Classical vs. Naturalistic = Useless Debateby Andy RutledgeBonsai by Dorothy Schmitz
Illustration by Will Heath
Aside from the art vs. not and hobby vs. pro debates, perhaps the most divisive sort of debate in the various bonsai communities is that of classical vs. naturalistic stylings. This is unfortunate because it is a debate over what style is king of the second-class bonsai.
The idea that some bonsai are styled in a classical manner while others are styled in a naturalistic style is founded in an attempt to quantify minutiae in bonsai that fail to be great. The bonsai that are set up as examples in these debates are either deficient in artistry or they're deficient in craft (or perhaps health).
Note, however, that I'm talking about bonsai that are lacking as compared to the best examples of bonsai artistry in the world. Surely, it is entertaining to dwell on or carefully examine what is readily at hand, and to look for differences between what we commonly see in our backyards, local clubs and on the internet. However, when comparing the best examples of bonsai in the world there is no artificial difference that would make one effort classical and another naturalistic. There are only excellent, evocative, effective, successful artistic results - and those that are deficient.
And don't go leaping to your Kokufu-ten albums to try and prove me wrong on this point. 90% to 95% of of the bonsai in every one of those books are deficient bonsai - lacking in craft and/or artistry. I'm talking about excellence here, not near-excellence or merely "Japanese" bonsai. Those albums are filled with many artificial-looking "classical" and "naturalistic" bonsai; none of them excellent. No, that dog will not hunt.
In fine art, the preference between Bouguereau and Nerdrum is one of taste. Both of these artists have produced superior art and each is (was) excellent. Regardless of what some may believe, a preference between classical stylings and naturalistic stylings is not one of taste. It is a false argument set up to distinguish what might be beneficial or detracting among lesser examples of bonsai artistry or craft, or simply a means of differentiating poor material from less-poor material.
For evidence in support of this posit, let us look at one of the great resources for examples of great bonsai art and craft; a Kokufu-ten album. If you have issue number 77, turn to the examples on pages 68, 96, 123, 126, and 169. These bonsai are among the best in the world and they leave virtually every other example in this particular book far behind in matters of quality and artistry. Now, not a single one of them is so artificial as to be clearly "classically" styled or "naturalistically" styled. No, instead they are each simply excellent; natural and evocative and devoid of artifice.
Given this fact, the thought of distinguishing between classical styling and naturalistic styling must be born of a preoccupation with artifice and a misunderstanding of artistry. In some cases, this preference is clearly the a celebration of deficient skill and understanding. That is perhaps to be expected when not everyone involved with bonsai possesses great skill. In fact, only a very few individuals are going to have the skill and understanding required to make the kind of bonsai that rank as fine art. that's just the nature of the world.
However, just because we cannot all, nor even most, of us produce the kind of work that is above artifice, it is in no way good to find new and interesting ways to celebrate our deficiencies. Being pleased with our own efforts, no matter their quality, is natural. Examining and comparing readily available examples of bonsai artistry is instructive and entertaining. But equating what makes one deficient bonsai different from another deficient bonsai with what makes great bonsai is folly. It is a worthless activity that detracts from whatever artistic understanding we may be striving for.
When we do this sort of thing, we're making the same sad mistakes already made by the Pre-Rapaelites in the 19th century. When working to improve ourselves, it is better to stand on the shoulders of giants rather than to start down failed paths of the past. One step forward and 10 steps back is not progress. Debate over which artifice is best, classical or naturalistic, is still a debate celebrating artifice.
If you're at all familiar with philosophy, the Allegory of the Cave must seem oddly similar to this situation. However, unlike the hapless inhabitants of the Cave, most of us who engage in this puerile debate know that there is something better, something that so clearly refutes our claims. So why do we insist that this debate has merit? Isn't it time to acknowledge that quality bonsai artistry is beyond such simple artifice?Reprinted with permission of the author, Andy Rutledge