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tea is a work of art

Post #471 • February 7, 2005, 7:12 AM • 31 Comments

Okakura Kakuzo, The Book of Tea, 1906:

Tea is a work of art and needs a master hand to bring out its noblest qualitiies. We have god and bad tea, as we have good and bad paintings - generally the latter. There is no single recipe for making the perfect tea, as there are no rules for producing a Titian or a Sesson. Each preparation of the leaves has its individuality, its special affinity with with water and heat, its hereditary memories to recall, its own method of telling a story. The truly beautiful must be always in it. How much do we not suffer through the constant failure of society to recognise this simple and fundamental law of art and life; Lichihlai, a Sung poet, has sadly remarked that there were three most deplorable things in the world: the spoiling of fine youths through false education, the degradation of fine paintings through vulgar admiration, and the utter waste of fine tea through incompetent manipulation.




February 7, 2005, 6:41 PM

God and bad tea?

What's that, an account of the Anglican Church?



February 7, 2005, 7:30 PM

Who is Sesson? Cezanne?



February 7, 2005, 7:33 PM

"the degradation of fine paintings through vulgar admiration"

Interesting concept. Highly elitist, of course, but I can certainly think of some examples. Munch's "The Scream" and, obviously, the Mona Lisa.



February 7, 2005, 8:06 PM

Yes, the idea that paintings can be "degraded" by their viewers is interesting, if for no other treason than that it is counterintuitive. We tend to think that a great work of art is an unchanging monument of self-contained value, whereas in fact what it is as art is constantly changing with the viewer. It could be argued that the Mona Lisa is now simply unseeable as art.

Re Sesson:

The monk-painter Sesson appears to have lived in the eastern provinces, outside of modernTokyo, for his entire life. Occasionally moving from one town to another where his skills as an ink painter were admired by local patrons, he ultimately settled in a small farming village in the early 1570s. During his career he also instructed a handful of students, although none of them became master-painters in their own right.

Sessons solitary genius as a self-taught ink painter from the provinces stands out as a startling exception to the norm of 16th-century studio training in medieval Japan. His talents are clearly apparent in these byu (folding screens) whose subject derives from the traditional Chinese repertoire pairing these two animals--one real, the other mythological. Early Chinese geomancy (divination by geographic features) and religious literature specified that "...clouds follow the dragon, wind follows the tiger." The dramatic maelstrom Sesson composed here from a carefully adjusted range of ink washes and unusual forms set in striking juxtapositions typifies his finest efforts.



February 7, 2005, 8:42 PM

"Tea is a work of art."

The question is, what kind.

"Each preparation of the leaves has its individuality, its special affinity with with water and heat, its hereditary memories to recall, its own method of telling a story."

Indeed. But how does one discern when they are drinking tea made with "incompetent manipulation"? I searched unsuccessfully for that answer in The Book of Tea, receiving an education in the process less about tea -- the passage above being about as close as it comes -- than about culture, history and religion (with the author's thoughtful and polite reminders of Japanese superiority in these same areas).

But the passage above seems mainly concerned with the origins of the artistic impulse, the intentions of the artist, the contemplative nature of the process, or at most the specific mechanics of the craft itself, but without regard to the aesthetic qualities of the final product.

So it seems tea is in fact a work of conceptual art.


Chad Harris

February 7, 2005, 8:50 PM

What kind of tea do you drink Franklin? I am almost out of green tea and I bought that in China, so I'd like to know where good tea is found in Miami.



February 7, 2005, 9:00 PM

I've been hanging out with Zen Buddhists all weekend so I have a simple answer to Hovig's "how does one discern when they are drinking tea made with 'incompetent manipulation'?"

Taste it!

Chad - you can't get really good tea down here, but you can do okay going to the Oriental Mart on US1 in the mall where the Natural Food Market used to be and getting the loose leaves in a can. They also have pretty decent genma chai.

Vulgar admiration: I find it interesting that this had been identified as a problem, as it were, as early as the Sung Dynasty.



February 7, 2005, 9:10 PM

Or earlier?

Caveman 1: That's a swell Bison, Og.

Cavemen 2: Yeah, but, everyone likes those stupid stick figures Mog does. they call it

Caveman 1: I know. But anyone can do that stuff.

Caveman 2: I guess that's the whole point.


Chad Harris

February 7, 2005, 9:19 PM

Wow oldpro, a laff riot. I wonder where "Og" as a fake caveman name originates. Now that's a good question. There are many that would say AE is as easy as postmodernism. Yup. We should all learn to paint photorealistically, from memory, in the dark - then we'd be REAL artists, because NO ONE can do that!



February 7, 2005, 9:22 PM


Obviously, as Franklin found it necessary to say, tea stops being "conceptual art" when it is tasted.

The fact that you would even consider looking for a description of "how does one discern when they are drinking tea made with 'incompetent manipulation'" is a perfect counterpoint to the precise analogical point Franklin was making (trying to make) about the nature of anything (tea, art, etc) prepared to be submitted to taste. The minute we believe words instead of experience we allow ourselves to be manipulated.


Chad Harris

February 7, 2005, 9:22 PM

Franklin: sounds grim. I will try and order tea online. That may work.


Chad Harris

February 7, 2005, 9:25 PM

oldpro: The minute we believe words instead of experience we allow ourselves to be manipulated.

This is a good quote, however, words produce thought and thinkingis an experience.



February 7, 2005, 9:34 PM

Chad - I recommend Tao of Tea. They have a delicious tuocha in bird's nest form. Three cups will make you feel not just enlightened, but rather like you could break stones with your fists.

Oldpro - that caveman dialogue was hilarious.



February 7, 2005, 9:40 PM

Thanks, Franklin.

I expect a class action suit from the National Orginization of Neanderthal Experts (NONE) alleging discrimination any minute.


My wife orders tea from Mark Wendell:

Interesting question about "OG". There are onomatopoeic reasons, I suppose, because a name like Og, in English, at least, has a short, gutteral, brutish sound. I suspect that may be the root of it and that it was first used by cartoonists, I'll bet in the 'teens or twenties of the last century.

Anyone who says that AE is as easy as pomo is, well, ignorant, inexperienced, thoughtless - What else can I say, without generating a 200-post blog from the "my kid can do that" folks.

Thinking is experience, too. It also should not be replaced by words.


Chad Harris

February 7, 2005, 10:05 PM

Thanks for the tea link, oldpro. I don't believe AE is easy, neither is pomo or any expressive form, I was just trying to counter your "everybody can do that" comment, which is the same thing as saying "my kid could do that", by the way. Too dismissive.

I love words, and you probably do too. Maybe you have a problem with explaination or excuses?

I bet you're a heavy duty coffee drinker, eh oldpro?



February 7, 2005, 10:13 PM

Oldpro and Franklin -

I wasn't looking for a description of taste, and I wasn't looking for other peoples' opinions as projected onto the book. I was looking for the book quoted above to even so mention -- even suggest -- that taste was a criterion for quality. In its 18,000-word length, I don't think it ever did. It spoke in terms of culture, history, emotion, sensitivity, spirituality, and just about anything else, but not the taste of the final product. In a work of 18,000 words, with "tea" in the title, you might think it would spend more time talking about the taste of the thing. If I missed it, I missed it.

Once you've used fresh water, good herbs, and gentle boiling technique, you've pretty much got good tea. The point of diminishing returns seems to arive quite quickly. I don't think you need an 18,000-word treatise to describe the recipe, and I think it's just a little bit oversensitive to say tea made in a lesser fashion is the result of "incompetent manipulation."

Perhaps there are those of more highly refined palates than mine who can descern the difference between tea swizzled clockwise or counter-clockwise during the second boiling. I must admit this is a part of the human experience I miss.

But to be fair, perhaps it was different 100 years ago. Perhaps fresh water was not to be taken for granted. Perhaps herbal quality was difficult to guarantee. Perhaps it was harder to boil water consistently before the advent of indoor appliances. "Quizas, Quizas, Quizas."

I still find it hard to believe that the Japanese tea tradition -- and in particular this book's discussion of the art -- is primarily concerned with taste, not least because the book never seems to discuss the taste of the final product, and because it spends much more care on other personal and cultural matters. If I'm not mistaken, it talks more about "Zennism" than tea.

P.S. I also find it hard to believe that there is room for a discussion of the subtle distinctions of taste in a tradition whose recipes for tea once called for three boilings and salt. Again, perhaps I'm spoiled to live in the era of Evian and modern standards of quality, but I still get the impression that more rests on the act than on the product.



February 7, 2005, 10:19 PM

No. Coffee gets on my nerves. So does most tea, oddly enough. Diet Coke does it for me.

I never thought I had a problem with explanations, of all things. And I am as quick with excuses as anyone. Sure, I do love words & etymology, some of which is wrong (especially phrase origins) and almost all of which does not go far enough back.

Have not solved Og, yet, but this is funny:

Og discovers philosophy:



February 7, 2005, 10:20 PM

Sorry, I dont know where that last line came from



February 7, 2005, 10:21 PM

Damn! sorry again. That is the completion of the URL, apparently. Just looks weird.



February 7, 2005, 11:43 PM

Hovig, I doubt it's as arcane as all that - I think tea ceremony is no stranger than oenophilia. There's a huge variety of plants one can boil, and the regions in which they grow affect the taste, as does the climate in which the leaves are dried, and so on. Tea has a vocabulary associated with it, much of which is exotic-sounding and is fun to throw around. The community builds up around the vocabulary. Sort of like in art.

Tea differs from wine in that it tangentially involves architecture, flower arrangement, calligraphy, Zen, aesthetics, and decorum, so Kakuzo ends up talking about the whole tea culture in Japan. How the tea tastes is the one thing beyond anyone's power to describe. One could say something similar about Zen and the billions of words written about it. And one might also, granting that we have a much better vocabulary for color, form, and composition, say the same about art.

