Limited by Knowledge
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Author:  Enrique Castano [ Sun Dec 07, 2008 1:31 am ]
Post subject:  Limited by Knowledge

Limited by Knowledge
by Enrique Castano

Bonsai by Enrique Castano
Illustration by Will Heath*

How can art be limited? We are usually led to believe that art is free and can take any form from our imagination. The truth is, most forms of art are limited by critics and public acceptance. Public acceptance of new art takes time. Of course, one person can create a new sound, a new dance, a new style of painting, a new sculpture etc. However, if people don’t accept it there will be no trace of it in society in years to come. In a way, art can be seen as survival of the fittest. The types of arts that are not accepted will be forgotten soon and new things will be tried. What allows one form of art to be accepted and not another? A lot of it depends on the knowledge of the critics and public. In bonsai, we are still quite limited by not only the public understanding of bonsai but by many bonsai artists. Well known artists are usually the critics that people follow. Their thoughts and acceptances or lack of it, can influence the public and new generations of artists. Bonsai artists should be aware of how their knowledge and passage of knowledge affects the art.

Bonsai artists are often limited by their knowledge of species and their cultivation. For example, some artist regards “tropicals” as a different class apart from conifers and deciduous trees, as can be seen in many bonsai contests. The reason is due to the lack of knowledge as there can be tropical pines, junipers, taxus etc. Some tropicals are also deciduous trees as they lose their leaves during the dry seasons. However, there are some renowned western bonsai artists that do not treat them seriously. This discrimination limits their bonsai students and propagates the prejudiced cycle.

Other places where artist are limited by knowledge is in the choice of containers. Today, most accepted bonsai containers’ are ceramic pots. For many, a bonsai composition can only be accepted if it is in a ceramic pot. People accept them without questioning. Why? Limited in shapes and colors as people feel safer that they will be less criticized. When people are not secure about their knowledge they hardly depart from traditional shapes, reducing the possibilities of expression.

Defining forms (styles for some) as such is quite a useful classification. However, when this knowledge limits the possibilities in shapes or forms it can have terrible effects for new forms to be tried. This is of particular relevance when old collected trees are in question. The full potential of a tree can be lost just to follow a particular shape, because it does not conform to the “rules”. It is interesting to see many artists teach about the “rules” but they themselves do not follow them in many cases. Therefore people are mix with regard to what is the way. Nowadays some stress that this are guidelines however they fail to teach what the reasons are and what can be done. A far more eloquent article on this subject, "The Principles of Good Bonsai Design", by Robert Steven can be found at ... ciples.php

There are many places where we are limited by knowledge. From accepted techniques to displays, our taste in bonsai evolves as our experience and knowledge increases. However, this is a slow pioneering process. Critics and public acceptance has to be gained before we can move to something new. As an artist, it is usually hard to get out of the norm and create and an art piece that will move people feelings, allowing them to see a story on their own. It is far safer (not necessarily easier) to create a piece of art that is boring in shape and style.

*photograpgh of Sing Sing used is in the public domain as its copyright has expired.

Author:  Ravi Kiran [ Fri Dec 12, 2008 5:40 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Limited by Knowledge

I was a little surprised to see that no one had responded to such a profound topic in nearly 5 days that it has been posted. Wondering if Bonsaists too are taking a winter break.

Coming to the article well it is indeed a thought provoking one. I have read through some of the fiercest debates on the Art of Bonsai. About what a tree should confirm to and what the consequences of non conformance are.

Like in any art, in Bonsai too there are guidelines (not rules). These apply to shapes and forms on the outside(formal upright, slanting. Bunjin...) and to the way the trunk, root flare, branch layout etc should be on the inside. One would use these guidelines to create a work of art.

However appreciating a work of art is more of a left brained function. One shouldn't get the right brain into art appreciation. What I mean is when one appreciates a Bonsai, the tree should appeal to you. It should talk to you. It should tickle your senses. One shouldn't approach appreciation with a rule book to begin with. Like correcting an answer sheet of an examination. Art appreciation is not a set of rules or guidelines. It is a source of joy!!

