Pattern Recognition in Judging Bonsai, or How Bonsai Taste Evolvesby Walter PallIllustration by Will Heath*l
Can you tell the difference between a conifer and a broadleaved tree just from looking at an image? Sure you can, any child can do this. Can you tell the difference even when the conifer grows much like a broadleaved tree would normally and the broadleaved tee grows like a conifer? Sure you could. You see this in a split second looking at an image.
OK, now explain how exactly you made the decision. Some will succeed in giving a good explanation, some will come back wit a poor explanation and some will not bother. But all will take quite a while to articulate something that they have 'known' in a split-second.
Even though our brain knows how to do this classification, our conscious mind is often incapable of articulating the rules. Our brain is exceptionally good at this type of task. We are amazing pattern recognition machines.
Our brain has evolved to do exactly this with great accuracy. If we have a set of objects we can form internal rules by which we classify them. When you learned how to read you were shown many examples of the letter 'a'. you have learned to see the letter 'a' whether it's hand written or printed. You can tell the letter 'a' immediately even if written in bad hand writing or printed in unusual script. You can do this even when you never had seen this handwriting or this script before. But you would be hard pressed to explain every time how you came to your conclusion.
You are very good in deciding instantly that a letter is NOT 'a'. So there must be some mechanism that enables you to do this to read texts at an enormous speed.
Recognition of abstract things is even more complex. You learn early what is good and what is bad behavior. You are given many examples in your childhood. As you grow to an adult your brain catalogs all examples of good and bad acts and at one point discovers rules of how to decide. When you get to a new situation in life that you never were in before you can instantly apply these rules. So we all have internal rules, but they differ slightly depending on how they developed. Thus we have slightly different notions about morals. These differences become striking when we meet a person who grew up in an entirely different culture and who apparently applies radically different rules for the distinction between 'good' and 'bad'.
So what has all this to do with bonsai taste? Well, exactly the same happens when we learn to appreciate bonsai. We learn that a tree that follows the bonsai rules which are written in stone it is good. When it breaks one of these rules it becomes bad. We learn that trees designed by Naka, Kimura, any great Japanese master are good. We are not content with just being told. We learn to search images of trees for patterns. We learned to see 'good' application of rules and 'bad' application. We learn to see the similarities in trees which are 'good' and we somehow create our own internal rules of how to decide. We can then judge a tree which we have never seen before. We can tell right away whether we have a piece of raw material or a masterpiece in front of us. We are not equally good at this. Some can get very far in this and become experts in judging bonsai. Mind you there was no word about CREATING bonsai here. It is all about judging from seeing. In this concept a person can be an expert judge for bonsai without ever having touched a tree.
The question now is, to what extent are we truly judging the merit of the bonsai, and to what extent are we just using our pattern-recognition skills.
Yes, some bonsai have the ability to move us emotional, to convey a message, to make us feel their 'soul'. But can we be sure that this response isn't simply a learned reaction? Appreciating a bonsai takes training. It is generally not the case that someone who has no training can appreciate and distinguish 'good' from 'bad' bonsai easily. Is it not possible that what we call artistic training is essentially training for pattern classification?
One step further now. I have trained myself to appreciate contemporary bonsai by experiencing it a lot, and if my brain is good at that sort of thing, then I'll form rules for discovering what I was told was 'good' bonsai and distinguishing it form the 'bad'. When I visit an exhibit and see the work of a new artist, I will apply my rules of 'good' and 'bad' bonsai and make my judgment on whether this artist is any good. Since most of us were trained by the same books and by similar examples of 'good' and 'bad' bonsai, our opinions will often be similar to other bonsaist, and the new artist will be branded accordingly.
At the same token this applies to bonsai designers. If I decide to become a bonsai master, I will judge my own work by the same abstract rules of 'good' and 'bad' and produce bonsai that pass my own criteria for judgment. Therefore, once it is established that some works are examples of good art, it almost guarantees that the pattern will be perpetuated by future artist and critics. This goes so far that a considerable number of bonsai connoisseurs and artists believe that there is only one way to do it 'right'. There is a strong tendency for fundamentalism; it is inherent in the system of how bonsai taste evolves.
Now in appreciating bonsai there is, of course, more than just pattern recognition here, but is there any way for us to ever separate the two? Normally there is no observer here from outside of the system, and we can never know to what extent our preferences are biased by the pattern-recognition training we have received in the past. But you remember the example of above when we 'knew' exactly what was morally good or bad and all of a sudden a person from another culture had a very different moral code. The question is whether we even listen to someone who comes from another bonsai culture. If we listen, do we understand what he is saying? Probably not really, and probably we want to stay in our cozy well established and defined bonsai world rather than constantly question what we are thinking. And we don't realize that what we think are 'natural' rules just evolved accidentally and became a generally accepted code. But by sheer coincidence it could have become a very different code.
Can we not bring into a bonsai exhibit a person from the street who was never exposed to any bonsai or theory about them. Well, we can, but what do we expect? The person will make some judgments and will give some explanation, but they will not really tell us much more than that we have someone with a very naive taste and no background in front of us. Art form is also a language in itself, and without raining and exposure one cannot learn how to read that language.
The story is told about a person approaching Picasso and told him 'Mr. Picasso, I don't understand your art'. Picasso replied, 'do you know Chinese?'. 'No'. 'but Chinese an be learned.'
How will we ever know the true difference between elitism perpetuated through pattern recognition and the intrinsic value of a bonsai? Adapted from: "Art and Elitism: A Form of Pattern Recognition" by
Kunal Sen, 2007, Encyclopedia Britannica blog
*Illustration created by adapting a Bonsai photograph by Walter Pall
and an Eye photogragh by "Petr Novák, Wikipedia"