notions of perfection and imperfection do not have the same prominent presence
they once occupied in earlier aesthetics discourse. However, they still play an
important role as criteria for aesthetic judgments today in our everyday life. The
wide-spread and easily accepted aesthetic appeal of objects with perfection
tends to overshadow the potential aesthetic value of imperfect objects that are
considered to be defective or deficient. This not only impoverishes our
aesthetic lives but also leads to some serious environmental and social
consequences. I first argue for the need to cultivate an aesthetic sensibility
to appreciate imperfection in our everyday experience. However, I also argue
that such an aesthetic sensibility should not be applied indiscriminately. As
newly emerging negative aesthetics indicates, in some cases it is critically
important to maintain the negative assessment of imperfection, as it may
indicate a need for corrective actions.
aesthetics, imperfection, negative aesthetics, perfection, the picturesque, wabi aesthetics
notions of perfection and imperfection frequently appear in eighteenth-century
European aesthetic theories. Writers ranging from Joseph Addison and Francis
Hutcheson to Joshua Reynolds and Arthur Schopenhauer address the role that
these concepts play in aesthetics, and Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant dedicate whole
sections of their influential works to arguments that perfection is not a cause
Sometimes the discussion revolves around the aesthetic value or disvalue of deformed
creatures, such as “a monster,” “imperfections of nature,” and “accidental
blemishes and excrescences.” Other
times artifacts are judged by the criteria of perfection/imperfection based
upon their success or failure in fulfilling their functions. Finally, the grand
narrative of degeneration of perfection into imperfection underlies Thomas Burnett’s
Sacred Theory of the Earth (1681-9),
which created a controversy in its time. According
to Burnett’s theory, the earth, originally a perfectly smooth and beautifully
proportioned “Mundane Egg,” was
subsequently ruined by the Deluge, caused by humanity’s sin, that created
mountains, valleys, and other distortions, warts, and blemishes that destroyed
the once beautiful surfaces.
appears that in today’s aesthetics discourse we don’t have the same kind of
lively discussion surrounding the notions of perfection and imperfection,
possibly with the exception of music. However,
as I shall argue in this paper, the aesthetics of perfection and imperfection govern
various aspects of our everyday life, ranging from green lawns and
perfectly-shaped fruits and vegetables to fast fashion and the sculpted human
body. As such, it is still a worthwhile subject matter to explore, particularly
because, as with other matters in everyday aesthetics, our aesthetic judgments based
upon perfection and imperfection almost invariably have consequences that
affect the quality of life, the social and political climate of a society, and
the state of the world.
will limit my discussion to material objects, although the aesthetics of
perfection and imperfection can be applied to non-material entities like music,
systems, and ideas. Furthermore, for the purpose of my discussion here, I am
going to suppose that perfection is generally considered aesthetically positive
and that anything falling short of perfection is aesthetically inferior or
downright negative. For brevity’s sake, I shall call this aesthetically
favorable view of perfection ‘perfectionism.’ This supposition is challenged by
much of eighteenth-century European aesthetics
and also by Japanese wabi aesthetics,
both of which inform my subsequent discussion.
am also going to work with the following two common narratives of perfectionism.
One invokes a temporal framework by setting an optimal or prime state of an
object when it is considered perfect, after which it deteriorates or declines
due to weathering, aging, wear and tear, or destruction. If the object is a
manufactured item, the optimal state is usually when it is brand new, except
for those objects that need to be broken in or seasoned, such as carpenter’s
tools. If the object is a living entity, the optimal state is when it is
flourishing, such as flowers in full bloom and humans as adults before middle
age sets in.
other narrative is atemporal and based upon the norm for perfection of kind.
For example, a deformed body of a living creature, including and especially
humans, is deemed imperfect. An artifact that fails to fulfill its design,
perhaps because of a mishap in the manufacturing process, will be considered
imperfect. Such factory rejects are often sold at a discount with a tag
specifying “slight imperfections.”
what follows, I will first explore some negative consequences of perfectionism
and argue for developing an aesthetic capacity for appreciating imperfection, which
I shall call imperfectionism. However, in the second part, I will argue against indiscriminate imperfectionism.
argument for imperfectionism
impoverishes our aesthetic lives because it limits the range of sensuous
qualities for appreciation. Imperfect objects are usually characterized by irregularity,
disorder, complexity, and rough surfaces. Appreciation of imperfection is part
of the eighteenth-century British notion of the picturesque, most prominently
exemplified by architectural ruins. William Gilpin, for example, acknowledges
the beauty and elegance of Palladian
architecture with its symmetry and orderly design, but recommends that “should we wish to give it picturesque beauty,
we must use the mallet instead of the chisel, we must beat down one half of it,
deface the other, and throw the mutilated members around in heaps. In short,
from a smooth building we must turn it into a rough ruin.” The
aesthetics of ruins requires a sophisticated aesthetic sensibility that appreciates
the complex, irregular, and asymmetrical shape, the interplay of interior and
exterior spaces, and rough surfaces caused by destruction, weathering, and
plants growing in crevices.
same aesthetics applies to gardens. Alexander Pope criticizes the symmetry and
order of a formal garden because one half is repeated by the other half and “no
pleasing Intricacies intervene, No artful Wilderness to perplex the Scene.” In
the same spirit, Richard Payne Knight, another picturesque advocate, praises
gardens that are overgrown with ivy, moss, and weeds.
well-known example of imperfectionism is Japanese wabi aesthetics, established with the tea ceremony in the sixteenth
century. Initially introduced as an alternative to the prevailing taste for
opulence and luxury, wabi aesthetics also
celebrates irregularity, rough surface, asymmetry, and defects in tea bowls, other
implements, and tea huts. These qualities often appear in the aging process or
result from happenstance during the creative process, such as an unexpected run
of glaze or adherence of ashes and bits of straw on the pottery surface. At other
times, these effects are deliberately brought about by a destructive act of a
tea master, such as breaking one handle of a vase.
many artists’ works and writings are full of detailed depictions and descriptions
of the beauty of imperfection caused by unevenness, accident, or wear and tear.
For example, Aaron Siskind’s close-up photographs of the façade of dilapidated
houses and streets call attention to a rich lode of aesthetic gems. The complexity
of the surface engages a more involved and layered visual experience. A sensibility
that is sharpened this way will enable us to develop an “eye for peeling
paint,” according to one writer. Furthermore,
not surprisingly, many artists working with textile, ceramics, and metal also
express similar praise of imperfections, defects, signs of repair, and the like,
and create their artworks accordingly.
For quite some time, Americans have
been obsessed with creating a perfect lawn, which is a velvety smooth green carpet bordered by
well-manicured bushes. One book on this American obsession is subtitled, “the
Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn.” In
contrast, gardens consisting of wildflowers and community gardens growing
vegetables in urban areas often arouse objections for their messy, disorderly,
and unkempt appearance. The monoculture of the green lawn is considered
aesthetically superior to the profusion of colors, shapes, and textures
provided by the mixture of wildflowers and vegetable and fruit plants in those
alternative gardens. In contrast, Piet Oudolf, the Dutch designer of New York
City’s Highline and Chicago Millennium Park’s Lurie Garden, articulates how
these gardens offer a new landscape aesthetic: “I think it’s the journey in
your life to find out what real beauty is, of course, but also discover beauty
in things that are at first sight not beautiful.” Thus,
purely on the sensuous level, denying the aesthetic value of imperfection considerably
limits one’s aesthetic palette.
also enriches imagination. Joseph Addison characterizes our aesthetic
experience as “the pleasures of the imagination,” and identifies the great, the
uncommon, and the beautiful as the sources of such pleasures. Among them, the
uncommon stimulates our mind, and “it is this that bestows charms on a monster
and makes even the imperfections of nature to please us.”
Furthermore, he claims it is the imagination that “makes the most rude, uncultivated
parts of nature administer to his pleasures” and helps him discover “a multitude
of charms that conceal themselves from the generality of mankind.” Richard
Payne Knight also claims that “as all the pleasures of intellect arise from the
association of ideas, the more the materials of association are multiplied, the
more will the sphere of these pleasures be enlarged.”
