The Problem With American Bonsaiby Vance Wood Bonsai by Vance Wood
Illustration by Will Heath*
Bonsai in America is now about sixty years old in at least the American public's awareness of it. It is true that some Japanese-Americans have been growing bonsai here for much longer, but they kept their interests and efforts pretty much confined to their own ethnic communities. Few outside of this circle were aware of what was going on. Fewer still had interest in it.
With the end of WWII interest in bonsai began to blossom outside the confines of the Japanese community fanned by an interest from returning G.I.s and their families from the Far East, specifically Japan. The Non-Asian population began to voice a desire to posses and create these miniature wonders for themselves and a need to fulfill this desire created a vacuum that cried out to be filled. Slowly some enterprising individuals sought to supply this need, first with books and then with classes on a local level. Buy the late 1950's people like Yuji Yoshimura and John Naka became famous within the growing bonsai community as credible teachers and masters of the art. It would be at least another ten years before Europe would recover from the devastation of the war enough to have interests in other things less important than staying alive, demolished cities and where their next meal was coming from.
The question has been asked as to why bonsai in America is so sadly behind bonsai in Europe. As has been pointed out, bonsai in America has a ten year jump on bonsai in Europe but somewhere along this time frame bonsai in Europe surpassed American bonsai and American bonsai stagnated into something generally thought of as second rate in comparison.
Finding answers to this question is not easy or comfortable if one is to look at all of the conditions objectively as symptomatic and not as excuses. It has been said that European bonsai are artistically superior to American bonsai because of the long European artistic tradition. This may be partially true but it does not address the entire issue. There is something else going on here that cuts right to the heart of the culture and some may not like what I think is going on. I don't think the problem is simply a lack of a strong artistic heritage or a doltish ham-fisted approach to bonsai. I think America is capable of producing good artists so why is this not happening?
If there is a single trend that more or less defines American bonsai it is the pig-headed hobbyist mentality that is happy with mediocrity. I think there is more of this type of thinking in America than elsewhere though, truthfully, I cannot say for sure this is the way it is in Europe. I strongly believe that it is not. European bonsai seems to be able to support several world-class masters and gifted amateurs that put much of what America produces to shame. These people would not exist if it were not for their bonsai communities desire to excel.
After many years of teaching bonsai and participating on many Internet forums and discussion groups I have slowly discovered a trend in the people that make up the body of most bonsai communities in America. It is exacerbated by some peculiar and destructive cultural tendencies that serve to cripple the growth of anything it comes in contact with.
Over the last ten years or so I have noticed a selfish me only approach to bonsai where people, new to the art, expect to be hand fed everything in their learning experience. If that were not enough the same individuals tend toward a juvenile lashing out at those who are trying to help them if the information they receive is not what they expected or liked. This is particularly obvious in the newer generation of bonsai growers. It is as though the older generation of bonsai growers' lot in life is only to provide them with everything they need to learn bonsai, without cost, without thanks and without respect.
Thinking themselves to be wise they are quick to condemn those who try to tell them they are wrong. This is made worse by others who will pat them on the back and say it's OK, their behavior is not an issue and the advanced grower should have been more tactful. So instead of admonishing the young we slap down the teacher. Simply put we have reached the nexus of our dilemma. We have the young who think they want to learn and we have the old who are happy with the status quo. Many of those who say they teach should themselves seek a teacher rather than spread their mediocrity as a goal to be sought. Especially on the Internet, where you can see a lot of this happening, you have the culture of ego surpassing the art of bonsai. In fact it is not about bonsai at all. In the end we have beginners teaching beginners.
This is the beginning of sorrows, to use a Biblical concept, and it is only the tip of the ice berg. If you start a conversation about art and bonsai in the same breath you will likely have an argument on you hands in America. There are a substantial number of bonsai growers who, being happy in their paucity, will argue you into the ground that bonsai is not an art. This is ego driven, where by there is a tendency to discourage or marginalize those who might make bonsai on a level they are not willing or capable of attaining to. This would not be so bad in and of itself but these same individuals also teach. There is a movement downward in American bonsai that has an aversion to seeking quality. It is as though Americans have adopted the bonsai as a hobby philosophy and are quick to reject bonsai as an art.
