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 Post subject: How Bonsai Taste Evolves
PostPosted: Tue Oct 27, 2009 8:05 am 
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Pattern Recognition in Judging Bonsai, or How Bonsai Taste Evolves
by Walter Pall


Image
Illustration 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"


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 Post subject: Re: How Bonsai Taste Evolves
PostPosted: Fri Oct 30, 2009 4:57 pm 
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Having had some time to think of this since reading the piece and posting the comment* on your blog, it still seems significant that both artist and viewer face the same draw of the mainstream. Perhaps the fact that much of the bonsai public practices the craft is significant here?

In a sense, the introduction to bonsai comes with a pair of scissors more often then not - the equivalent of handing someone a dictionary as an introduction to poetry in a foreign language. It is closer to what the initiation to a craft looks like these days, not that into the arts which tends to come in words on paper.

I wonder how many keep an interest in bonsai as an art alone without considering the practice?

____________
* if anyone should wonder: THIS


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 Post subject: Re: How Bonsai Taste Evolves
PostPosted: Mon Nov 02, 2009 12:22 am 
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I remember the first time I saw a bonsai tree. There was a show being put on by some local bonsai enthusiasts that I happened upon at a shopping mall. It was many, many years ago but I remember it well because it made such an impression on me. I was absolutely mesmerized by some of the trees - but not all of them. I was making an instant, subconscious judgment for sure, but it was not based on any knowledge of the rules of bonsai. I knew absolutely nothing about bonsai at the time. But if I were presented with that same show today, I expect I would like best most of the same trees that I liked then. The patterns that I was recognizing subconsciously, but with such impact, were the magnificent full-sized trees I had seen all my life and which I continue to admire. So, I submit that the reaction of naive viewers is, in fact, a valid measure of the quality of a bonsai. It is not the only measure, certainly, but one to keep us honest to the intent of the art.


Last edited by Gene Deci on Wed Nov 04, 2009 4:13 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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 Post subject: Re: How Bonsai Taste Evolves
PostPosted: Mon Nov 02, 2009 6:42 pm 
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Gene Deci wrote:
So I submit that the reaction of naive viewers is, in fact, one valid measure of the quality of a bonsai. It is not the only measure, certainly, but one to keep us honest to the intent of the art.


I agree. Over many years and many exhibits I've observed the "naive viewer" being attracted to the finer bonsai. They have no clue as to how the creative process brought the bonsai to it's current state, but they are able to recognize esthetic value.


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 Post subject: Re: How Bonsai Taste Evolves
PostPosted: Fri Nov 06, 2009 4:35 pm 
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I think you are right Mike. We have a "Peoples Choice Award" at our All-State Show where the general public votes for their favorite bonsai. It is seldom that anyone finds much to fault with the trees that finish at the top. But as Walter suggests, the winners are always the folks who really know the rules.


Do you ever think that knowing “how it is done” sometimes lessens ones enjoyment?


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 Post subject: Re: How Bonsai Taste Evolves
PostPosted: Sun Nov 08, 2009 4:44 am 
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Gene Deci wrote:
Do you ever think that knowing “how it is done” sometimes lessens ones enjoyment?


No. Motivation running both ways makes a good beaten track back to the excitement of the first encounter. It is a habit with fairly predictable rewards...


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 Post subject: Re: How Bonsai Taste Evolves
PostPosted: Wed Nov 11, 2009 10:09 am 
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Bonsai appreciation like any other art appreciation is usually subjective and often generates a lot of heated debates. Art appreciation is a very "Right Brained" function. Whether a work of art is seen as good or bad depends on the inexplicable "appeal" factor.

Unfortunately most bonsaists approach the subject of Bonsai Appreciation with their left brains. I mean have the rules that are etched in stone been followed?? becomes a primary basis. The degree to which the rules are followed determines the extent of the appeal. This is when appreciation degenerates into rules based critique and becomes an opportunity to flaunt ones knowledge of rules.

I firmly believe that while rules are a means to create a work of art they are not an end in themselves. I mean you can follow all the rules there are and still create a work that lacks appeal. Alternatively you can break all the rules and yet create a work of art that oozes tremendous appeal. It is the end that justifies the means and the means should be flexible as long as the end is met.

Ravi


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 Post subject: Re: How Bonsai Taste Evolves
PostPosted: Wed Nov 11, 2009 10:32 am 
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Ravi,

I could not agree more.

WP


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 Post subject: Re: How Bonsai Taste Evolves
PostPosted: Wed Nov 11, 2009 5:25 pm 
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Ravi -

There is a Japanese word for what you describe, that is, when a work of art has that certain something that sets it apart. It may be “gei”. Ana V. says that slavishly following the rules is craft, not art, and unlikely to produce results with any gei. But that is not the question. The question is, if experts judge a bonsai by a sophisticated sense of pattern recognition as Walter suggests, what patterns are they recognizing. Isn’t it their own deep understanding of some set of rules?


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 Post subject: Re: How Bonsai Taste Evolves
PostPosted: Thu Nov 12, 2009 12:18 am 
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I have often said that the only rule in bonsai is that the end result must be visually pleasing.