What appeals to one needn't appeal to another and it is quiet ok. Like in music some might like classical and others rap. It might be rare to get a person who appreciates both but still both are accepted forms of music.

Likewise in Bonsai what appeals to one person might not appeal to another. One should understand the difference between "different" and "bad". For example given the same prebonsai material, no two masters would end up with the same end result. The results we would say are "different" and definitely not "bad".

On the other side you might have a tree that is not worked upon or partly worked upon. An unworked material should not be passed off as a Bonsai. For starters a tree should be worked upon. There should be a plan for a tree. The Bonsaist should put the plan into action and over time when the plan transforms into reality it becomes a work of art.

An artist needs creative space and (s)he is not tied down by rules. If they were we would not have had the a Picasso, or (my favourite) Dali and in bonsai Kimura (yes he was an outcast in his initial days in Japan!!!)

Author:  Enrique Castano [ Mon Dec 15, 2008 8:31 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Limited by Knowledge

Thanks for your words Ravi, I like
An artist needs creative space and (s)he is not tied down by rules. If they were we would not have had the a Picasso, or (my favorite) Dali and in bonsai Kimura (yes he was an outcast in his initial days in Japan!!!)

But more than that, it is easy to forget that we are just learning and that our actions are what teaches many. Specially from the more famous artist, the more he/she has to realize that his/her words may inspire new generations and that he/she should be careful in their teachings. People are often in the need of a teacher and they usually don't question what is being tough, they take it as rules. This is a real danger in art. One should always question and reflect upon our knowledge of something and try to improve upon that. This would only make us better, but for that we have to acknowledge that we are just learning. However I think this endless path is worth taking

Author:  Mark Arpag [ Fri Dec 19, 2008 7:17 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Limited by Knowledge

Very interesting and thought provoking title.
I would add AND Insight to that statement.
The number of "half read" types with inflated views of their own command of the Art of Bonsai is staggering.
It is widespread and is not just the guy who has never left southern California but Europeans who travel the globe but never make it to Japan to the guy down under who has been all over the world and still is without a clue.What do they all have in common? They have gained superficial knowledge ,some in larger quantities, but still have not gained understanding and insight.Worse yet they do not seek it and do not seem to care to.
Superficial knowledge is abundant and easy to access.The really "good stuff" is not easy to access, takes time, an open mind and a desire to find it.
There are common threads with the people in Bonsai who I respect and look to for inspiration and insight. They continue to learn them selves out of a true love of Bonsai and have a child like excitement in that persuit no matter what their age. They do not trumpet their own brand of wisdom nor do they offer up heaping helpings of greasy fast food of the carnival barker and tell you its health food. They will share what insight they have
in quiet sincerity. They are generous and passionate and there is no doubt regarding their motivation. Like a prospector who has found gold, I return to these "streams" of insight looking for more again and again.
I have found that I miss some and continue look for what I may have over looked.Those that smugly embrace their "knowledge" and "understanding" and set out to tell the rest of us "how it is" think they are winning the race but in fact are securely in the last place for wisdom.. Bonsai is not a race,contest, a game or campaign. Those that suggest so expose their poverty of spirit.
I recently re-read Craig Cousins Bonsai School, the most current addition. While I am not recommending this text or praising his work as an Artist, he does make a few good points in his introduction.
"After thirty years of practicing Bonsai, I now realize that what I thought I knew as "fact"fifteen years ago has changed,developed and grown." "Thinking that you know everything is a disease of the ego, and remember that teachers and Artists are always experimenting, in a sense making them perpetual students" Unfortunately too many suffer from the "disease of the ego".
The internet is much the same. There are jewels to be found but you must sift through tons and tons of worthless material to find them.Those that feel they deserve to be spoon fed will find many "experts" willing to shovel as much as you can eat.But it is not health food and the "diseases" that plague them will infect others.

Author:  lindsay farr [ Fri Dec 19, 2008 8:51 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Limited by Knowledge

Yeah, What happened to Walters piece on Seiji Morimae. I read it at least ten times in search of the implied wisdom that Walter recognised. No matter how I searched I couldn't find resonant wisdom.
Then when I went back to try again it was gone without explanation.

