One of my great passions--other than color--is aesthetic theory. They actually walk hand in hand in many ways. Aesthetics is the philosophy of art and because so much of my color theory work has ventured into the realm of the philosophical I spend a great deal of time working with aesthetics as well.
Today I thought I'd talk about one of my favorite aesthetic ideas which is Mono-No Aware. Its a Japanese concept that loosely translates to "the pathos of things." It is the sadness that we feel at the transient nature of life. The Japanese normally use the cherry blossoms as an example of this--since they bloom very briefly and then fall to the ground and are gone--but it is more often than not used in reference to objects.
The acceptance that a beloved object will one day no longer be around, that it will inevitably cease to exists is part of what makes it precious and beautiful. Mono-non aware also accepts that the reverse of this can be true: objects may outlast their owners and as they loose their owners they take on a bittersweet feel. They have outlived their owner, but they are still beautiful and in the world and one day like their owners, they too will fade. In his paper Japanese Aesthetics, Graham Parkes states:
Insofar as we don't rejoice in life we fail to appreciate the pathos of the things with which we share our lives. For most of us, some of these things, impermanent as they are, will outlast us--and especially if they have been loved they will become a sad thing.
The idea that objects can hold personal meaning, is not a foreign one in Western culture. But these meanings are more often linked to experiences and do not come from the object itself. We may, for example, love our grandfather's watch because it was what we learned to tell time on. But we do not consider that the watch has an essence all of its own that is unique and therefor makes it special.
I've noticed as we have grown to be more of a disposable culture, we have simultaneously become more of a collector culture. There is a sense that the beautiful things should be saved and not used. I've seen this increasingly over the last few years with my students--they have good art supplies that sit unused while they reach for the inexpensive ones. The good supplies are "special" and as such should not be used. This approach is diametrically opposed to the idea of Mono-non aware; which begins with the idea that an object will one day cease and so it should live a full and useful life. I often ask my students what exactly they are saving their supplies for? Do they imagine that one far off rainy day they will suddenly decide the good brushes should be used? They never have a good answer for me.
A small collection of objects from my daily life that have mono-non aware for me:
I recently started re-using my Traveler's Notebook after a long period of languishing in a drawer. I wasn't saving it, it was just that I was unhappy with the refill choices, but having discovered Curnow Bookbinding refills that use Tomoe River paper (my preferred paper for writing and illustration) I decided to try using it again. I was surprised by how much pathos I felt for the book. All of its old scratches and wear marks are a testament to its use, but for me it goes beyond the patina of the book. I actually own several of these but for some reason this particular one feels the most unique, the most mine. Its nothing I can put my finger on, but I believe it is the book's mono-non aware.
Rather than putting objects behind glass or hiding them away in a drawer to protect them for all time, mono-non aware asks us to see the objects we use as having a life of their own and embrace that like all living things they are both finite and happier when they are well loved and used.
My challenge to you is to look at the objects in your life that you're "saving" and give yourself permission to dust them off and use them. Make them special by using and allow them to fulfill the purpose of their creation. Seek the unique beauty that comes from these objects that share our lives with us and accept that one day they will be used up and gone. After all, it is transience that grants life its beauty. As the great Japanese philosopher Yoshida Kenkō once wrote: