A Westerner's Thoughts on “Natural” versus Enhanced Stones

by Anthony Ankowicz


When examining how dissimilar Eastern and Western cultures are in their approach to the natural world, it is not surprising that some Western Stone collectors, including myself, may have difficulties with Stone altering liberties taken by their Eastern counterparts. In seeking a personal understanding for this reaction, the following proposition is explored.

It has been suggested that Western intellectualization of reality originated and was shaped by Greek culture and philosophy and then expanded by Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions. Our religions, languages, governance and sciences all appear to exemplify this fundamental perspective. Historically, the Greeks were uniquely positioned geographically to benefit from the confluence of disparate cultures, mostly through trade routes, exposing them individually to conflicting world views and practices that required resolution to explain their own sense of reality. They developed systems to explain what they saw around them and the means by which to discuss or debate these observations. Logical analysis was fundamental to this approach. Ascribing particular attributes to an object allowed them the ability to categorize, which became the basis for rule construction. Therefore, objects or events were understood as a result of how they behaved in accordance with these rule constructs; contextualizing objects made for a more manageable reality. They observed the world in a linear fashion, fairly stable and unchanging, an either-or proposition. When confronted with something new, the Greeks would refer to established rules for clarity, because in their minds everything was categorized according to rules; if something can be explained then there should be a predictive expectation. Oversimplification made categorization easier and the application of abstractions was useful in explaining reality. By this use of compartmentalization or exclusivity, the Greeks tended to pay little attention to the possibility that some force outside the object might be relevant. They believed that all things were created for the benefit of man and should be utilized for that purpose.

Conversely, it is has been suggested that Eastern thinking primarily evolved from a communal based agrarian social structure which fundamentally required interdependence amongst its members. Harmony between individuals was emphasized and abstract speculation tended to be discouraged. The Chinese for instance were generally disinclined to use precisely defined terms or categories in any arena, instead using expressive or metaphoric language. To them, the nature of the world was a mass of interconnected entities and any attempt to understand an object without an appreciation of its’ context would be considered futile. A Stone to the Chinese would physically exemplify this seamless flow of energy, ”chi”, whereas to the Greeks it would be looked upon as merely a substance composed of discrete particles. To consider thinking about an object or an event in isolation and applying abstract rules to it, by Eastern tradition, would be to invite extreme and mistaken conclusions. This is reflected by Eastern interests lying more in the pragmatic application of knowledge than with abstract theorizing for its own sake. Their numerous inventions, many pre-dating Greek discoveries, were primarily functional solutions to problems which they did not feel necessitated further introspection. Westerners prefer to live by abstract principles and like to believe that these principles are applicable to everyone. To set aside universal rules in order to accommodate particular cases or exceptions seems immoral to Westerners, but to the East, to insist on the same rules for every case can be seen at best obtuse and rigid and at worst cruel. Essentially, Eastern philosophy suggests that objects are affected and altered by context, every event is related to every other event in harmonic resonance.

Though there are many of us who are drawn to the profundity of Eastern aesthetics, we are never the less imbued and limited by this Western logical bias. We can’t help but ascribe certain attributes to “natural” in defining its’ character, the pre-eminent one being that it has not been altered by human hands. “Natural” Stones have unique sculpted qualities that appeal to our cultural aesthetics and seem to evoke almost transcendental associations with the forces that created them or the vistas that they inspire. However, by Western logic, if a Stone is altered, it is no longer “natural” and becomes another artistic entity with its own attributes and sub-categories. Any superficial changes imparted to a Stone have to be done with respect to the “natural” properties which we as a culture have delineated. For example, cleaning a Stone would be changing the appearance without changing its inherent properties; by removing only that which does not belong to the Stone. On the fringe, however, are the grey areas such as basal cuts, removal of imperfections, extent of cleaning or repairs, but all rely on the underlying intent of the handler in being honest and transparent about their interventions, which at times is not apparent.

The issue of “natural” vs “enhanced” Stones will probably be an ongoing debate in the West. The proposition suggested here is meant to partially explain why this opinion may be more than just a preference, but may in fact be indicative of a much deeper cultural ethos. Since all art is subjective and very personal, the art of Stone appreciation will always be in the eye of the beholder. So despite my resolute attempts to internalize Eastern philosophy into Viewing Stone appreciation, my inherent Western bias toward the categoric value of “natural” suggests that sculpting a rock to look like a Stone doesn’t make sense nor is logical to this Western petrophile.

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