a mortal wound to craftsmanship

Yanagi Sōetsu

Q. What is lacking in the artist-craftsman?

A. His products are so few and so expensive. They are more decorative than useful. Even if they are made for use they are expensive and therefore not employed in daily life, thus becoming luxury items. From the very beginning they are made for art collectors, and become disconnected from the life of the people. The only person who benefits is the favored purchaser. The artist-craftsman separates himself from need, and thereby divorces himself from the people around him. Is this not a mortal wound to craftsmanship? Apart from use and the people there is no meaning in either craftsmanship or beauty. If the artist-craftsman continues isolating himself from society, he has a responsibility to admit with humility [out of his own experience] that his position of self-expression is one of insufficiency.  And in view of the achievement of the arts of the people, he needs to feel an awakened respect for them and pave the way to the re-expression of that congregate power. At that moment that when the work of the artist-craftsman ceases to be individual and he thus joins the ranks of all men, let him place his work next to the old work that he used to do. And he may see truth for the first time, for his old work will not stand up in service or in beauty.

“The Way of Craftsmanship,” The Unknown Craftsman p.203

Yanagi Sōetsu’s The Way of Craftsmanship was first published in 1927 in Japanese, translated by Bernard Leach in 1972. I have another book on the mingei movement on the way to read, and in the google books extracts I read it seems that Yanagi is no more an innocent than George Nakashima; he’s an aristocrat, instrumental (in theory, at least) to the run-up of Japanese imperialism prior to World War II.  What interests me lately is the way that what seems to be a wonderful, egalitarian spiritual theory can have the unintended consequences of colonizing the very people it seeks to celebrate; in Yanagi’s case, his appreciation of Korean folk-crafts in many ways justified a supposedly paternal relation in Japan’s domination of Korea.

I really look forward to Kim Brandt’s book. She makes the case (at least in the extracts I read) that Yanagi downplayed William Morris’s impact on his theories because of a supposedly more refined aesthetic sense in the Japanese people— nationalism at its worst. But Morris is in there, in spades. It’s really interesting how the arts and crafts pebble rippled around the world.