Art of the Day

23 Mar

rock garden

Rock Garden, Ryoanji, Kyoto. Made during the Muromachi period, c. 1480. UNESCO World Heritage Site, National Treasure.

Notes from Stokstad & Cothren’s Art History, 4th edition:

The dry landscape gardens of Japan, karesansui (“dried-up mountains and water”), exist in perfect harmony with Zen Buddhism. The dry garden in front of the abbot’s quarters in the Zen temple at Ryoanji is one of the most renowned Zen creations in Japan. A flat rectangle of raked gravel, about 29 by 70 feet, surrounds 15 stones of different sizes in islands of moss. The stones are set in asymmetrical groups of two, three, and five. Low, plaster-covered walls establish the garden’s boundaries, but beyond the perimeter wall maple, pine, and cherry trees add color and texture to the scene. Called “borrowed scenery,” these elements are a considered part of the design even though they grow outside the garden. The garden is celebrated for its severity and emptiness.

Dry gardens began to be built in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Japan. By the sixteenth century, Chinese landscape painting influenced the gardens’ composition, and miniature clipped plant and beautiful stones were arranged to resemble famous paintings. Especially fine and unusual stones were coveted and even carried off as war booty, such was the cultural value of these seemingly mundane objects.

The Ryoanji garden’s design, as we see it today, probably dates from the mid seventeenth century. By the time the garden was created, such stone and gravel gardens had become highly intellectualized, abstract reflections of nature. This garden has been interpreted as representing islands in the sea, or mountain peaks rising above the clouds, perhaps even a swimming tigress with her cubs, or constellations of stars and planets. All or none of these interpretations may be equally satisfying—or irrelevant—to a monk seeking clarity of mind through contemplation.

My comments:

Interestingly, we see here the Japanese making site-specific installation artworks, a concept that didn’t appear in the West until the arrival of Contemporary art in the second half of the twentieth century. This work is also interactive, another impressively prescient aspect of the garden for the time in which it was created. Viewers are not only able to passively look at it, but can actually walk through and experience it from within, something that one cannot do with painting, sculpture, or other traditional two-dimensional medium. An additional facet of this rock garden that puts it ahead of its time is the openness to interpretation based on the ideas of the viewer. As mentioned in the caption above, viewers can see the rocks, moss, and gravel as symbols of number of different types of ensembles, with each one equally valid as long as it leads to the ultimate objective of mental clarity. This is quite different from Western art that was being made at the same time as this work was formed: fifteenth century Western art was primarily Christian and concerned with promoting the Church’s dogma. The idea of interpretation sourcing from the viewer instead of the artist or the patron of the artist is a fairly novel idea in the West, and so the fact that fifteenth century Japanese artists already possessed this concept reveals how, in many ways, they were ahead of their time. It’s fascinating to see the different ways in which the West and the East developed in history compared to each other, for both cultures seemed to discover innovations earlier than the other. The same is true as evidenced by this art, which is more “progressive” than the art being made in other parts of the world during the same era. This is not to suggest that one theory about the proper way to interpret art is more correct than the other, but rather that not every artist in every civilization had the same aesthetic values at the same time behind their art. Whether this implies a need for cultural relativism when it calls to art criticism is yet another question that this consideration of this 1480 rock garden calls forth.

My opinion on that? Well, I feel like the best art expresses what the artist wanted with absolute honesty and truthfulness. Art should, essentially, express something about the human condition in a truthful way that genuinely expresses that aspect of the human condition that it addresses. So if an artwork has the allegoric subject matter of love, than whatever it is stipulating about love should come through clearly in the best way that the artwork could express that specific stance on love. This doesn’t mean the art should express something that we agree with; it only means it should express whatever it aims to express eloquently and articulate.

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