Ahhh... Performance art - that starts to get tricky, as does Conceptual art, Earth art, and other heavily theorized versions of art in which actual objects that hang on a wall fail to exist, or exist only as ideas, thoughts, documentation of events, or fossil evidence to corroborate that it ever did, or someday might exist. Can you really call the practice of bonsai art? Doctors are practicing medicine, is this performance art? Are their products (us) their works of art? (I think) I may understand the point Ana made that asks can you call the products of the practice phase 'art'. (How long does the practice phase last?) Is the process of learning how to create bonsai the 'art' - since this is a life-long endeavor. Lest we are tempted to get too carried away in the intellectual game of art theory, which is just literature anyway, we should note it caused a complete implosion of the art world in the 70's, leaving the artists, galleries, museums, and collectors scratching their heads to try and figure out how one really goes about capitalizing on ideas and concepts, that may or may not exist.* In today’s art culture anything goes, with enough marketing behind it, no matter how pretty, ugly, indulgent, outlandish, shocking, bland, crazy big, minutely small, absolutely anything and nothing at all can be defined as art.
The more I really mull this over I wonder if the art world and the bonsai world are perhaps two parallel universes with no real use for each other. I once thought it would be of pivotal significance to see a masterpiece bonsai come up to the auction block at Sotheby's and sell for some astronomical price, to cement its place amongst great art and propel bonsai into mainstream public awareness and appreciation. I can be so naive.
The 'art world' is a small, incestuous little bunch of big thinkers, and even fewer big spenders, who have given the impression of being a much bigger group and wield a strong impression of influence over how this country views itself, which is why it's such a cool club to belong to. Besides the artists themselves, most participants are not the least bit interested in taking a hands-on approach, or heaven forbid get paint under their fingernails. If everyone who purchased a painting or sculpture was required to know how to create it and invest the years necessary to master the techniques, ‘art’ would come to a grinding halt. Yet a masterpiece bonsai can only be sold to or placed under the care of a master.
Bonsai is a cool club too. But totally different. The art world thrives on the tortured contradiction of the artist who is so misunderstood by society that he must reject it to survive, yet if anointed rock star status and his genius properly recognized will all too eagerly play that part instead. Art thrives on striving and recognition, investment potential, success and failure. Bonsai attempts to disregard most of that. Bonsai delves into the mysteries of life devoid of the human ego, attempting to illustrate the connectivity and interchangeability of all living and non-living things, employing subtlety and simplicity to make the invisible visible. The art world is very much about money. The artist buys his medium, the gallery sells the result, the agents broker, the auction house sells, everyone wants a piece of the action. Bonsai may be intended more as a thinking system, as an exchange of mental currency greased only enough to keep the wheels turning. The medium is free, the work is exhibited for all to enjoy for free... the format more closely resembles religion. (My grandmother always told me a lady does not discuss money or religion, but I've gone too far to turn back now.)
"Bonsai has a fourth dimension... time"**. We westerners are searching for answers and maybe eastern religion and thought can shed some light on things, seemingly having had more time to think it all over, collectively. It is almost expected that bonsai artists/practitioners/supporters be gurus or spiritual leaders of some sort. The best job opportunity seems to be as a teacher. The whole bonsai system runs on similar fuel to evangelical preaching. The clubs operate suspiciously like congregations that rely on donations and heavily recruit new members. Is bonsai selling art or dogma? In which case one can't sell God, but only the external paraphernalia, while enjoying the comradery and the snacks in the meantime. Bonsai is challenged to be neither art nor religion. To neither strive to succeed, nor piously demur. To be a microcosm of everything all at once, and really, nothing much at all. At the risk of sounding grandiose, perhaps bonsai simply 'is' and 'is not' and truly goes beyond what art can define, or religion can connect us to, concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe.
*Really fun books to read on this topic: The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe, and Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton
** American Bonsai Society 2004 brochure excerpt