a civilization ‘outside in’

Ceramic tile screen  by Bernard Leach

Ceramic tile screen by Bernard Leach

The art forms of a community are the crystallizations of its culture (which may indeed be a different thing from its civilization), and pottery traditions art no exception to the rule. In the T’ang period it is not difficult to recognize the Chinese genius for synthesis, here reinterpreting Greek and Buddhist ideology in terms of contemporary need, and combining these elements within the native framework of Taoist and Confucian concepts, thus fundamentally modifying and extending the boundaries of their ideas of beauty and truth. In the greatest period, that of the Sung dynasty, all of these different influences are welded together in one, for unification was then supreme. Until the beginning of the industrial era analogous processes of synthesis had always been working amongst ourselves, but since that time the cultural background has lost much of its assimilating force, and the ideas we have adopted and used have been molded into conformity with a conception of life in which imagination has always been subordinated to invention and beauty to the requirements of trade. In our time technique, the means to an end, has become an end in itself, and has thus justified the Chinese criticism of us as a civilization ‘outside in’.

Bernard Leach, A Potter’s Book (1976) p. 14 (originally published 1940)

I first became interested in Bernard Leach because of his relationship with Yanagi Sōetsu. He introduced Yanagi Sōetsu to William Blake’s works and Yanagi later wrote a book on Blake. He also introduced Yanagi Sōetsu to the western world.

What is most compelling to me about this particular quote is the dual ideas of imagination subordinated to invention and beauty to trade. Another curious thing about this bit is that productive tradition is framed as a process of assimilation, whereas most “traditionalist” would see assimilation as destructive of tradition, a diffusion of cultures rather than a focusing and synthesis. There is much to unpack.

The idea of imagination destructively being subordinated to invention is counterintuitive to the standard definition of imagination, which is frequently defined as the “invention” of new ideas from old, or the creation of new data beyond existing sense data. In either case, these definitions of imagination necessarily entail invention. What sort of imagination can exist without it?

It seems to me this can be answered without resorting to too many contortions through William Blake. One of the first things we read in my undergraduate seminar on Blake with R. Paul Yoder was his letter to Dr. Trussler from 1799, which begins:

Revd Sir

I really am sorry that you are falln out with the Spiritual World Especially if I should have to answer for it I feel very sorry that your Ideas & Mine on Moral Painting differ so much as to have made you angry with my method of Study. If I am wrong I am wrong in good company. I had hoped your plan comprehended All Species of this Art & Especially that you would not reject that Species which gives Existence to Every other. namely Visions of Eternity You say that I want somebody to Elucidate my Ideas. But you ought to know that What is Grand is necessarily obscure to Weak men. That which can be made Explicit to the Idiot is not worth my care. The wisest of the Ancients considerd what is not too Explicit as the fittest for Instruction because it rouzes the faculties to act. I name Moses Solomon Esop Homer Plato

I still remember those days fondly: “That which can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care” was a great way to start my first formal training in a poet which I had read since I was a teenager and barely understood. Of course it wasn’t easy: it wasn’t supposed to be. You’ve got to admire the balls on a guy who can write a letter to a guy who rejects your work that opens this way. What is most important about these contradictions is that they “rouze the faculties to act.” The key section in the letter, however, comes just a bit later:

I percieve that your Eye [s] is perverted by Caricature Prints, which ought not to abound so much as they do. Fun I love but too much Fun is of all things the most loathsom. Mirth is better than Fun & Happiness is better than Mirth–I feel that a Man may be happy in This World. And I know that This World Is a World of Imagination & Vision I see Every thing I paint In This World, but Every body does not see alike. To the Eyes of a Miser a Guinea is more beautiful than the Sun & a bag worn with the use of Money has more beautiful proportions than a Vine filled with Grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way. Some See Nature all Ridicule & Deformity & by these I shall not regulate my proportions, & Some Scarce see Nature at all But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is So he Sees. (Erdman, 702)

Too much fun is loathsome; happiness is better than mirth, and to see the world imaginatively is the greatest happiness. The happiness that Blake speaks of here is seeing the world itself, not something foreign that has been invented and brought into it in the conventional sense— “Nature is Imagination itself” . To see things as they are sounds a bit like Bacon, whom Blake loathed, but Blake doesn’t fit into the empiricist frame. For Blake, “As a man is, So he Sees”—the man of inspiration and imagination is not the same sort of man as the man who refuses to see. Reverend Trussler had clearly fallen out with the spirit world: to truly see the world, for Blake, was to see God in the world.

Thus, the modernist impulse towards “making it new” sits  uneasily against Bernard Leach’s more Blakean view of imagination as nature. The subjugation of imagination to invention moves in lockstep with the dissimulation of beauty to the requirements of trade in Leach’s construction of the state of the arts, no doubt under the influence of William Morris: “In our time technique, the means to an end, has become an end in itself,” here, again, the modernist celebration of new and better machines seems to chafe in the mid century. Morris saw the structure of society as an unavoidable matrix which art emerges from: if society is shallow and obsessed with surface character, then so goes the arts. Leach references Morris, as the my leading quote continues:

Since the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the reaction started by William Morris has been taking place mostly outside industry and has culminated in what I have called the individual, or artist, craftsman. Beginning in protest against the irresponsible use of power, it came to an end in pseudo-medieval crafts little related to national work and life. Thence has arisen the affirmation of the mechanical age in art—functionalism. This, through let us say, Picasso, le Corbusier and Gropius of the Bauhaus, is having its effect on all crafts. A movement which however is based by its initiators on a new and dynamic concept of three-dimensional form, tends among those who attempt to carry over the idea into industry to an over-intellectual effort to discover norms of orderliness and utility. Such a process limits the enjoyment of work to the designer, and overlooks the irregular and irrational element in all fine activity including the making of pottery. (14-15)

It is important to remember here that Blake rebelled strenuously about conventional, mechanized regular typesetting choosing instead to write backwards in etching fluid to create his plates for his poetry. Both Blake and Morris tend to harken back to the earlier tradition of illuminated manuscripts as an antidote to industry. Though I do think Leach rightly indicts the degeneration of Morris’s arts and crafts movement to nonsensical medievalism. Interestingly, Leach’s attack on functionalism is picked up again by David Pye in 1962, which is where I have a mind to turn next.

The relationship/definitions of beauty and imagination play a key role in defining “happiness” in this pursuit of the “simple life” that I’ve been on about for the last bit. That’s the reason for these monumental digressions. Eventually, I’ll get back to William Morris: I really believe that his approach, and its fracture across the twentieth century, deserves a closer examination.

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