Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Room for Debate: Why Japan Values Aesthetics

I found this piece incredibly interesting, from the Opinion section of The New York Times
Beauty and the Bento Box

What does the care devoted to the visual details in a packed lunch suggest about the culture? Why is such value placed on aesthetics in everyday life in Japan?

John Maeda, Rhode Island School of Design
Kenya Hara, art director of MUJI
Nick Currie, artist and author
Denis Dutton, professor of philosophy of art
The first answer from the President of RISD (where both my Shepard Fairey and my Step Mother both went) was interesting enough that made me want to share this entire article, read a bit of his opinion and the rest of the piece by hitting the link at the bottom.

Doing More With Less

I would say that Japanese culture is particularly attuned to the appreciation of beauty because it springs from an island nation with limited natural resources. Japan has always had to get by with less wood, metal, fuel and so on, so its culture has evolved around how to make less into more.

The “more” is simply the addition of visual or tactile aesthetic features that may range from the subtle to overt. Have a small block of wood? Make it red so that it stands out more. Or cut out a notch randomly into the block for a curious shape that’s more interesting to examine with your hands. Make one side smooth and the others rough so there’s more contrast. Create a hollow space in the block to house a bell inside.

This is a natural reflex among artists and designers. By combining critical thinking with critical making, the humble block of wood transcends its simplicity by the addition of idea of an unexpected nature.

You can feel the necessity of turning less into more in any supermarket in Tokyo. There you learn that a single stalk of celery can cost you a dollar. Or you eye a nice slab of beef that costs more than a Prada leather wallet. You quickly realize that a design problem emerges: namely, how to cook with fewer resources to create the “illusion” of more.

Thus the aesthetic experience of a bento box is not some mere extravagance of artistry, but has a pragmatic component as well. This situation has existed since the time of the chefs in ancient Kyoto — a story told to me by my late mentor, Japan’s greatest graphic designer Ikko Tanaka.

Tanaka-sensei pointed out to me how the style of cooking in his native Kyoto area was especially elaborate and ornate. He asked me if I knew why this was. I thought it was simply a matter of aesthetics. I was surprised to learn that it was actually because Kyoto was inland and especially limited in food resources, so the chefs developed a special way to combine aesthetics with nutrition such that their creations were designed to last longer in one’s digestive system.

read the whole piece here in the NYTimes.

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