Ritual Art or Fine Art?

April 9, 2007

Suiseki artists and collectors commonly refer to suiseki as “art”. What do we mean by this? Mas and I have spent quite a bit of time discussing this issue, and some new thoughts started crystallizing for me recently.

There is no single monolithic thing called “art”, but rather different kinds of art that are distinguished mainly by the reason the art exists, and also by what is done with the art once it’s been created.

I think there is a kind of art that I have taken to calling “ritual art”. Many of the antiquities on display in museums fall into this category for me, and I think that most suiseki also fall here. These are objects whose primary purpose is as objects for meditation, religious worship, or for spiritual contemplation. Art objects created or chosen for display in a tokonoma are meant to invoke the seasons and bring nature inside. They serve as objects of zen meditation – especially for tea ceremony.

I think one thing that distinguishes any “ritual art” is that a body of rules tends to govern its form, use, and display. (Clearly this applies to the traditional Japanese arts of bonsai, suiseki, and ikebana, but I could also call out Russian icons and Tibetan mandalas as examples). For example, the “rules” of suiseki say that a stone should be small and dark colored. Looked at from the perspective of fine art – of course it is perfectly possible to have an artistic stone, with good composition, that is neither dark colored nor small, but such a stone would not fit with the intended ritual use.

So I leave this with a question – what would happen to how we see our stones if we displayed them differently? Suppose we displayed each on a pedestal, without “accent plants” or scrolls or any such accoutrements, with no reference to traditional tokonoma display, but instead displaying each stone simply as an object to be appreciated as art. How would this change our perception of the stones as art?

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