23 February 2011
Bridging the Time Gap:
An Analysis of the Commonalities and Divergences between Heian-era Japanese and Modern Western Aesthetics.
The dichotomy of Eastern and Western in terms of global geography is something that has been examined on many levels, as the culture of the two hemispheres contrast in a very blatant manner. Ideology about social interactions to the value of education, food, music, art, religion, etc. all play a key role in what makes each civilization so unique and gives the people of each area a strong sense of a global, national, and, on a micro level, personal identity. The ethos of Japan, in particular Heian period Japan (which lasted from 794 to 1185), is perceptibly different from modern era Western civilization not only because of location but due to a huge lapse in time. This is not to say, however, that these cultures are so isolated from one another that there is no common ground or intersection between the mentalities. In spite of such glaring dissimilarities, it is possible to find parallels in the attitude between the characters in Murasaki Shikibu’s 11th century novel, The Tale of Genji, and people today. First and foremost, there needs to be a direct definition and establishment of what comprises an aesthetic. Aesthetics, as defined by the American Heritage dictionary, is "the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature and expression of beauty, primarily [but not solely] within the arts” (14). It is important to clarify that while a painting could be said to have “an aesthetic appeal” or a song is “aesthetically pleasing to the ears”, the concept of aesthetics is not exclusive to the art realm. In this context, it is also a core value that an entire society upholds as sensible and proper, which can range from the general to the minutely specific. More often than not, it is a concept that is ingrained into a culture from birth and propagated with each generation; when asked to describe why these rules of society are in place, the most common answer would probably be, “that is just the way it is”, with little to no further discussion. If one were to go against these aesthetics, he/she would be in jeopardy of becoming a social pariah, depending on the rigidity to which a culture sustains its view. With the definition of what an aesthetic is in mind, there should be a clear distinction between Heian-era Japanese and modern Western aesthetics. One of two Western aesthetics that are germane to this discussion is a heightened level of openness and candor in all forms of media and discourse. A strong personal voice is encouraged, especially in America, which is based on democracy. The claim to fame for Western musicians, filmmakers, and authors lies in their lack of censorship and ability to connect with people’s emotions on a very primal level. Nothing is held back, no matter how psychologically taxing the material may be; the aim of their art is catharsis. Another main component of Western aestheticism is a general embrace of human sexuality and its various forms of expression. The most noticeable difference in how the West handles sexuality can be seen in today’s “hook-up” culture, where onetime sexual encounters with several partners over a span of time is commonplace. Going against the tradition of abstinence until marriage (which is an equally common phenomenon), the modern approach to sexuality actively shifts the focus from the emotional to the physical, forgoing personal, monogamous relationships for instant gratification. The media is a very large promoter of this movement, in addition to introducing sex to younger and younger generations. The approach of promoting younger girls to get in touch with their sexuality too early tied with the age-old practice of female objectification has partially contributed to the cultural deterioration of the West. A thousand years earlier and on the other side of the world, however, the...