Addison complains that the “neatness and elegancy” of English (formal) gardens
are “not so entertaining to the fancy” because “the imagination immediately
runs them over and requires something else to gratify her.” For
the same reason, Immanuel Kant prefers the free beauties of nature to an
orderly garden because a thing “with which imagination can play in an unstudied
and purposive manner is always new to us, and one does not get tired of looking
at it.” Ruins
again serve as the prime example of imperfect beauty. The imagination becomes engaged
as we contemplate their original state, the cause of transformation, and the parallel
transience of human life.
of imagination also informs imperfectionism advocated by Yoshida Kenkō, a
retired Buddhist monk in medieval Japan (1283-1350). Whether regarding the
cherry blossoms or the moon, he celebrates the less-than-the-optimal state of
these objects, including their complete invisibility. He declares “how much
more evocative and pleasing it is to think about the spring without stirring
from the house, to dream of the moonlit night though we remain in our room!” The
same point is made by Kamo no Chōmei, another medieval Japanese writer
(1153-1216): “The limitless vista created in imagination far surpasses anything
one can see more clearly.” For the same reason, Sen no Rikyū
(1522-1591), the tea master who established wabi
tea, criticizes those who lament a landscape devoid of flowers and colorful foliage
because they “are merely capable of taking pleasure in the colorful sights
which appear to their physical eyes alone.” Finally,
Tanizaki Junichirō, a noted twentieth-century writer, states that he loves
“things that bear the marks of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colors
and the sheen that call to mind the past
that made them,” in particular “a polish that comes of being touched over
and over again, a sheen produced by the oils that naturally permeate an object
over long years of handling.”
short, if beauty consists only of a perfectly maintained Palladian
architecture, cherry blossoms at the height of their bloom, an unhindered view
of the moon, and the monoculture of a green lawn, it makes for a rather
impoverished aesthetic life. Aesthetically appreciating imperfection,
incompleteness, and defects may be more challenging and taxing. However,
developing such aesthetic capacity encourages open-mindedness and receptivity
in appreciating something on its own terms while enhancing the power of
imagination. Rather than imposing a predetermined idea of what beauty has to be,
we are letting the object in various forms speak to us, even if at first it may
defy our usual expectations of beauty. Thus, strictly from the aesthetic point
of view, imperfectionism is beneficial.
argument for imperfectionism
open-mindedness underlying imperfectionism also has a moral dimension. One of
the necessary ingredients of our moral life is that we do not impose our ideas
on others but rather become a good listener and respect the other’s reality,
dignity, and integrity. As such, the capacity to appreciate diverse kinds of
beauty shares the same attitude of humility and respect required in our moral
willingness to relinquish the urge to exert control over others also leads to a
certain attitude toward life. One of the greatest challenges to humanity is the
limitation of human control over things. Transience of material objects in this
world, including our own bodies, is the law of nature from which nothing can
escape. Furthermore, despite the scientific and technological advancement in
the modern world, things happen beyond our control.
aesthetic sphere, this urge to create and keep a timeless ideal is most
prominent among architects. As Rumiko Handa documents, architects tend to exert
what she calls “authorial authority” that prohibits any modifications once the
building is completed. At
the time of completion, the structure is deemed perfect, and any change, whether
intentionally inflicted or naturally developed, is considered to be deterioration,
a fall from grace. Some architects even dictate the activities and objects used
within their designed space, regardless of the life style and wishes of the
residents or users. For example, Frank Lloyd Wright was notorious for designing
everything within the space of his buildings, including furniture and even plates,
to create an overall harmony. In Philip Johnson’s Glass House, “even table-top
bric-a-brac are discretely marked with indications of their correct location,”
making the space “unlivable as a domestic space,” according to one critic.
Architects’ attempts to freeze the building and things in it at the time of
completion reflect an unrealistic expectation that defies the reality of the life
Instead of the ultimately vain effort
to fight against transience and other challenges of this world, the Japanese
aesthetic tradition of imperfectionism offers a strategy for accepting them. By
finding beauty in the ephemerality of life, such as falling cherry blossoms and
signs of aging, we reconcile ourselves to our own impermanence through
aestheticization. Wabi aesthetics, in
particular, offers a proactive affirmation of transience and the limitation of
human control over things rather than the more passive resignation prominently
expressed in many Heian period (794-1185) court poems that lament the transience
of youth, beauty, love, and wealth.
Today we are becoming increasingly
aware of and concerned with the legacy of the Enlightenment agenda that equates
good life with a life free from the constraints of nature. We question the
wonders of the Baconian utopia detailed in New
Atlantis that can be taken as a blue print for technological advancement,
most of which has been accomplished: airplane, submarine, genetic engineering, and
holography, to name a few. Particularly in light of the environmental harm
caused by humanity’s effort to control and utilize nature, we are pressed with
a paradigm change that would view our inability to control nature and the march
of time as an opportunity to work with it or to recognize and accept the
limitation of human agency. The aesthetics of imperfectionism offers one
strategy for developing a capacity to appreciate what is otherwise considered a
deficiency and inadequacy.
social, and political arguments for imperfectionism
So far I have offered aesthetic,
moral, and existential arguments for imperfectionism. Let me add another layer
of considerations that particularly affect our lives today.