Whether Lichihlai's description is oversensitive, well, maybe you and I are brutes. I wouldn't want to match my refinement against Lichihlai's.



February 8, 2005, 12:50 AM

Franklin - How dare you call me a brute, sir. I'll beat you ... um ... listen, never mind all that ... I just checked my mail, and this month's Architectural Digest just came. (The one with the brutish Clint Eastwood on the cover.)

Let me read to you -- hey, where you going, come back here -- let me read to you from page 80. Now sit still.

It is hard to exaggerate the impact of tea ceremony on Japanese culture. The stylized preparation of tea achieves that perfect balance between sensuality and ritual. ... And [in hectic bustling modern urban Japan today,] the practice of tea ceremony all too often gets displaced by New Age breathing exercises that advertise instant relief from the tensions of urban life. ... Though imported several centuries earlier from China by Zen monks, tea ceremony first flourished in Japan outside monasteries and temples around 1600 among merchants and samurai seeking spiritual refuge from the wars and turmoil of that era. ...

Maybe I'm just a big dumb white guy, but I still think it's got almost nothing to do with tea. At least oenophilia is about the wine itself. The vocabulary of wine-tasting is about the drinking; the culture just kind-of comes along. The vocab of ... ok, enough ... you get the point.

P.S. If I'm not mistaken, the tea served in the Japanese tea ceremony is a relatively standard type, and actually quite bitter, not at all like the tea we think of. In fact the tea is usually served with a sweet cake or cookie in order to offset the taste. I'm going to find it very hard to hear an argument that Japanese tea drinking is about taste when the taste is in fact being covered up. In China or the west, tea might be about the taste, but in Japan [the source of the book above], I still say it's 99-44/100% about culture.

So if it's not conceptual art, it's still performance art.


Nathan Vuong

February 8, 2005, 3:02 AM

oolong + "gunpowder" green. yes.
at least they wont give me cancer.



February 8, 2005, 3:35 AM

All ritual is performance, Hovig, so I guess you have a point.

I keep seeing a scenario in my mind of a spare Japanese room with straw tatami mats and a dignified elderly Japanese man sitting in his robe crosslegged on bright printed fabric pillows around a charcoal stove with an ancient brass kettle steaming away, surrounded by funky stoneware tea vessels, heating the cups, brewing the tea, straining the lees, and rebrewing and motioning and mumbling, practicing the elaborate rituals prescribed by the old sages, and, finally, pouring the tea and proffering it to his guest, who takes one sip, spits it out and says

"Yuk, Genji-san! This tastes like monkey piss!"



February 8, 2005, 5:49 AM

Nathan - not only will green tea not give you cancer, it may prevent it.

Frankly, tea ceremony tea is not to my liking. It was enough to keep me out of exploring chado. I just enjoy drinking tea in general, so I guess my experience is more gustatory than anything else.


sarah mix

February 8, 2005, 7:12 AM

i'm currently making 75 funky stoneware tea bowls



February 8, 2005, 8:36 PM

I love funky stonewhare tea bowls, Sarah, but they are hard as hell to make and get right. As you know, you can't just mess up a pot and get a funky tea bowl. Put some up on the web and let's have a look.



February 9, 2005, 6:38 AM

Speaking of tea, a new tea place is open right on Miracle Miles of Coral Gables. I was very surprised because it is more like West Coast thing and I did not expect to see something like that in Miami. I hope it will survive. Since I am in NY now I cannot give you the name of the place. It is near Starbucks coffee.

I spoke with the owner, and the place seem to have good quality teas from all over the world. English tea, Japanese tea, Chinese tea, you name it. I hope the place will survive. The owner said that if his business goes well he will start having bubble tea. The special equipments are expensive and he cannot risk starting bubble tea from the beginning. Miami needs a place like that so we have more places to relax with tea. The more comfortable the life in Miami gets, the more intelligent and normal people stay in Miami.



February 9, 2005, 6:54 PM

Lan Pan Asian at the bottom of the Dadedand Station chunk of mall has Bubble Teas, as well as very delicious juice/sodas (like ginger and passionfruit). The food is also quite yummy, but I don't know about the quality or type of the hot teas available.



February 9, 2005, 10:48 PM

if tea is a work of art, would coffee also be a work of art. Everything used to descirbe the creation of tea must take place with coffee, woold a rum runner or a sour apple martini be considered a work of art?



February 9, 2005, 11:31 PM

Let's just call everything a work of art and get it over with.

And everybody is an artist.

And everyone is a crtitic.

And everything is wonderful because who can say anyway.

Art gets tiresome, sometimes. There is too damn much of it. I think Franklin is taking a break at the right time.


girl on the wing

February 11, 2005, 1:02 AM

I am wondering if there are any (good) tea gardens in the area.. I heard vaguely of one once but have no details.. Do tell.



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