Aesthetics and the Material

Some years ago a Japanese ceramics professor told us a story about a certain tea-master who’s tea house had a garden that was famous far and wide for its magnificent flowers. There was one particular flower that was not only very beautiful, but bloomed in the hundreds and thousands, and people from all over the region would visit to see the magnificent display. Once, a high ranking official decided to visit, and sent a message ahead telling the tea-master to be prepared for his arrival, since he was traveling some distance. As he entered the garden, this official began to look around, trying to catch sight of the famous flowers, but there were none to be seen. This surprised him, because it was full Spring, and there would have been some blooms in even a very average garden. As the man drew closer to the tea house in the center of the garden, his confusion gave way to anger and disappointment that he had come so far, apparently of nothing, since there was still not a single flower to be seen. Finally, he entered the tea house, and as he stood up, he saw a single flower in a vase, and the tea-master behind it, who offered him a respectful greeting. The official, angry and confused, asked what had happened, that none of the hundreds of flowers that the surrounding garden was famous for had bloomed that year. The tea-master replied that the flowers had, indeed, bloomed in generous abundance, as they did every other year, but in honor of the official’s visit, he had picked and discarded every flower but the most perfect and beautiful, which he saw before him, that he might admire it undistracted by the sheer numbers of the others.


That’s one aesthetic – a lot of people refer to it as “zen.” If I recall correctly, the official disagreed, and had the tea-master executed; certainly many people would rather have a lot of a good thing to appreciate than only one. It seems to me that many of us, including myself, have both aesthetics warring inside us; I would really only like to have one very nice outfit or teapot or quilt, but sometimes I give in anyway, and end up with several dozen instead. Probably almost all of us would rather have a garden filled with flowers of all kinds and colors, most of which are imperfect, than blank greenery with only a single, perfect bloom. I’ve been thinking a lot about materialism and its consequences, especially in my own life, a lot lately, for a number of reasons, the most noticeable being how very materialistic our society is (or is accused of being), living in my parents’ rather messy house, being a high school art teacher, and a conversation I had with a friend a week ago. There are all kinds of things to be said about the morality of having a lot of unneeded stuff – that there might be someone out there who does need it, for instance – about which I can say very little. Instead, I usually end up thinking primarily about the warring aesthetics of materialism and simplicity, which are fighting all the time within my own mind and heart, and often in society at large, especially the arts.


I say: “I want to live simply, to give up most of what I own, to have nothing that is unnecessary for daily life, and nothing that merely clutters up that life.” Then I actually look at what I have, and try to determine what to get rid of, and all the ambiguities and impulses that led to my having them in the first place pop up again, and I can only give away three bags of clothing, a game, and a CD player, leaving the rest to sit there undisturbed. I still have, fir instance, 25 scarves, which seems very silly, even to me. So I take them out and look at them, trying to decide which to give away (not that I know anyone in desperate need of a headscarf). Ah, but my godmother gave these to me, and my mother those, and my grandmother that one, and I made this other at summer camp, and the one over there my friend brought back with her from South Africa! So I keep all of them, even though I know perfectly well that doing so is very self-indulgent indeed. Then there are dresses that belonged to my mother, and it would hurt her feelings if I got rid of them – which also accounts for about half of my books, which I am apparently saving for hypothetical grandchildren. But even given some of the excesses of my wardrobe and bookcases, I could still probably fit all of my clothing in two largish suitcases, and books are in a class of their own (or so I tell myself). But when I look around my room and much of our house, what I see stacked to the ceiling and filling our van is all craft and art stuff – and for that I do not know how to account. Despite and probably against my beliefs, inclinations, abilities, and training, I have somehow become a high school art teacher, and probably won’t be getting out of it anytime soon. Why, I not quite sure; everyone always said I was good at art, and I didn’t like it enough to become an artist, so I chose to major in Art Education. After complaining my way through two and a half years of Education school, here I am, a newly certified art teacher, with a long-term substitute position teaching art at a rural high school. It is, on the whole, alright – there are much worse things I could be doing with my time – the only major problems being that I don’t believe in public education, and that I’m beginning to dislike the materiality of art materials. Why on earth should anyone have two drawers and a basket full of random bits of yarn? And eight cubic feet of fabric!? I don’t even really like sewing. I mostly just did it because I could. But looking at magazines of “textile art,” “doll art,” “collage art,” paper art,” and all the rest, I’m already very sick of it all. But there it is, and the only way out of it seems to be making quilts and clothing and hats and “art” that neither I nor anyone I know needs. This is, on the whole, a bit depressing, and I’m not sure what the way out is yet. Perhaps I should just try to go into a different field as quickly as possible? But I do like art, at least when I don’t have to think about it too much, or when the finished artwork is ordered enough to resist all of the chaos of materiality which surrounds it.


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