First, there are a number of negative environmental
consequences of perfectionism. Let us go back to the ideal of residential
gardens in the United States. Their creation and maintenance incur a
considerable environmental cost: heavy use of water, chemicals like fertilizer,
herbicide, fungicide, and insecticide, and fuel for lawn-care machinery. Such
landscaping is hostile to living creatures, such as birds and butterflies, and
it poses risks to human health and safety.
effect of perfectionist aesthetics reaches the supermarket shelves as well. The
“apparent perfection” of “strangely uniform and incredibly shiny red tomatoes
and picture-perfect peaches” results from discarding deformed and ugly fruits
and vegetables, such as two-legged carrots, cucumbers that are too curvy, and
green peppers with an extra lump.
According to one estimate, the process of weeding out imperfect fruits and
vegetables by both farmers and supermarkets wastes one third of the total fresh
produce grown in the United States.
Another consequence of perfectionist
aesthetics is the accelerated pace of the perceived obsolescence of
manufactured goods, ranging from clothing to hi-tech gadgets, that encourages
fast fashion. This economic system entices consumers continually to seek more
fashionable, stylish, and up-to-date goods. Furthermore, when an object starts
showing signs of wear and tear, even if the object still functions well, we are
compelled to discard it and purchase a new one. Quoting a shopper, one writer points
out that, in today’s economy, “aesthetics, whether people admit it or not, is
why you buy something.” This
consumer action fueled by perfectionist aesthetics is responsible for resource
depletion, environmental degradation, mounting garbage, not to mention human
rights violation in those developing nations where many goods are manufactured
and where developed nations’ garbage gets dumped.
aesthetics is helpful in responding to these environmental consequences of
perfectionism. As mentioned before, wildflower gardens and community gardens establish
a different landscape aesthetic guided by their environmental stewardship and
community spirit. An art project termed Edible Estates, which replaces a front
yard with vegetable gardens and community gardens where area residents grow
fruits and vegetables, develops imperfectionist aesthetics based upon fecundity,
liveliness, vibrancy, and communal pride and neighborliness.
for imperfectly shaped fresh produce, one French supermarket chain launched a
successful campaign extolling the virtue of “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables,”
followed by an American supermarket chain’s campaign for “Produce with
Personality.” Both campaigns promote
imperfectionist aesthetics by featuring deformed fruits and vegetables, with
strategic placement and favorable lighting to showcase their unique beauty. They
can even receive an artistic treatment, such as Uli Westphal’s photographic
In the matter of consumer goods,
there has been a growing interest in repair. Under perfectionism, repair has a
negative connotation because it is associated with damage. However, in the apparel
industry, which is notorious for promoting fast fashion, some designers are
starting to incorporate signs and potentials for repair in their designs. They often
derive inspirations from the Japanese boro
(rag), and quilts that were originally created in places like the American
South, such as Gee’s Bend, by the slave women who had to make do with limited
resources. Both are now widely exhibited in art museums. In the field of ceramics,
there is a growing interest in the traditional Japanese art of kintsugi (repair with gold) that not
only repairs damaged objects but also provides aesthetically appealing ornamental
Another set of problematic
consequences of perfectionism concerns the human body. There are many health issues
involved in various efforts to achieve an ideal physique, such as anorexia,
extreme dieting, cosmetic surgery, use of steroids, and tanning booths, among
others. The demand on a female fashion model to be tall and skinny drove one
French model to die from malnutrition, prompting the French government to enact
a law prohibiting fashion companies from using a model whose body mass index is
below a certain level.
Furthermore, humans suffer from various forms of
discrimination based upon physical appearance. Deborah Rhode compiled compelling
evidence that obesity, deformity, and unattractive facial features work against
employment, acceptance to certain groups, and interpersonal relationships, not
only damaging one’s self-esteem and quality of life but also adding another
kind of injustice in today’s society, already laden with various forms of
injustice and discrimination.