Mr Morimae's glorious Wabi magazine was as fine a magazine as I have seen.
With production values to die for it was a real pleasure to turn the pages.

It is unfortunate that this superb publication failed to find a viable audience.

But then again, who am I to evaluate since I don't speak Japanese.

I must thank Walter for posting the piece as iIbelieve that it sheds some light on the written content in Mr Morimae's thoughts.

Anybody who has seen Wabi magazine will recognise that it's target market was
Japan's super wealthy business elite. The prime page ad's for luxury yachts and jets provide confirmation of this. With regular content featuring businessmen collectors and super expensive objects the magazine surely sought to access this lucrative market.

Then again according to Forbres Magazine Mr Morimae is considered Japan's hottest bonsai dealer. ... /074A.html

Now the quotes that Walter posted are gone and I can't recall them.

I'd love to read them again as I suspect that if received from a salesman's pitch point of view they may be more resonant.

I think being Japan's hottest bonsai dealer is great. I simply wouldn't be so nieve as to seek artistic wisdom from his words.

I would suggest to Mark and any others seeking bonsai wisdom to look beyond hot dealers and failed marketing strategies in their quest for insight.


Author:  Walter Pall [ Sat Dec 20, 2008 4:43 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Limited by Knowledge


my article was removed for copyright reasons.Originally I had permission to quote from the pre-print of Mr. Morimae and as you may know one does not need pemission to quote from a publication anyway if the quote is correct and short. However, he asked me in a very friendly mail to consider taking out the quotes from my article. It seems that international copyright laws would turn around ownership of copyright in that case. Anyway, for whatever reason Mr. Morimae asked me to remove and, of course, I removed the quotes as a matter of friendship. Without the quotes that article did not make sense anymore and so it was removed. It may come back as soon as the book is published.

Lindsey, I understand how you come to your assessment of Mr. Morimae. I did not know much or anything about him until a couple of months ago. After he visited me twice here in my village and we had a couple of very long discussions about bonsai, Japan, the state of the art I think I now have a fair overview. I can assure you that you are way underestimating the man. He is clearly one of the most important figures in the bonsai world if you want to trust my personal assessment. Mr. Morimae very well is in a position to enlighten us. And even being known mainly as a bonsai merchant he very well can tell us about the art and the spirit. There are good reasons why he is in such high esteem in America.

The thoughts in my removed article did not come only from the pre-print but also from the long discussions we had. How this could be turned into 'the most blatant efforts to promote False Bonsai by bastardizing the spirit of Seiji Morimae and his thoughts' totally escapes me. I wonder what Seiji would say about this.


Author:  Editorial Staff [ Tue Dec 23, 2008 1:02 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Limited by Knowledge


If you disagree with the subject matter presented, by all means debate it intelligently and with sources, references, and facts. Do not resort to name calling, attacking the person, or otherwise focusing on the person instead of the subject matter.

Some posts above have been deleted.


Author:  Enrique Castano [ Tue Dec 23, 2008 4:54 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Limited by Knowledge

Thanks Walter, I have been a bit busy so I have not had much time to meditate and answer to the other posts, but I thought it was getting out of control and not in the direction where something could be discuss from what I had written.
Anyway, I hope that once the book is publish we can continue with your article, I think it has some controvertial points that should be address. Some may have with what I!m begining to think its a genetic predisposition for having and taking care of plants as can be seen in any place in the world people grow plants in cities, villages etc Why? some people do some people dont but why? and I think the answer to that is a bit more complex than what we might think, who knows it may take us down the road to that strong word people reffer to as "soul".

Author:  Enrique Castano [ Wed Dec 24, 2008 9:03 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Limited by Knowledge

Hi Mark, I can see your point quite well. The only think I did not like was the tone, as this was an agresive tone that I dont like. I belive that in todays bonsai world, there are those that are artist, teachers, critics and writers. However, must are just one and sadly not necesarly all of the above. I look forward to your examples. but for know I wish everyone a merry chritsmas

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