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Yugen and the art of the intangible takeaway

Amercian Artist Edward Ruscha* suggests that there is a simple way to distinguish between good art and bad art. Bad art makes you say “Wow! Huh?” Good art makes you say “Huh? Wow!” I like to stretch Ruscha’s idea further. The art I love most, the art that provokes ideas, questions and a healthy amount of befuddlement, makes me say “Huh? Wow! Huh?” Inviting me into a space of not knowing from which new meaning emerges that invites me into an even deeper space of not knowing.

Much of the work I do nowadays is essentially an exploration of the experience not knowing. To explore the creative potential of moving towards that which we habitually try to avoid. Uncertainty. Confusion. Dissonance. Paradox. Impermanence. And for this work to be potent and congruent I endeavour to nurture experiences, both for myself and others, that are “Huh? Wow! Huh?” To leave with more questions than answers, but different, possibly more profound questions to the ones we arrived with. To leave with a sense of curiosity and incompleteness rather than a sense of certainty and concreteness. To leave with nothing more than a deeper embodied experience of not knowing in the same way that we complete a walk in nature with little more than a sense that what we have just done has been somehow good for our body, mind and soul.

But this kind of imponderable benefit is anxiety provoking in a world obsessed with concise answers, objective measures and tangible take aways. In a world where anything that is even slightly ambiguous or amorphous is discounted as not being of much value. And although, at some level, we all appreciate that the only thing we can be certain of is uncertainty, we can’t help but seek that elusive, utopian answer that will resolve it once and for all. And through thinking this way all we do is a guarantee that we will never find that which we are looking for and perpetually feed stuck loops of anxiety.

Yugen is a Japanese word that has no English equivalent. I understand it to mean a momentary sense of experiencing the deep mystery of all things. An awareness of some meaningful connection or patterning that is beyond words but is a palpable experience nonetheless. Philosopher Alan Watts best describes the paradoxical nature of yugen as “A moment that provokes something in your imagination but you don’t attempt to define it or pin it down. Because to do so would make it no longer yugen!” There are no tangible takeaways or discernible actions arising from an experience of yugen. In fact any attempt to pursue it in such a way destroys the very thing you are trying to pursue.

Gestaltists talk of a similar, but subtly different concept called the fertile void. A moment of cognitive and embodied emptiness that, if we are able to surrender to it for long enough, gives rise to fresh meaning. (As opposed to habitual, stale meaning.) However, when we experience the void, a form of logic-anxiety often kicks in triggering a need to know what to do with this emptiness, rather than simply witness it and let it be. And in that moment of rational pursuit, the void is gone and we are back where we started. We lose the sense of adventure and the sense of mystery that may have led to something new. We find our attention drawn towards an imagined moment of tangible application in the future that distracts us from our here and now experience of not knowing. Seeking comfort through the search for concrete answers and losing the moment of enchantment and wonder that an unanswerable question evokes.

An exclamation mark is a question mark with rigor mortis. An answer is the cadaver of a question. Its inherent mystery has been pursued and drained in such a way that there is no creative life left in it. And whilst the feeling of concreteness that an answer gives is certainly helpful in our day to day lives (to reduce our anxiety if nothing else) this endeavour habitually sabotages moments of not knowing. Moments of experiencing the fertile void. Moments of yugen. Creative moments that are potentially helpful in our exploration of what it means to be human.

Because all of us, if we zoom out or zoom in enough from the territory of our habitual awareness soon reach a threshold where we are confronted with the realisation that none of us really knows what we are doing.


* I came across Rusha’s quote in Jame’s Victore’s excellent book “Feck Perfuction”

  1. Fabiola says:

    Your insights are always thought-provoking and today more than ever this one has really got me thinking and the lovely things is – I am not even going to try to understand why. The wondering is bliss.

  2. Rosie Yakob says:

    I loved how during our workshop at LearnFest you talked about how an exclamation point was a question mark with rigor mortis, and how the best sessions always left you with questions, rather than answers 🙂

  3. Mary Kay Temple says:

    Is “yugen” related to “yoga,” “unity,” “yoke,” and other words that mean linking together/wholeness? Just curious.

    1. Steve Chapman says:

      Good question. I honestly don’t know the answer though – I’ve never been any good at this word origin stuff. It could be related I guess in the way you suggest. Although the sense i got from researching the blog is that even trying to conceptually link yugen to some other concept or make sense of it in any way would no longer make it yugen. Let me know if you find out more.

  4. james wilson says:

    I am minded of free falling through the air desperately trying to stop but then finding terminal velocity and then a feeling of calm.
    How long can one stay in that mode before one pulls the parachute chord and returns to safety and some form of certainty.

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