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 Post subject: Self-expression through bonsai artistry?
PostPosted: Thu Mar 03, 2005 3:31 am 
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Self-expression through bonsai artistry?
In another discussion, Lisa and Colin brought us into the interesting territory of self-expression through bonsai. Rather than interrupt the primary discussion occuring there, I would like to revisit here the issue of self-expression through bonsai art.
Though it is second nature for 21st century Western artists and audiences to consider art as a vehicle for self-expression, my sense is that this perspective is a relatively new development in the history of art.
For example, Orhan Pamuk's novel My Name is Red describes a remarkably different view of art and of mastery that prevailed among the 16th century Ottoman illustrators of illuminated manuscripts. These artists believed that an illustrator would reach the pinnacle of artistic perfection only when he could so completely copy the essence of the historical masters that his miniatures would carry no trace of his own personal style.
While the aim of eliminating every trace of personal style is perhaps an extreme example, Pamuk's descriptions remind me of a passage in Gombrich's classic text The Story of Art:
Quote:
Everyone can see that Fra Angelico was a different type of man from Masaccio, or that Rembrandt was a different character from Vermeer van Delft. Yet none of these artists was deliberately making his choice in order to express his personality. He did it only incidentally, as we express ourselves in everything we do - whether we light a pipe or run after a bus. [In the nineteenth century,] the idea that the true purpose of art was to express personality could only gain ground when the art had lost every other purpose.
--- E.M. Gombrich, The Story of Art

Elsewhere on this forum I proposed that "I want to thoroughly master the fundamentals of neoclassical bonsai before I venture into the development of my own unique and personal style." But perhaps there is no need to aggressively develop a unique style at all! Perhaps I should aim not to develop a personal style that I can wear as a badge, but instead to simply practice the art of bonsai, and let my personality emerge subtly, the way it does through hundreds of trivial and unselfconscious actions throughout each ordinary day.
Perhaps for an artform that stands where bonsai does today in the West, the former road simply leads to affectation, while the latter road leads to a more genuine art. I would eagerly welcome any comments, especially from those of you who have crossed this bridge already.
With my best regards,
Carl


Last edited by Carl Bergstrom on Thu Mar 03, 2005 1:35 pm, edited 4 times in total.

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PostPosted: Thu Mar 03, 2005 9:30 am 
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Carl,
Interesting piece.
As you know, I have not crossed this bridge yet. Like you, I am still at the stage of putting my efforts into learning the classical forms and techniques, but I believe that the answer lies in the latter of your two options. If you do manage to develop your own unique style, I think it will be as a result of many, many small influences and experiences, rather than as a result of a concious decision-making process.
I am not sure that there are that many bonsai artists that have managed to develop their own unique style to such a degree, that their work is instantly recognisable as having been created by them. We can see the beginnings of a personal style in the work of many bonsai artists on the other hand. However, the qualities that define these artists' works seem to me to have fuzzy boundaries, and without the creditation of the artist involved, the tree on its own, cannot be easily attributed to one person. I think, in bonsai, the limitation of the material plays a large part in this regard.
Best,
Richard.


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PostPosted: Thu Mar 03, 2005 9:43 am 
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Carl,
I would never suggest that one should aggressively persue a personal style since, as you suggest, this misses the point. I would go further to say that it is egotistic and arguably destructive if it were to become commonplace. No, my proposition is that, once the practical fundamentals have been mastered, and the principles of aesthetics (as laid down in the classical teachings) are fully understood, the artist should allow his own emotional relationship with the subject to come to the fore. As you and Richard say, though not in so many words, this will inevitably (eventually) lead to a more or less personal artistic "signature". This is not, however, the goal, but a by-product of artistic freedom.
I think this means we agree?
Colin


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PostPosted: Thu Mar 03, 2005 12:29 pm 
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' But perhaps there is no need to aggressively develop a unique style at all! Perhaps I should aim not to develop a personal style that I can wear as a badge, but instead to simply practice the art of bonsai, and let my personality emerge subtly, the way it does through hundreds of trivial and unselfconscious actions throughout each ordinary day.'
Carl,
I am very much with Colin on this. I think it would not help at all and be even detrimental to desperately try to develop your own style. If you do bonsai for very serious your style will evolve - or not. The audience can tell whether you do something genuine because you must do it from your heart or whether you do something to appear a great artist. They will not like the latter ans you should not even try.
It is true that one can see the handwriting of a very much developed artist, but you must wait until your very personal handwriting evolves by itself until you are that very much developed artist.


