Some members of the bonsai community seem to be obsessed with this question. Perhaps, we all have some of that ‘I-wanna-be-an-artist’ syndrome and the answer is invariably “yes”. However, to answer this question we need to define what bonsai is. The contemporary meaning of the word is much broader than it used to be and it can mean either a material object or a process aimed to create it.
As a material object bonsai can manifest itself in countless degrees of quality (see images above). At one end of the ‘bonsai spectrum’ we have plant cuttings grown in slip-cast bonsai pots offered for sale at a local garden center. At the other end of the same spectrum we have an awe-inspiring tree cultivated as bonsai for centuries, planted in an antique container and displayed at a prestigious exhibition. Both of these things and everything in between is considered to be bonsai by our modern society.
As a process bonsai can be many things too. To some it is a sophisticated horticultural practice, to others it is an artistic pursuit. Some see it as a meditational activity, others as a commercial enterprise. It can be a fashionable plaything for the wealthy and an immersing pastime for common folk.
Is bonsai an art? Can we really ask this question about bonsai phenomenon as a whole? A meaningful answer can be given only on examining a specific work of art, in this case an individual bonsai tree and the process that led to its creation. But even then, we get no definite answer as the public opinion about artistic merits of a specific bonsai tree is ever subjective. Some would consider it art while others would not. The answer to this question is unique to each observer and each bonsai tree, and all we can say is: “Bonsai can be art”.