Break Things

An incredibly brief discussion on Kintsugi and other things.

This was going to be a piece about Kintsugi, and nothing else. It really was. I was even going to bring up my attempts to make a Kintsugi cheesecake by cooling it really quickly so it cracks then pouring lemon curd into said crack. Then this document sat in my folders for weeks and I kept thinking of it and honestly overthinking it, and it grew further into the topics here. It’s come to a point where I feel I need to pull the plug and upload it. So here.

Kintsugi is beautiful. That is an uncontroversial statement. I could go on a diatribe about the beauty of how the cracks create a natural contour in a man-made object, or how it is another example of Japanese craftsmanship that is never under-praised. But what I am more interested is what the philosophical implications are to glorifying the broken.

The implication of Kintsugi is not just that repair is craft, but that what is broken is valuable. If you were to ask a marble sculptor if the block is worthless until it is carved or a carpenter that their wood is scrap until they are turned into art, I believe they would strongly disagree. Each of those things is opportunity and possibility. If the marble was worthless then how can it hold the ability to be David. Even from my limited experience with these forms of art I can recognize the admiration one can have to a simple piece of material. The input goods of a piece art can be as emotionally stirring for the artist as the final piece can be for the viewer. So if we look at Kintsugi in the same way, the broken ceramic is not a useless piece of material to be improved, but another opportunity to create art. The broken shards of ceramic is valuable and is appreciated, just as the marble is appreciated by the sculptor.

This brings in ontological and axiological questions. When the bowl is broken, is it still a bowl? Does it become a bowl once again when repaired? Is the value of the bowl greater after Kintsugi? If so, does that mean the breaking of the bowl increased its value as it allowed the bowl to reach that higher value? Or is there a parabolic function that describes the value of the bowl as it goes from unbroken, to broken, to fixed?

While these are all interesting, the one that spurs intrigue in me is whether the broken bowl has value. I have already stated one way in which it does, that being the opportunity & potential it provides. But does it hold value in itself, without the need to fix it?

In some way it must, to someone at least. With Kintsugi the emphasis is not only in the quality of the repair, but in the nature of the breakage itself. To bind the cracks with gold is to bring attention to the points of failure and accentuate them. It is an act that says to disrupt the intended purpose is beautiful. When thinking of this idea the discussion moves beyond the initial art form and links the ancient Japanese practice to modern art.

Have you ever listened to broken music? Not music that is mixed improperly or poorly performed due to inexperience but music that sounds like it comes from something that once was normal, but is now broken and contorted. The music of Sophie as well as the band Daughters is a good example of this. Much like Kintsugi, the artists take sounds that sound broken, and try to make them beautiful. The result is often haunting, even horrifying, but it can strike an emotional chord. It feels natural and understandable. It may not be easy listening, but there is a majesty to the chaos. This kind of ‘broken’ music takes what may be seen as unorthodox, incorrect, and different and makes them valuable and worth appreciating. Furthermore Sophie, as a transgender artist, has likely encountered this concept in her own life — namely, the concept of zeitgeist seeing her as different, incorrect or at worst broken. However, this is not my place to posture what the lives of trans people are like so I will remain reserved in my attempts to guess what she has gone through.

Finally, it is important to include the implication that these thoughts have on the debate of the relevancy of question of subjectivity and objectivity in art criticism. I believe that, given what has been discussed, it is not relevant. If one were to be objective in not just describing art, but in prescribing value to it, they must first state a ‘purpose’ that art is trying to fulfill, and then whether it was able to do that. If it failed, it is ‘objectively’ bad. If we return to Kintsugi, imagine if we attempted to do this. The purpose was to be a bowl, the bowl was broken, so it failed its purpose. It can then be judged as objectively bad, and worthless. Why then would someone want to glorify what is bad? Why then would they ever engage in Kintsugi?

This may seem simplistic. However, it is fundamentally the issue in question when attempting to discern what is ‘objective’. To limit oneself to a prescribed definition of purpose prevents one from examining the piece of work in the state that it is in and asking what it is capable of now. We can continue to create purpose statements to justify our art forms but it is always retroactive. It requires an individual to question those purpose statements before we have some kind of satisfying framework to proclaim ‘good or bad’. To ignore the question and observe and interpret in good faith, in no lens other than that of the object itself, is what allows us to enjoy Kintsugi, broken music, and ultimately find relatebility in our art.

Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash