Ritual Art or Fine Art?

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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3 Responses to Ritual Art or Fine Art?

  1. […] modern sense, rather than seeing it through the lens of traditional spiritual belief.  (See my earlier post on that […]


  2. Janet Roth says:

    Thank you Andrei for your comment. You made us both so happy, and give us encouragement to continue this blog. After we come back we will try to give more information, including some technical “how to” information. Good luck with your study of suiseki and natural stones. -Mas and Janet


  3. Andrei says:

    Dear Mas,

    your art electified me, inspired me! Suiseki ist something I heve been searching for unconsciously for a long time. I, too, have matched pieces of stone and of wood I found – it gave me every time a somewhat mystical feeling of two things belonging to each other, and waiting for me to be united.

    Now I have a different understanding. I shall try to learn more about suiseki and about the making of such objects.


    p.s. oh and by the way, to me “art” is everything that changes the world a little bit in a way that makes us a little bit better humans. Sometimes a few words suffice, e.g. “what’s in a rose?”


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