Nov 24th 2022

How the philosophy behind the Japanese art form of kintsugi can help us navigate failure

by Ella Tennant

 

Ella Tennant Lecturer, Language and Culture, Keele University

 

In our 20s and 30s, there can be immense pressure to measure up to the expectations of society, our families, our friends and even those we have for ourselves. Many people look back and feel disappointed that they hadn’t taken the opportunity to travel more. Others might have envisioned that they would be further along in their careers or personal relationships. In reality, life is hard and we might face setbacks (big and small) that can shatter our dreams, leaving us with fragments we perceive as worthless.

Feelings of failure can take a long-lasting mental toll but they don’t have to stop you in your tracks. There are many teachings, practices and philosophies that can help you deal with disappointment, embrace imperfection and remain optimistic.

One such practice is the Japanese art form of kintsugi, which means joining with gold. It has attracted a great deal of attention in recent years as both an art technique, a worldview and metaphor for how we can live life.

Many forms of Japanese art have been influenced by Zen and Mahayana philosophies, which champion the concepts of acceptance and contemplation of imperfection, as well as the constant flux and impermanence of all things.

Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery. If a bowl is broken, rather than discarding the pieces, the fragments are put back together with a glue-like tree sap and the cracks are adorned with gold. There are no attempts to hide the damage, instead, it is highlighted. The practice has come to represent the idea that beauty can be found in imperfection. The breakage is an opportunity and applying this kind of thinking to instances of failure in our own lives can be helpful.

A technique to repair broken pots

Kintsugi was fairly widespread in Japan around the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The origins of this aesthetic go back hundreds of years to the Muromachi period (approximately 1336 to 1573). The third ruling Shogun (leader) of that era, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408), is said to have broken his favourite tea bowl. The bowl was unique and could not be replaced.

So, instead of throwing it away, he sent it to China for a replacement or repair. The bowl returned repaired with its pieces held in place by metal staples. Staple repair was a common technique in China as well as in parts of Europe at the time for particularly valuable pieces. However, the Shogun considered it to be neither functional nor beautiful.

Instead, the Shogun had his own artisans resolve the situation by finding a method to make something beautiful from the broken, damaged object, but without disguising the damage. And so, kintsugi came to be.

Finding the beauty in imperfection

Kintsugi makes something new from a broken pot, which is transformed to possess a different sort of beauty. The imperfection, the golden cracks, are what make the new object unique. They are there every time you look at it and they welcome contemplation of the object’s past and of the moment of “failure” that it and its owner has overcome.

The art of kintsugi is inextricably linked to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi: a worldview centred on the acceptance of transience, imperfection and the beauty found in simplicity. Wabi-sabi is also an appreciation of both natural objects and the forces of nature that remind us that nothing stays the same forever.

A series of pottery fragments put back together with gold painted lines.
A modern and avant-garde example of kintsugi
from the series Translated Vase by the Korean artist Yeesookyung.
Jean-Pierre Dalbéra/Flikr, CC BY

Wabi-sabi can also be incorporated into contemplating something and seeing it grow more beautiful as time passes. As a craft and an art form, kintsugi challenges expectations. This is because the technique goes further than repairing an object but actually transforms and intentionally changes its appearance.

In an age of mass production and conformity, learning to accept and celebrate imperfect things, as kintsugi demonstrates, can be powerful. Whether it’s reeling from a breakup or being turned down for a promotion, the fragments of our disappointment can be transformed into something new.

That new thing might not be perfect or be how you had envisioned it would be, but it is beautiful. Rather than try to disguise the flaws, the kintsugi technique highlights and draws attention to them. The philosophy of kintsugi, as an approach to life, can help encourage us when we face failure. We can try to pick up the pieces, and if we manage to do that we can put them back together. The result might not seem beautiful straight away but as wabi-sabi teaches, as time passes, we may be able to appreciate the beauty of those imperfections.

The bowl may seem broken, the pieces scattered, but this is an opportunity to put it back together with seams of gold. It will be something new, unique and strong.


Quarter Life is a series about issues affecting those of us in our 20s and 30s.