In response, there is a growing movement to include
various body types and differently abled bodies as dancers, stage performers,
and fashion models to promote public awareness and respect for diverse types of
bodies. One example is the Swiss campaign called, “Because Who Is Perfect?,”
that featured five imperfect bodies for mannequins. This
kind of inclusiveness and celebration of diversity is a welcome antidote to perfectionism
regarding the human body because its extreme version can imply, however
inadvertently, a kind of aesthetic white supremacism.
against indiscriminate imperfectionism
So far I have been advocating imperfectionist aesthetics.
But my promotion of imperfectionism does not entail a rejection of perfect
beauty. Neither do I share some imperfectionist advocates’ elevation of
imperfection above perfection. For example, the picturesque advocates’ praise
for imperfection in architecture, gardens, other artifacts, and even human
appearance is always accompanied by their criticism of perfection. Yoshida Kenkō
also claims that “branches about to blossom or gardens strewn with faded
flowers are worthier of our
admiration” and “only an exceptionally insensitive man” would find beauty only
in flowers in full bloom. Furthermore,
“it is typical of the unintelligent man to insist on assembling complete
sets of everything. Imperfect sets are better.” Wabi aesthetics also elevates the
aesthetic value of defective objects over perfect beauty. Tanizaki’s imperfectionism
cited in Section 2.2 is largely motivated by his dissatisfaction with Japan’s rapid
Westernization, but it is clear that imperfectionism is also his aesthetic
The imperfectionists’ tendency to elevate imperfection
above perfection is understandable, given that perfectionism is more prevalent
and imperfectionism is aesthetically more challenging and requires a more
sophisticated and cultured sensibility and imagination. However, I now offer aesthetic
and social/political considerations against the indiscriminate promotion of
5.1. Co-existence of perfectionism and imperfectionism
First, if one of the reasons to support imperfectionism
is to promote inclusive and multi-faceted aesthetics, perfectionist aesthetics
should retain a place in aesthetic discourse. After all, even those who advocate
imperfect beauty caused by damage, wear and tear, and the effects of aging would
most likely appreciate the perfectly smooth and lustrous appearance of a
lacquerware piece when it is finished by the craftsman, an apple with a
perfectly round shape, and the smooth skin of a youthful body. Different
aesthetic appeals of a lacquerware with a faded surface, an apple with an
asymmetrical shape, and the wrinkles marking the aged face do not negate the
respective beauty of perfection.
Second, even those who advocate imperfectionism often
point out the complementarity of perfection and imperfection. For example, it
is instructive that the picturesque movement appeared during the eighteenth
century in Britain, when the land was being rapidly marked by the checkerboard-patterned
hedgerows as a result of the enclosure movement. The geometrical monotony of
enclosed fields is best broken by landscaping that utilizes picturesque
aesthetics. Conversely, William Marsden praises the regularity and order of a
pepper garden after walking through a jungle in Sumatra, while admitting that
“a pepper garden cultivated in England would not … be considered as an object
of extraordinary beauty; and would be particularly found fault with for its
It is also instructive that the advocates of wabi aesthetics often point out the
aesthetic effect created by a contrast between perfection and imperfection. For
example, tea master Murata Shukō (d. 1502) illustrates this contrast by a poem:
“A prize horse looks best hitched to a thatched hut.” While
the wabi tea champions the aesthetics
of imperfection embodied in an irregularly shaped tea bowl, a cracked vase, and
a crooked wooden pillar for a tokonoma
alcove, all of these irregular and misshapen objects are placed against the
geometrical pattern of tatami mats. If
everything, including the floor, in the tea hut is irregular and misshapen,
most likely the overall effect would be more grotesque than the wabi appeal. On the other hand, if a perfectionist
aesthetic pervades everything, as in Philip Johnson’s Glass House, the effect
will most likely be too stiff and rigid, not allowing much free play of the
imagination. Thus, the ideal aesthetics can be interpreted as a judicious
juxtaposition of perfection and imperfection, rather than an indiscriminate
promotion of everything perfect or everything imperfect.