A number of years ago the club I belong to decided to change the annual club show to an adjudicated event. There were some club members that did not agree with this change and some of them left the club. It was their position that this was not fair even though the club recognized different levels of skill and even had a show only category. It was the position of those who approved this format that it would only increase the over-all quality of the club's bonsai; it would also elevate the skill and effort of its members. The latter proved to be true.Bonsai by Vance Wood
Illustration by Will Heath*
It is believed by many that competition brings the cream to the top. The argument against this circles around the political correctness mantra of "it's not fair". This of course may be true to a point but on a larger scale life is not fair. Attempts to make it so can at best foster mediocrity. Philosophically adopting this concept can lead to disaster on all fronts where it is applied, and quality no longer affords a goal to be achieved. Sadly this very same philosophy has become widely accepted across American culture. It is this same philosophy that is at the heart of all that is wrong with American bonsai. The concept of quality and art in American bonsai has become controversy.
To examine how and why this is happening we need not look any further than our growing acceptance of the concept of "THAT'S GOOD ENOUGH". The car mechanic will fix an automobile so that it is good enough. The carpenter will do a project to a point that is good enough. The landscape maintenance person will do his work so that it is good enough. The homebuilder will do what is good enough; the cement layer will do what is good enough. Almost no one will go the extra mile, foot or inch.
I seriously doubt that many have given much thought to what it means to be good enough. If you accept good enough as the end point of something that can be measured by that elusive concept of quality, then good enough holds with it the idea of not quite achieving "THE BEST POSSIBLE". If this practice is continued over time, today's good enough becomes tomorrow's best possible. From tomorrows point of view, and the practice continues, good enough does not quite reach the new best possible, and as such there is an incremental diminishing down in the level of quality, as the bench mark is continually pulled downward. There is a word for this, it is Paucity.
The over-all effect of this methodology is to gradually degrade the quality of everything it comes into contact with including bonsai. This continues until someone or some group of some ones recognizes that there is a problem, and rings the alarm: Houston we have a problem! Be warned; those who recognize this, and are bold enough to voice this position can expect to be shouted down, and even personally attacked if only with words.
Because this theory of performance is so endemic in American culture it is not difficult to see how it has influenced bonsai in a negative way. The thing that amuses me is the tendency for the greatest practitioners of this concept to also be the same people that will not accept this level of performance when it is offered to them in lieu of pay, contract, or some other arrangement. In other words: I can deliver to you good enough but you must give me perfection.
The American Culture has, over the last twenty years or so, focused on a concept of fairness and the establishment of a level playing field. Pushing for participation in a global market and economy we have put ourselves into a competitive arena while at the same time adopting social theories that are diminishing our ability to deal with it. Earlier I mentioned that the problem with American bonsai was not limited to bonsai, it is only a symptom we can see that is far larger than the simple practice of bonsai.
In the education system the concept of fairness has been influential in forcing some schools to abandon a grading system where by some may fail (receive an F) and some may excel (receive an A). Believing that this is unfair and that the competition it encourages is unfair and injurious to a student's self esteem a non-graded system has been, or is being adopted in some markets across America.
This has also spilled over into the sports arenas where student athletes participate. Instead of there being a winner and a loser, there is simply an androgynous mess of rewarding all who play; no one is a winner. The theory being that if there is no winner there can be no loser, and no one gets their feelings hurt. The over all message that is being sent is one that competition is bad and the results achieved through competition are bad. The big problem is that in the real world there is competition for everything from jobs to promotions to the selling of products and services.
On returning specifically again to the subject of bonsai let it be said that there are a few good bonsai artists in America, but precious few are world class on the level of Walter Pall, and a half dozen other European masters I could name. I realize I may have just estranged myself from the entire American Bonsai Community but the fact remains you cannot solve a problem until you realize you have one.
I fear that the problem we have is so deeply embedded and widely distributed, not only in bonsai but every other aspect of American culture, that it may never be resolved. As long as we are content to argue about bonsai, either on the Internet or face to face, and be less than passionate about doing bonsai, it is going to continue on its downward spiral through our "GOOD ENOUGH" mediocre acceptance of an inferior out-come. Some people will go so far as to argue "Crap" as a standard of style. But this is only a symptom of the greater problem and the subject of another essay.
In the beginning of this piece I stated that our problems go far deeper than just our approach to bonsai. We have become a culture where things come easy to us; we expect instant gratification, that's nothing new we have heard this term many times over the years. We want things we don't think we have to work for and often in our daily lives we approach work that way. We give only what is necessary to keep our jobs. If we do more than expected, our co-workers think ill of us and in some jobs, union jobs, we may get threatened for doing so. The over all effect is to pull down those who try to do better, even if it is better for their own sakes. Better is often perceived by others to be a challenge to their level of performance and is guaranteed to afford controversy or negative feed back. We see all of these things echoed in the world of bonsai in America. It can be said that the problem with bonsai in America is not the material, the artistic background, or any other thing you might dream up, the problem is that Americans are doing bonsai the same way they do everything else, half-hearted, half-assed and lacking commitment.*American flag images used are in the public domain