Ella Tennant, Lecturer, Language and Culture, Keele University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Dec 4th 2023
EXTRACTS: "Being rich is essentially about having more stuff in general, including bigger houses." "..... if SUVs had not become widely adopted largely as a status symbol for the global middle classes, emissions from transport would have fallen by 30% over the past ten years. For the largest class of SUVs, six of the ten areas of the UK registering the most sales were affluent London boroughs like Kensington and Chelsea."
Nov 11th 2023
EXTRACT: "By using these “biomarkers”, researchers have discovered that when a person’s biological age surpasses their chronological age, it often signifies accelerated cell ageing and a higher susceptibility to age-related diseases." ----- "Imagine two 60-year-olds enrolled in our study. One had a biological age of 65, the other 60. The one with the more accelerated biological age had a 20% higher risk of dementia and a 40% higher risk of stroke."
Nov 6th 2023
EXTRACT: "We are working on a completely new approach to 'machine intelligence'. Instead of using ..... software, we have developed .... hardware that operates much more efficiently."
Nov 6th 2023
EXTRACTS: "When people think of foods related to type 2 diabetes, they often think of sugar (even though the evidence for that is still not clear). Now, a new study from the US points the finger at salt." ...... ".... this type of study, called an observational study, cannot prove that one thing causes another, only that one thing is related to another. (There could be other factors at play.) So it is not appropriate to say removing the saltshaker 'can help prevent'." ..... "Normal salt intake in countries like the UK is about 8g or two teaspoons a day. But about three-quarters of this comes from processed foods. Most of the rest is added during cooking with very little added at the table."
Oct 26th 2023

 

In 1904, Emile Bernard visited Paul Cezanne in Aix.  He wrote of a conversation at dinner:

Sep 11th 2023
EXTRACT: "Many people have dipped their toe into the lazy gardener’s life through “no mow May” – a national campaign to encourage people not to mow their lawns until the end of May. But you could opt to extend this practice until much later in the summer for even greater benefits. Allowing your grass to grow longer, and interspersing it with pollen-rich flowers, can benefit many insects – especially bees. Research finds that reducing mowing in urban and suburban environments has a positive effect on the amount and diversity of insects. Your untamed lawn won’t only benefit insects. It will also encourage more birds, such as goldfinches, to use your garden to feed on the seeds of common wildflower species such as dandelions."
Aug 30th 2023
EXTRACT: "Eliot remarked that Shakespeare's greatness not only grew as the writer aged, but that his development became more apparent to the reader as he himself aged: 'No reader of Shakespeare... can fail to recognize, increasingly as he himself grows up, the gradual ripening of Shakespeare's mind.' "
Aug 25th 2023
EXTRACTS: "I moved here 15 years ago from London because it was so safe. Bordeaux was then known as La Belle au Bois Dormant (The Sleeping Beauty). It's the wine capital of France and the site of beautiful 18th century architecture arrayed along the Garonne river." ---- "What’s new is that today lawlessness is spreading into the more comfortable neighborhoods. The favorite technique is to defraud elderly retirees by dressing up as policemen, waterworks inspectors or gas meter readers. False badges including a photo ID are easy to fabricate on a computer printer. Once inside, they scoop up most anything shiny as they tip-toe through the house."
Aug 20th 2023
EXTRACT: "The 1953 coup d'etat in Iran ushered in a period of exploitation and oppression that has continued – despite a subsequent revolution that led to huge changes – for 70 years. Each year on August 19, the anniversary of the coup, millions of Iranians ask themselves what would have happened if the US and UK had not conspired all those years ago to overthrow Iran’s democratically elected leader."
Aug 18th 2023
EXTRACT: "Edmundo Bacci: Energy and Light, curated by Chiara Bertola, and currently on view at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, is the first retrospective of the artist in several decades. Bacci was a native of Venice, a city with a long and illustrious history of painting, going back to Giorgione and Titian, Veronese and Tiepolo. As a painter, he was thoroughly immersed in this great past – as an artist he was determined to transform and remake that tradition in the face of modernity and its vicissitudes, what he called “the expressive crisis of our time.” That he has slipped into obscurity affords us, at the very least, an opportunity to see Bacci’s work essentially for the first time, without the burden of over-determined interpretations or categories."
Aug 12th 2023
EXTRACT: "Is Oppenheimer a movie for our time, reminding us of the tensions, dangers and conflicts of the old Cold War while a new one threatens to break out? The film certainly chimes with today’s big power conflicts (the US and China), renewed concern about nuclear weapons (Russia’s threats over Ukraine), and current ideological tensions between democratic and autocratic systems. But the Cold War did not just rest on the threat of the bomb. Behind the scientists and generals were many other players, among them the economists, who clashed just as vigorously in their views about how to run postwar economies."
Aug 5th 2023
EXTRACT: "I have a modest claim to make: we need Bruno today more than ever. This is because he represents an intellectual antidote to the prevailing ideology of today which tells us that we are doomed to finitude, which comes down politically to the assertion that there is no alternative to the reign of global capitalism. Of course, Bruno did not know about capitalism, globalization or neoliberalism. What he did know however is that humanity is infinite. That we are limited only by our own narrowness of vision."
Jul 26th 2023
EXTRACT: "We studied 55,000 people’s dietary data and linked what they ate or drank to five key measures: greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, water pollution and biodiversity loss. Our results are now published in Nature Food. We found that vegans have just 30% of the dietary environmental impact of high-meat eaters. The dietary data came from a major study into cancer and nutrition that has been tracking the same people (about 57,000 in total across the UK) for more than two decades."
Jul 26th 2023
EXTRACT: "Art historians have never understood economics, and as a result they believe they can ignore markets: in their view, the production of art can be treated in isolation from its sale.  This is of course disastrously wrong.  But their ignorance has led to a neglect of the economic history of art. "
Jul 13th 2023
EXTRACT: ".....art purchases and prices have plateaued. The prevailing mood at this year’s Art Basel was one of anxiety, as dealers roamed the halls searching for answers. Some speculate that the state of the art market indicates declining confidence among the world’s richest people. When the economy is booming, collectors are more inclined to invest in art and take on leverage, especially when borrowing costs are low. But these dynamics can shift quickly during downturns. The 2008 crisis, for example, caused art prices to fall by 60%."
Jul 13th 2023
EXTRACT: "But even if you’re having trouble motivating yourself to exercise, many types of physical activity may be helpful as long as you do them regularly. For example, walking, gardening and household chores (such as cooking, hoovering and dusting) may prevent symptoms worsening and improve quality of life. And, these activities may be easier to incorporate into your daily routine than a gym workout."
Jul 12th 2023
EXTRACTS: "Insect populations are declining worldwide at a rate of almost 1% per year. This decline is alarming. Insects play a crucial role in pollinating crops, controlling crop pests and maintaining soil fertility. In the UK alone, pollination provided by bees and other insects adds over £600 million to crop production every year. That’s about 10% of the country’s total annual crop value. Through pollination, insects also make sure that fruit and vegetables are packed full of the vitamins and minerals needed for healthy human diets. Insufficient pollination would result in lower-quality foods, less choice and higher food prices." .... "Just like fertiliser and water, these insects should be considered a legitimate agricultural input that needs to be protected and managed sustainably."
Jul 6th 2023
EXTRACT: "But whatever the truth may turn out to be, the Lindemann affair raises a question that has been hotly debated over the past few years, especially in the United States, but more and more in Europe, too: must art be judged by the private behavior of its creator? It has become fairly common for critics to denounce Pablo Picasso’s paintings because he made women in his life suffer. A well-known movie critic declared that he could no longer view Woody Allen’s films in the same way after the director was accused, without any evidence, of abusing his seven-year-old adoptive daughter. Roman Polanski’s movies are no longer distributed in the US, because he drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl in 1977."
Jun 25th 2023
EXTRACT: "There’s a great deal of research showing that people with negative personality traits, such as narcissism, ruthlessness, amorality or a lack of empathy and conscience, are attracted to high-status roles, including politics. In a representative democracy, therefore, the people who put themselves forward as representatives include a sizeable proportion of people with disordered personalities – people who crave power because of their malevolent traits. And the most disordered and malevolent personalities –the most ruthless and amoral – tend to rise to the highest positions in any political party, and in any government. This is the phenomenon of “pathocracy”, which I discuss at length in my new book DisConnected."
Jun 11th 2023
EXTRACT: "Although there’s still much we don’t know about flavanols – such as why they have the effect they do on so many aspects of our health – it’s clear from the research we do have that they are very likely beneficial to both memory and heart health."