5.2. Negative aesthetics
Imperfectionist aesthetics turns what is commonly
regarded as aesthetically negative into aesthetically positive. This follows a
rather typical trajectory of aesthetics discourse, such as the contribution
made by ugliness to the overall value of a work of art and the positive
aesthetic value accorded to unattractive objects of nature. In comparison,
there has not been sufficient attention to those that are aesthetically
negative with no redeeming aesthetic value. The problem is particularly acute
in everyday life. I don’t think anybody would believe that we live in an
aesthetic utopia with no need for improvement. Unfortunately, aesthetically
negative objects, environments, and situations exist in today’s world and in
Katya Mandoki devotes a considerable portion of her book,
Everyday Aesthetics, to negative
aesthetic qualities that permeate our daily lives with what she calls aesthetic
poisoning, such as “the disgusting, the obscene, the coarse, the insignificant,
the banal, the ugly, the sordid.”
Arnold Berleant also calls attention to occasions and environments where their sensory
experience “offends, distresses, or has harmful or damaging consequences.” By
carefully analyzing many cases that involve different relationships between the
aesthetic and the moral, including pollution, commercial enterprise, political
propaganda, and urban planning, he stresses the importance of developing an
awareness of “aesthetic deprivation,” “aesthetic harm,” and “aesthetic damage.” Such
aesthetic negativity dulls, numbs, or assaults our sensibility, stifles
creativity, and compromises our well-being and quality of life. He thus calls
for the need to acknowledge the existence of negative aesthetics.
Let us recall some examples of
imperfection that I have discussed: peeling paint, a dilapidated house with
broken windows, sidewalks strewn with litter and weeds growing in the crevices,
and tattered clothes worn by homeless people. I previously argued in support of
the imperfectionist aesthetics regarding these objects but now want to argue
for the importance of developing negative aesthetic judgments regarding them.
These examples of imperfection often indicate social ills and injustice, and
the negative aesthetics associated with them is the best means of signaling
that something is amiss and change or
improvement is in order. These aesthetic manifestations communicate social
problems more powerfully and effectively than things like statistics regarding the
poverty rate. Our sensibility assaulted by these negative aesthetic experiences
affects us immediately and viscerally, and I believe that it is important that they
affect us this way.
There is something morally problematic
about deriving an aesthetic pleasure from the sign of social ills suffered by
others. Indeed, both picturesque aesthetics and wabi aesthetics were criticized for this reason. For example, Mary
Wollstonecraft was critical of the picturesque estate where “every thing…is
cherished but man,” and “the eye…had wandered indignant from the stately palace
to the pestiferous hovel.” John
Ruskin was also critical of “the
heartless ‘lower picturesque’ delight in ‘the look that an old laborer has, not
knowing that there is anything pathetic in his grey hair, and withered arms,
and sunburnt breast.’” In a
similar vein, wabi aesthetics of tea
became the target of pointed criticism by Dazai Shundai (1680-1747), an Edo
period Confucian scholar:
tea dilettantes do is a copy of the poor and humble. It may be that the rich
and noble have a reason to find pleasure in copying the poor and humble. But
what should those who are, from the outset, poor and humble find pleasure in
further copying the poor and humble? All that tea dilettante does is to copy
everything which looks poor and shabby.
Today, many instances of
imperfectionist aesthetics, such as shabby chic, grunge, and the distressed
look, invoke charges of elitism, classism, and dilettantism. Wearing an
expensive pair of jeans sporting rips, tears, frays, patches, and faded color, essentially
an imitation of a homeless person’s tattered clothes, cannot but remind us of
Marie Antoinette playing at being a milkmaid. The façade of
shabby houses of the residents of Gee’s Bend certainly offer inspirations for
quilt patterns but I doubt that the residents there have a positive aesthetic
appreciation toward the expression of poverty they are suffering.
Previously I suggested an existential support
for imperfectionism by arguing that there is a kind of wisdom in accepting and
developing a positive attitude toward difficulties in life, such as transience
and lack of power and control over things. However, there are cases where
imperfectionism becomes problematic. Consider the following claim by Sōtaku Jakuan,
an Edo-period tea master:
bear in mind that wabi involves not regarding incapacities as incapacitating,
not feeling that lacking something is deprivation, not thinking that what is
not provided is deficiency. To regard incapacity as incapacitating, to feel
that lack is deprivation, or to believe that not being provided for is poverty
is not wabi but rather the spirit of a pauper.
