’ hope is that by combining two poor works, the result will somehow be better. It’s not! Art simply does not work that way.

The second, perhaps fatal, failing of this type of effort is that bonsai art has a specific context inherent in the medium. The context is cultural and natural, and cannot be overcome simply by wishing it away. Humans cannot easily ignore or discount ingrained cultural and natural norms and experiences. And when they do, the experience is unfailingly marred by the artifice of doing so.

Take the example of perhaps the best exhibit of this type, the one in Germany put on by artist, Udo Claassen, and his friends. Here we have an exhibit where the paintings are arguably very nice and the bonsai are arguably very nice. The result, however, diminishes rather than enhances both the paintings and the bonsai. The reason for this is that the painting does not lend context to the bonsai in any natural or cultural sense. Additionally, the bonsai pretty much just gets in the way of the painting and detracts from what could be an otherwise possibility-filled, objective, individual experience.

The natural and obvious question when viewing these works is, "What does the bonsai say about the painting – and what does the painting say about the bonsai?" The answer, of course, is "nothing." Ideally, works of art define and communicate something – up to a point – leaving the viewer to complete the meaning and message. That could be possible with either the painting or the bonsai alone, but when the two are combined like this, each gets in the way of the other by providing a meaningless, non-contextual addition to the suggested portion of the message.

Think about it; why would one want to display a Nerdrum painting together with a Rodin sculpture. What would be the point? Neither of these works needs the other to support it, so their combination can do nothing more than present distraction and incoherence.

But most important...

Perhaps the way to best understand why these sorts of exhibits fail is to examine what makes traditional bonsai display work.

A simplistic way of defining the basic reason why traditional 2-point or 3-point bonsai display works is to say that bonsai art is delicate. Bonsai display must be delicate, it must be understated, it must be quiet or it will not be successful. Part of the reason why is that bonsai are not huge trees in meadows or on mountainsides. Rather, they’re very small trees in pots. Furthermore, and I feel silly pointing this out, they’re TREES. They have a specific place in our world, a place and context that is understood by all human beings.

By their very nature, trees communicate something specific to us. Artistry that employs trees is bound, to a large degree, by this widely recognized context. Successful bonsai displays are composed in such a way as to reference, play upon, and/or enhance that context. As the human concept for admiration of trees usually involves their grand size, age and/or majesty, the accompanying elements in a bonsai display should enhance some or all of those particular qualities. And they must do so in a subtle and delicate way, else the small tree in a pot is revealed to be little more than a small tree in a pot.

What we have with these exhibits of bonsai and other media is a complete ignorance of or disdain for these facts. In such exhibits, trees are taken out of their natural and widely understood context and placed where they become meaningless and uncommunicative. Uncommunicative, meaningless art is bad art. And that is why these attempts to combine bonsai with other works of art outside of the "bonsai" context are unsuccessful. They’re simply examples of bad art, and for the best of reasons: they ignore the principles of artistry. Who’d have thought it could be so simple?

So while perseverance can be admired and exploration can bear fruit, these efforts at employing bonsai in daringly incoherent art exhibits should cease. They make us look ridiculous. Most great discoveries come from standing on the shoulders of giants, but these are not giants. They’re windmills. And it takes a Quixotic perception to believe otherwise.

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