A simple answer is a tree in a pot, and despite how many people may like to mystify and complicate matters, that one simple fact remains. If we look at the ideograms which make up the word in Japanese, 盆 means container or pot, and 栽 reflects the plant, meaning to grow something. If we consider this, we cannot escape the fact that the container is not simply something to put a tree in for cultivation reasons, it becomes an intrinsic part of a bonsai, affecting the aesthetic appreciation of a composition.
Could we then assume that the bonsai sold at garden centres, supermarkets and flower shops are representative of bonsai as an art form? Only if they are considered as mass produced pieces of bad art. They are the bonsai equivalent of a paint by numbers book, limited in artistic scope and interest, although they help the uninitiated to take their first steps.
Exploring the idea of artistry within bonsai we can soon see the influence of the creator, or indeed creators, in a number of aspects. Some of the most obvious are the combination of the container with the tree, the styling of the branches, foliage and trunk line of the tree. The creation of a bonsai involves a lengthy process of working with the tree to remove the unnecessary and grow the necessary. As a sculptor removes rock to reveal the sculpture beneath, the bonsai artist removes and grows branches to reveal the essential nature of the tree beneath. This process may take generations to come to perfect fruition, which means that the artist must consider his work to be part of continuous chain, in which he is simply one link.
Working with a living organism as the medium, the artist must develop a symbiotic relationship with the bonsai, giving it the environment and care it needs to thrive, grow and be a living tree so that it can be created into the desired image using a number of techniques ranging from pruning to manipulating the branches with wire.
Many art forms could be described as craft depending on the perspective of the viewer or the practitioner. Bonsai has elements of craftsmanship; technical and manual ability are as essential as an artistic appreciation for line, form and space. What is unique about bonsai is the third element to the equation, horticultural ability. Without a firm understanding of the medium as a living organism, the artist cannot create. Without all three elements in place in equal amounts, a beautiful and moving image cannot be created. It is not possible to be proficient in one aspect, the creative process is a constant balance between technique, design and cultivation. A constant battle between life and death and a process which is never static, always in a state of change, be it seasonal or man made. Occasionally we reach a peak of beauty where it is appropriate to share with the world at large, here the artist must look to find the most meaningful and pleasing way to show off the natural beauty of bonsai.