The same view is utilized to endorse the
status quo of a feudal society by Ii Naosuke (1815-1860), in his Essay on the Tea Cult as an Aid to
pleasure is not gratification accompanied by a sense of contentment, it is not
real pleasure…if each individual is satisfied with his lot and is not envious,
he will enjoy life because he knows contentment and will be contented because
of enjoying his lot…if the art of drinking tea were widely practiced through
the country…both high and low would be content with their lots, would enjoy but
not grieve, and would do no wrong…the country would become peaceful and
Wabi aesthetics, with its acceptance and
affirmation of imperfection, can be a powerful, effective, and wise strategy
for coping with life’s contingencies that are beyond human control. However,
when applied to societal and political situations, we must pause, for we are
glad that people like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and
Nelson Mandela did not subscribe to the imperfectionism advocated by wabi aesthetics.
Developing negative aesthetics tends
to encourage an activist attitude. This is in contrast with the traditionally held
characterization of aesthetic attitude that is disinterested, typically adopted
by a spectator. Reversing the Kantian notion of beauty that is appreciated
regardless of its actual existence, a spectator with a disinterested attitude
toward aesthetically negative objects would also remain indifferent to their
existence. If an interested attitude toward aesthetically positive objects
implies our interest in their existence, the same attitude toward aesthetically
negative objects implies our interest in their non-existence. Particularly in
relation to everyday aesthetic matters, we should argue against
disinterestedness. That is, the existence and creation of those objects,
environments, and social interactions that affect our everyday life in an
aesthetically positive way should be encouraged, while the opposite should hold
for those that are aesthetically negative.
Does my argument against
imperfectionism developed in this section mean that we should never derive a
positive aesthetic experience from a cracked bowl, peeling paint, dilapidated
house, and tattered clothes? No. As I argued in Section 2, excluding these
things from the aesthetic arena will certainly impoverish our aesthetic life. Just
as it is often worthwhile appreciating a representational painting without
regard to its content, appreciating imperfection without regard to its origin
and consequences helps sharpen our perceptual sophistication. However, when
these imperfections indicate people’s suffering and social injustice, I believe
it is ultimately morally problematic to derive a disinterested pleasure based
upon imperfectionism. The appropriate response should be to experience them as aesthetically
negative and take them as a call for an action to change and improve the
condition that gives rise to those imperfections.
I have presented several benefits,
aesthetic or otherwise, for developing an imperfectionist aesthetics. However, I
have also argued against the indiscriminate
application of imperfectionist aesthetics. Particularly when it comes to
everyday aesthetics, it is difficult, and also unwise, to separate aesthetic
concerns from moral, social, political, environmental, and practical concerns.
The aesthetic can be a strong ally in our collective effort to improve the
quality of life and create a good society by promoting aesthetically positive
artifacts, environments, and social interactions. However, it is equally
important to keep a vigilant attitude against that which is aesthetically
negative because it signals problems and calls for changes and solutions.
Enrichment of our aesthetic life should not come at the cost of ignoring aesthetics’
important role in the world-making project.
Yuriko Saito, PhD
Professor of Philosophy
Rhode Island School of Design
2 College St., Providence, RI 02903 USA.
Published on July 27, 2017.
Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry
into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1990), Part III, Section IX: “Perfection not the cause of
Beauty,” p. 100. Immanuel Kant, Critique
of Judgment, tr. J. H. Bernard (New York: Hafner Press, 1974), Section 15:
“The Judgment of Taste is Quite Independent of the Concept of Perfection,” pp.
Burnett Controversy, see Basil Willey’s The
Eighteenth Century Background: Studies on the Idea of Nature in the Thought of
the Period (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), Chap. II. The subsequent
development of the aesthetics of mountains, see Marjorie Hope Nicolson’s Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The
Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite (New York: W. W. Norton &
Contemporary debates surrounding music invoking the notions of perfection and
imperfection often revolve around jazz and recording vs. live performance.
Alexander Pope, “An Epistle to Lord Burlington” (1731), in The Genius of the Place: the English Landscape Garden 1620-1820,
eds. John Dixon Hunt and Peter Willis (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1990), p. 213.
Richard Payne Knight’s The Landscape, A
Didactic Poem (1794), in Hunt and Willis, pp. 342-8.
explored this subject in “The Japanese Aesthetics of Imperfection and
Insufficiency,” The Journal of Aesthetics
and Art Criticism, 55,4 (Fall 1997): 377-85.
Leonhardt, “An Eye for Peeling Paint,” Landscape,
28,2 (1985): 23-5.