Something else seldom addressed is the "bubble" of education or learned experience that people tend to get trapped in. They learn what "art" is supposed to be or what it supposed to look like and then judge all art by this learned standard. This bubble is what the impressionist, the cubists, the futurists all bounced against when they first broke away from what was expected in art. While they eventually were accepted as true artists creating real art, they managed to become the very thing they tried to not be like, they created their own "bubble" that one must fit into to be accepted into that form.

This is the same in all arts, even bonsai. Walter Pall has and still does experience this with yhis "naturalistic" style which didn't fit into that bubble of education, what people were taught a bonsai should look like. He managed, as true artists do, to enlarge the bubble most people view bonsai from, his trees, although not the "bonsai" we are taught, still had soul, they still were art, and it was impossible to dismiss them, so they had to be accepted.

The problem is that these bubbles of perception are not only colored with what we expect, what we have learned, and what we are told something should be, they are also colored by personal bias.


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 Post subject: Re: How Bonsai Taste Evolves
PostPosted: Thu Nov 12, 2009 8:54 am 
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'Gei' is an interesting word. Is there one for the ability to recognize 'gei'?


Gene Deci wrote:
Ana V. says that slavishly following the rules is craft, not art, and unlikely to produce results with any gei. But that is not the question.



I asked my question with a different intent: to see whether the need to teach - or learn , on the other side - the craft does something to the appreciation of the art...

Between the discussion here and Will's post on the thread he opened, I've pretty much got my answer.

Ultimately, the question I am after is somewhat broader: if one would rather not look to feed their appreciation of the art of bonsai by learning the craft, what else is there?


Last edited by Ana Veler on Thu Nov 12, 2009 9:13 am, edited 1 time in total.

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 Post subject: Re: How Bonsai Taste Evolves
PostPosted: Thu Nov 12, 2009 8:58 am 
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Gene,

The essence of what Walter is trying to say is aptly summarised by Walter himself at the end of the article

Quote:
How will we ever know the true difference between elitism perpetuated through pattern recognition and the intrinsic value of a bonsai


To eloborate further Walter points out that "Pattern Recognition" can conflict the "true intrinsic value of a bonsai".

To answer you specific question of masters using their own deep sense of understanding of pattern recognition to judge a bonsai. It is true to some extent but pattern recognition cannot form the sole basis of bonsai appreciation. I feel that a master cannot be a true master if he restricts his judgement solely on pattern recognition.

Talking of masters, I would like to quote two acclaimed masters who have and continue to inspire me. John Naka who said something like "Make your bonsai look like trees in nature". Masahiko Kimura whom I quote form Neil Ryan's article also featured on AoB site "There is always a better way.." A true master like these venerable ones always have an open mind and a willingness to learn.

In the article Walter is not talking of masters but a host of common folk who know the basic rules and have seen a few basic patterns and use those as the sole basis of judging bonsai. He also mentions the dangers of those who could be excellent judges of bonsai without even creating a tree. Trust me our world of bonsai is full of such folks.

Some examples of pattern recognition gone awry. An inverse tapered Oak featured sometime back in AoB. A broadleaved species designed like a conifer and vice versa.

I am not suggesting that we do away with rules. What I am saying is that rules and pattern recognition need to evolve with an evolving art form and should not remain stagnant.

Ravi


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 Post subject: Re: How Bonsai Taste Evolves
PostPosted: Thu Nov 12, 2009 11:09 am 
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I think Will has summed up the situation perfectly and I fear it is inevitable that bonsai will follow the same “bubble” pattern he described for painting. I also think Walter and Ravi point to the “intrinsic” value of a bonsai to save us from that. But isn’t the “learned” versus “intrinsic” value of a bonsai is a false dichotomy. All bonsai appreciation is the product of the human brain. The tree is intrinsically just atoms. That the arrangement of those atoms might be beautiful is solely a human response. But we do have one guiding principle that might be called “intrinsic” which gives us an advantage over painting. Ravi points it out in quoting John Naka’s famous dictum “Do not make your tree look like a bonsai but make your bonsai look like a tree.” That might be the one rule we should be most careful about breaking.


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 Post subject: Re: How Bonsai Taste Evolves
PostPosted: Thu Nov 12, 2009 6:05 pm 
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Ravi Kiran wrote:
He also mentions the dangers of those who could be excellent judges of bonsai without even creating a tree. Trust me our world of bonsai is full of such folks.

As is the world of high art, these people are called critics.

I reread Walter's article searching for the danger you said he spoke of, what I found was these words, "In this concept a person can be an expert judge for bonsai without ever having touched a tree." I see no warning here, just the admission that someone who has never touched a tree can indeed be a expert judge.



Will


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 Post subject: Re: How Bonsai Taste Evolves
PostPosted: Wed Nov 18, 2009 1:33 pm 
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Will describes the trees that Walter creates as “naturalistic bonsai”. In my books and magazines and on the web I have come across other terms - “commercial bonsai”, “modern bonsai”, “sumo bonsai”, “classical bonsai” and even “neo-classical bonsai”. I don’t have a clue what most of these mean and I am not certain about any of them. For example, one might think naturalistic bonsai would be the desired goal, but apparently it is not “mainstream bonsai”. It would be helpful if there were an authoritative source describing (with plenty of pictures) all these terms and any other that may be in use. And what better place than the Art of Bonsai project?


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