Originally Posted by Jeff Kropp
Now one might argue that, the ADA value set is as calculated and contrived as a Kinkade painting but I do not share this conviction. In my opinion, the ADA value set reflects a cultural/spiritual perspective that has endured for hundreds, if not thousands of years, while a Kinkade painting panders to shallow childish sentementality. In embracing the meditative contemplation of nature, the ADA value set opens up many interrelated avenues of understanding.
Apples and oranges. If we're talking about value sets, then we have to acknowledge that the Thomas Kinkade value set is that of a devout Anglo-Saxon Protestant -- Kinkade's art is pretty straightforward in this respect. Indeed, Kinkade is straightforward to the point of being ham-fisted, which is why I'm not a fan of his work either. But this lack of subtlety has little to do with the relative merits of the artists' values. Protestant Christianity as a "cultural/spiritual perspective" has a pretty considerable history, itself.
I also have to raise my eyebrows at the ethereal terms -- "cultural/spiritual perspective," "the meditative contemplation of nature," "interrelated avenues of understanding." These sound like hedges against more concrete definitions of Amano's value set. If that value set really has endured for centuries, it probably has a name, so why are we fumbling for the right words here?
Of course, the Amano value set doesn't have a name because it is a thoroughly postmodern product of its times. It is shaped by cultures and histories, of course, but it borrows liberally from various contexts, with little respect for the sanctity of any one value system. This is not a knock -- rather a nod to the complexity of a supposed ADA value set.
The complexity makes it hard to apply labels. There are superficial (again, not using this term negatively) traces of "Zen" and Shinto in Amano, but in his books he has also demonstrated the influence of African (esp. West African) native cultures -- and, of course, this cultural pastiche is tempered by an ecumenical devotion to the scientific method.
One convenient label that I think Jeff hinted at, and which Amano encourages, is that the ADA approach is somehow quintessentially "Japanese." Amano writes in NAW 1
: "This unique sense of nature, this wabi-sabi
, pervades every aspect of Japanese life, from gardening and bonsai to the tea ceremony and ikebana
... to many aspects of daily life." This is not an uncommon sentiment. To me, it smacks of oversimplification and orientalism, especially since the Japanese wabi-sabi
"other" is often cast against the European/American/Western occident. You can observe this frequently in Amano's writings. Even ignoring the impossible complexity volatility of a label like "Japanese," the orientalist stance doesn't work because it fails to acknowledge Amano's penchant for cross-cultural appropriation.
"Nature" is the other other label we seek to apply, but others on this board have already examined the difficulties there. To recap: What the hell is "nature"?
One point that needs to be made: Amano has never held his aquascapes up to the restrictive standard that many on this board seek to apply, in which the "natural" aquarium resembles an aquatic environment in the wild. Amano aquascapes use natural forms as a source for inspiration, but the resulting works are evocations, rather than approximations, of their natural subjects.
Amano also (rightly, IMO) rejects the nature-vs.-artifice binary. One of the essays accompanying an aquascape in NAW 1
is entitled "Artifice Over Nature," and it concludes with this quote: "Yes, such a beautiful waterscape doesn't exist in nature. Only artifice made by human hands can attain this beauty."
Amano regards nature as his inspiration, but he also considers his human artifice as an extension of nature's beauty. Artifice can both emulate nature and surpass it. This is a more nuanced view than the black-and-white nature/artifice opposition that some are attributing to Amano and ADA.
It's also relevant to note here that nature is not held up as the golden standard by which an aquascape is judged -- that honor goes to the even more difficult concept of "beauty." So what is beauty? I'm not going to touch that one with a ten-foot pole.
This is not to say that other conceptions of "nature" as it pertains to aquascaping are incorrect, but since we are using ADA criteria, it's helpful to consider the ADA perspective. I believe that Amano's own work and writings demonstrate that the ADA value set is too amorphous, complex, and occasionally self-contradictory to be summed up as the "contemplation of nature." It's convenient to use words like "cultural," "spiritual," "Japanese," or "nature" in this exercise, but we have to recognize that these are loaded terms, defying a pat, concrete definition.
This is especially true in the case of a postmodern artist like Amano who employs signifiers with little regard for the original context. If you take his yen for Zen too seriously, you'll get confused -- Amano's "Zen" is a purposefully superficial gloss of the real thing. Same with Shinto, same with East-vs.-West, etc. For Amano, connotation is more important than denotation.