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PostPosted: Thu Mar 03, 2005 1:20 pm 
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I remember watching an interview with a renowned Hollywood actor a few years ago, and he talked about acting techniques versus self-expression. He said that at the beginning, your whole acting is nothing but technique, since you are not sure who you are and cannot act naturally. As your experience grows, you gradually immerse more and more into your roles, relying on the learned techniques less and less.
At the pinnacle of your career you play nothing but yourself as applied to the character you are playing. And you will rely on technique only when you get in trouble. When that happens, technique can always bail you out.
I need to add that I belive the above applies to good actors only. The ones without talent don't make it beyond the first stage.
I think the above applies to bonsai artists as well, pretty much the same way.


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PostPosted: Thu Mar 03, 2005 2:09 pm 
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Thank you all for your answers.
Perhaps this should have been obvious to me all along - but it comes as a great relief to hear this. Especially from Colin and Walter, two artists with easily recognizable yet deeply genuine personal styles.
Thank you! This approach - mastering the fundamentals and letting personal expression flow subtly and naturally at whatever point it begins to do so - feels extremely comfortable and "right" to me.
Best regards,
Carl


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 Post subject: One hit wonders
PostPosted: Thu Mar 03, 2005 5:10 pm 
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Although an entirely different form of art, I wonder if this pursuit of self-expression doesn't have similarites with the music industry. Some artists have mastery of the genre, but still have a signature sound. Case in point, Alan Jackson. He is a living country music legend who creates hit after hit with consistency. In stark contrast are the one hit wonders who are so earth-shatteringly different they command attention. They have a blockbuster hit, but can't ever follow it up with another and quickly fade away.
I feel that bonsai is very similar. If you strive for self-expression you may obtain that one special tree, but you may (probably) are limiting yourself from consistently producing a quality result.
Subtle nuances that are integrated seamlessly into bonsai are what give it character. Personal observation of Colin's work and what I have seen of Walter's (to mention two big names), tells me that remarkable bonsai comes from restrained, yet passionate involvement.
Best regards,
John


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PostPosted: Fri Mar 04, 2005 10:53 am 
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I feel Walter hit the nail on the head - self expression evolves over the years as a manifestation of the result of many individual decisions made in the design and maintenance of a bonsai (BTW the maintenance aspect points out a distinct difference between bonsai and other graphic arts, and offers similarities between bonsai and performance art - but that's another issue). Eventually artists will recognize that these decisions form a pattern and that pattern can be associated with a particular person.


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PostPosted: Fri Mar 04, 2005 11:07 am 
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I had some more thoughts on 'developing your own style'.
We all know people who obviously try so very hard to be a dsitinctive personality and then we know people who are a distinctive personality.
I think you only become credible if you don't try to be one but just become one eventually.
Walter


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PostPosted: Fri Mar 04, 2005 4:49 pm 
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Walter Pall wrote:
We all know people who obviously try so very hard to be a distinctive personality and then we know people who are a distinctive personality.
Walter

Very well stated Mr. Walter, and an excellent analogy to this discussion. I agree with the comments of others about working and using tried and proven techniques, and allowing one's personal style to develop as you do so. This is a proven learning and development method in bonsai and virtually all art forms.
Mr. John mentioned music and caused me to think about my own experiences in this field of art. When one begins to study an instrument you start at a very basic level with things like; note recognition, embouchure [for wind instruments], fingerings, etc. As one develops by practice, practice, practice, these things become second nature. It is no longer necessary to think about where to place your fingers to play a certain note, in fact one no longer needs to even think about what note they are playing. As these sub-conscious things begin to occur one has more time to consider volume, the manner in which they attack the notes, am I playing ahead of, on, or behind the beat, tone, etc. The artist begins to develop a style of their own to the extent that other musicians can identify an artist by sound alone. I can listen to Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Maynard Fergusson, Branford Marsalis, Doc Severenson, and other trumpet players and recognize almost immediately who is playing on the recording. The same holds true with many other instruments that I have had a lot of exposure to over the years. Each of these musicians has been copied but as you learn the nuances of a particular artist you actually adding these things to your own 'bag of tricks' that you use to create your own style, and your own musical personality.
A bonsai artist also develops different techniques by imitating other artists, and observing bonsai and trees in nature. The more information and experience one has in his or her 'bag of tricks' the more likely he or she is to be able to create at least an acceptable bonsai from most material. As with masters in other fields of art, as time passes a bonsai artist will develop certain characteristics in styling, and a fondness for certain species that help observers identify his or her work.
Excellent question Mr. Carl.
Regards
Behr


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PostPosted: Sat Mar 05, 2005 9:45 pm 
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I appreciate the way in which contributors to this discussion look to one art as a means of understanding another.
I am a relative outsider to bonsai, but bring a couple of thoughts to this conversation from my experience as a fiction writer and teacher of writing. My first instinct was to compare bonsai to writing, and to the learning of one's unique voice through imitation of writers one admires (much like what Behr mentioned about music). Though I may be wrong here, the difference in writing seemed to me to be a broader range in the voices we imitate. I wondered whether Bonsai may have more subtle gradations in style because it is an art originating from fewer different cultures than say, writing or music.
My second thought (prompted by Attila) seems to me a more useful addition though. When I attempted some acting, coming from a writing background, my fellow actors helped me understand a key difference between those two arts. Acting is not just about expressing your own experience of your character; more importantly, it is about responding to your partner on stage. In this way, I wonder if bonsai is closer to acting than to writing. In bonsai, wouldn't your partner be the tree itself?


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PostPosted: Wed Mar 16, 2005 10:19 am 
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I posted an analogy on another forum that I would like to share here.
This is a story told to me during my Army days. Bear with me, and allow a personal prejudice. I have made this "G" rated:
An Air Force "commando", a Force Recon Marine, A Navy Seal, and an Army Delta Force Operator were all sitting around a campfire discussing their training, and sure enough, the argument started about who was the toughest of them.
The Air Force guy said yada, yada, yada,....
The Marine said yada, yada, yada,....
The Navy man said yada, yada, yada,....
The Army dude didn't say anything, as he was stirring the campfire coals with his bare finger.
The moral of the story was that ALL of them were tough, but one didn't feel he had to say anything to prove it, his actions could speak for themselves.
I feel that this inherently relates to our perception of everything in life, including the pursuit of bonsai. It's one thing to "say" you're good, it is quite another to "prove" you're good. The two can exist simultaneously, but experience tells me that it is unwise to expect that as the norm. We're not talking about having critique skills, we are talking about creative skill. Actions and results are the deciding factors, no matter what your resume may contain. That's the challenge of bonsai. If you want to be considered one at the pinnacle of the art, you cannot rest on your laurels and past success. You must strive daily and be diligent to continuously "raise the bar" for both yourself and others. Suffice it to say, without a valley there can be no ridge, without a ridge there can be no peak. The peak is reached by climbing. If you cannot climb, you will not succeed. If you reach the peak of one mountain, go try to climb a higher one. Until you reach Everest's pinnacle, you have room for improvement. Perfection is unattainable, but still a worthy goal to attempt.
Best regards,
John


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Wed Mar 16, 2005 11:47 pm 
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"Per Ardua ad Astra"
Colin


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PostPosted: Wed Mar 16, 2005 11:58 pm 
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... and for the rest of you, that's the Royal Air Force motto: "Through Danger to the Stars".
Moving stuff, John. And you're so right: you HAVE to keep trying harder, you HAVE to keep finding ways to improve.
I'm going to the European convention in northern Italy, first weekend in May. (Anyone want to tag along?) I can't afford it, but I'm going there because I know I will come away with more that I had before. I will learn things, I will be inspired and reinvigorated, I will be reminded of what I am, and I will be a better artist as a result - provided I put those things into practice.
I'll take some pictures and post them on my website.
Colin


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 Post subject: Re:
PostPosted: Thu Mar 17, 2005 8:54 am 
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Colin Lewis wrote:
... and for the rest of you, that's the Royal Air Force motto: "Through Danger to the Stars".
Moving stuff, John. And you're so right: you HAVE to keep trying harder, you HAVE to keep finding ways to improve.
I'm going to the European convention in northern Italy, first weekend in May. (Anyone want to tag along?) I can't afford it, but I'm going there because I know I will come away with more that I had before. I will learn things, I will be inspired and reinvigorated, I will be reminded of what I am, and I will be a better artist as a result - provided I put those things into practice.
I'll take some pictures and post them on my website.
Colin

Colin,
Remarks like that from someone of your talent are what inspire. Here you are a widely known and respected leader of bonsai development and still you have the modesty and self-awareness to realize that there is still so much to discover. To match that type of intelligence with the wonderful personality you have is what makes you such a great instructor and artist. If I ever attain any real level of proficiency in bonsai, it will be because of special individuals like you.
I hope the viewers of the forum will accept my statement as genuine and without hidden ambiguity for personal gain. I have to admit that I watched with chagrin as Colin once "gently" (believe me, that is being facetious) defoliated some trident stock to make a forest planting. Wow, I thought he was mad at them!!! Then he produced a wonderful forest that is doing very well. During his entire workshop, I was continuously impressed.
Of course, those who know Colin are already aware of this. He is a permanent member of those I can personally say, in my opinion, are the elite.
Have a wonderful trip Colin. I look forward to seeing copious amounts of pictures. I told you last year my wife and I went to Hawaii for our 20th anniversary. That depleted the travel fund, believe me!!!
Take care and cheers mate,
John


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