A Comparison with Modernism
To get a better sense of what wabi-sabi is – and isn’t – it might be helpful to compare and contrast it with modernism, the dominant aesthetic sensibility of mid-to late-20th century international industrialized society. “Modernism” is another slippery term that cuts a wide swath across art and design, history, attitudes, and philosophy. Here we will describe “middle” modernism, the kind of modernism embodied in most the pieces of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Middle modernism includes most of the slick, minimalist appliances, machines, automobiles and gadgets produced since the Second World War. It also includes concrete, steel and glass box buildings of the sort that houses the Museum of Modern Art itself.
Both apply to all manners of man-made objects, spaces and designs.
Both are strong reactions against the dominant, established sensibilites of their time. Modernism was a radical departure from 19th century classicism and eclecticism. Wabi-sabi was a radiccal departure from the Chinese perfection and gorgeousness of the 16th Centtury and earlier.
Both eschew any decoration that is not integral to structure.
Both are abstract, nonrepresentational ideals of beauty.
Both have readily identifiable surface characteristics. Modernism is seamless, polished and smooth. Wabi-sabi is earthy, imperfect and variagated.
Image: Courtesy of A. Dayanand (Sketches from Tiru, 2014)