See, for example, Kiff Slemmons, “On Imperfection,” Metalsmith, 28, 1 (2008), 26-29; Allen S. Weiss, “The Toilet Bowl
and the Tea Bowl,” ArtUS, 27 (2009), 80-85;
Allen S. Weiss, “Cracks,” ArtUS, 29 (2010),
62-67; Lois Martin, “Patina of Cloth,” Surface
Design Journal, 28, 4 (Summer 2004), 16-21.
Steinberg, American Green: The Obsessive
Quest for the Perfect Lawn (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007). See also
Virginia Scott Jenkins, The Lawn: A
History of an American Obsession (Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian
Institution Press, 1994) and Georges Teyssot, “The American Green: Surface of
Everyday Life,” in The American Lawn,
ed. Georges Teyssot (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999), pp. 1-39.
“Pleasures,” #412, p. 142.
Addison, “Pleasures,” #411, p. 140.
Richard Payne Knight, An Analytical
Inquiry into the Principles of Taste (1805), in Hunt and Willis, p. 181.
Addison, “Pleasures,” #414, p. 151 and p. 149.
Kant, Critique of Judgment, p. 80.
Yoshida, Essays in Idleness: The
Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō, tr. Donald Keene (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1967), p. 118. I retain the name order as it is published, even if it is
the reverse of the Japanese order, which in this case is Yoshida (family name)
Kenkō (given name).
no Chōmei, Mumyōshō, cited by Kōshirō
Haga, “The Wabi Aesthetic,” in Tea in Japan: Essays in the History of
Chanoyu, eds. Paul Varley and Isao Kumakura (Honolulu: University of Hawaii
Press, 1989), p. 204.
Nanbō, “Record of Nanbō” (Sen no Rikyū’s teaching recorded by his disciple,
Sōkei Nanbō), in The Theory of Beauty in
the Classical Aesthetics of Japan, ed. and tr. Toshihiko and Toyo Izutsu
(The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1981), p. 156-7.
Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows, tr.
Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker (New Haven: Leete’s Island Books,
1977), pp. 11-12, emphasis added.
Rumiko Handa, Allure of the Incomplete,
Imperfect, and Impermanent: Designing and Appreciating Architecture as Nature (Abingdon,
Oxon: Routledge, 2015).
Kevin Melchionne, “Living in Glass Houses: Domesticity, Interior Decoration,
and Environmental Aesthetics,” The
Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 56, 2 (1998), p. 191.
Harvey Blatt, America’s Food: What You
Don’t Know About What You Eat (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), p. vii. The
following estimate regarding food waste also comes from this work.
Virginia Postrel, The Substance of Style:
How the Rise of Aesthetic Value is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and
Consciousness (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003),
Deborah Rhode, The Beauty Bias: The
Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
Essays, p. 115, emphasis added.
Essays, p. 70, emphasis added.
William Marsden, The History of Sumatra (1783)
cited by Keith Thomas, Man and the
Natural World: A History of the Modern Sensibility (New York: Pantheon
Books, 1983), p. 263.
Cited by Haga, “The Wabi Aesthetic,”
Katya Mandoki, Everyday
Aesthetics: Prosaics, the Play of Culture and Social Identities (Aldershot:
Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007), p. 38.
Arnold Berleant, Sensibility and Sense:
The Aesthetic Transformation of the Human World (Exeter: Imprint Academic,
2010), p. 155.
Berleant, Sensibility and Sense,
“aesthetic deprivation” and “aesthetic harm” on p. 169, and “aesthetic damage”
on p. 164.
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the
Rights of Men, cited by Larry Shiner, The
Invention of Art: A Cultural History (Chicago: The University of Chicago
Press, 2001), p. 166.
John Ruskin, Modern Painters, cited
by David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign
Country (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 166.
Shundai, Dokugo (1816), cited by
Hiroshi Minami, Psychology of the
Japanese People, tr. Albert R. Ikoma (Toronto: University of Toronto Press,
1971), p. 90.
Jakuan, Zencharoku, cited by Haga,
“The Wabi Aesthetic,” pp. 195-6.
Naosuke, An Essay on the Tea Cult as an Aid to Government (19th century), cited by Minami,
original version of this paper was presented at the Symposium on the Aesthetics
of (Im)perfection held at the University of Tokyo (April 2017). I thank Peter
Cheyne for organizing the symposium and inviting me to participate. I also
thank Carolyn Korsmeyer for her invaluable comments on the content and on the writing of the first draft of this paper.