With their bodies

Exhibition notice, Kawai Kanjirō
Exhibition notice, Kawai Kanjirō

We craftsmen, who have been called artist, have the whole world to draw upon for incentive beauty. It is difficult enough to keep one’s head in this maelstrom, to live truly and work sanely without that sustaining and steadying power of tradition, which guided all applied art in the past.

In my own particular case the problem has been conditioned by having been born in China and educated in England. I have for this reason the two extremes of culture to draw upon, and it was this which caused me to to return to Japan, where the synthesis of East and West has gone farthest. Living there among younger men, I have with them learned to press forward in the hope of binding together those elements from the ends of the earth which are now giving form to the art of the coming age.

I may tend to overstress the significance of East and West to one another, yet if we consider how much we owe to the East in the field of ceramics alone, and how recent a thing is Western recognition of the supreme beauty of the work of the early Chinese, perhaps can be forgiven for the sake of the firsthand knowledge which I have been able to gather both of the spirit and the manner in which the work was produced.

Bernard Leach, A Potter’s Book (1940) 16-17

Sometimes it seems as if I haven’t had a good thing to say about Bernard Leach, but in truth his book has provided a lot of interesting food for thought. It’s actually a part of my process; I tend to absolutely hate those things that are the biggest influence on me. There are some interesting moves in Leach’s elaboration of his aesthetic, many of which I can easily see much merit in.

The idea of the “steadying power of tradition,” for example. I firmly believe that we make sense of new technologies, for example, by looking to what is now becoming a “technological tradition.” There are negatives to be sure, in any tradition. For example, I surprised that so few people question the now universally accepted “upgrade cycle” where we dispose of our phones, computers, etc. in favor of new ones. It’s now “traditional” to crave new devices. We make sense of things in terms of the ways that we’ve always done it before.

I realize that’s not what Leach has in mind here. Leach and Yanagi Sōetsu constructed an incredibly dense rhetoric of “tradition” which they together had a special purchase on. Edmund de Waal has been really helpful in sorting that out; he claims that they “anointed” each other:

What is of interest here is that the limits to Leach’s Japanese world, to his ability to speak, read or travel independently, to his knowledge of Japanese pottery traditions themselves, were unknown. Yanagi’s words, with their almost biblical cadences—’He lived among us as one of us’—were read without a clear knowledge of the ‘us’. That Yanagi’s salon, Leach’s Japan, was a small, attenuated group of elite, mostly English-speaking, metropolitan aesthetes was also unknown. As such Leach’s Japan must be seen as a closely mediated one, just as his projection of his Japanese life must be considered with great care.

“Homo Orientalis: Bernard Leach and the Image of the Japanese Craftsman” Journal of Design History 10:4 (1997) p. 356

This seems to be a common problem in writing about craft; there’s almost always a class/cultural disparity where the speaker attempts to establish the worth of what they’re reporting while ignoring their outsider status. In most of the cases I encounter on the cusp between the 19th and 20th century are usually chalked up to the naivete of the researcher/witness to disappearing cultures. It’s not malicious or imperialist except in retrospect, and it’s complicated when someone actually does the work to try to be “authentic.” Edmund de Waal’s observations pretty much get to the heart of it in his discussion of Leach’s teacher in the arts of Japanese ceramics:

But Leach not only employed Kenzan as a teacher, he also used him as a technician. It is ironic that Leach’s grounding in ceramics should have been in that of the most urban, urbane and complex of traditions-for the first Kenzan of 1720 is often referred to as the first-ever artist- craftsman. Irony lies here in that Kenzan was everything that Japanese craftsmen in Leach and Yanagi’s later normative frame of things were  supposed not to be. Kenzan’s ceramics were  jokey, with shapes derived from sources other than pottery: fans, quivers, lacquer boxes. And his ‘amateurism’ was highly self-conscious- living and working in a villa outside Kyoto in a seclusion easily reached by the well-to-do who patronized his work. This image of faux rusticity seems to have passed Leach by. (ibid, 357)

I’m sure that my experience of “swap meet shaker” and other rustic woodworking examples colored, and held me back from really appreciate this sort of “frontier’ crafts as I was growing up. I thought I was far too urbane for that, and threw out the whole rural tradition for that reason. My mistake. It’s also a mistake to throw out the entire of Leach’s aesthetic foundation for his embrace of what wasn’t necessarily “authentic.” Even if his ideas aren’t as “firsthand” as he might have thought, they are still interesting.

The manner, or technique, will be dealt with in the following chapters: hear at the outset I am endeavouring to lay hold of a spirit and a standard that applies to East and West. What we want to know is how to recognize the good or bad qualities of a given pot, and we are at least able to say that one should look first for the nature of the pot and know it for an expression of the potter in the background. He may be an unknown peasant or he may be a Staite Murray. In the former case his period and his culture and his national characteristics will play a more important role than his personality; in the latter, the chances are his personality will predominate. In either case sincerity is what matters, and according to the degree in which the vital force of the potter and that of the culture behind him flow through the processes of the making, the resulting pot will have life in it or not.

A Potter’s Book (1940) 17

Does an artifact reflect it’s maker and his nature and his civilization/culture? I suppose I can accept that without too many reservations. Where I have a problem is with the idea that an aesthete has any special purchase on that. I have no problem thinking that an archaeologist or sociologist might draw relevant conclusions regarding the object and its place in the life of a distant or present culture, but when a person outside a culture attempts to pronounce on the “vital force” that an object might contain, well, I choke on that.

Leach’s invocation of Kawai Kanjirō as a source of a reasoned path for appreciation of pots is fascinating for its embodied approach to aesthetics:

I have often sought for some method of suggesting to people who have not had the experience of making pottery a means of approach to the recognition of what is good, based on common human experience rather than upon aesthetic hairsplitting. A distinguished Japanese potter, Mr. Kawai of Kyoto, when asked how people are to recognize good work, answered simply, ‘With their bodies’; by which he meant, with the mind acting directly through the senses, taking in form, texture, pattern, and colour, and referring the sharp immediate impressions to personal use of use and beauty combined. But as pottery is made for uses with which we are all familiar, the difficulty probably lies in one’s ability to recognize proper adaptation of form to function than in other directions, primarily perhaps in unfamiliarity with the nature of the raw material, clay, and its natural possibilities and limitations, and also in uncertainty as to the more imponderable qualities of vitality and relative excellence of form, both of which are indispensable constituents of beauty. (ibid, 17-18)

The inability to recognize proper adaptation of form to function speaks directly to modernist concerns, but the real tone here is that of an aesthete. While Kawai’s suggestion has a great deal of depth, Leach’s directly turns to a rhetoric of the sublime, asserting the “imponderable qualities of vitality and relative excellence.” If these qualities so imponderable, why does Leach have such confidence, and why are we pondering them? All is not lost; he actually goes somewhere with this:

It must always be remembered that the dissociation of use and beauty is a purely arbitrary thing. It is true that pots exist which are useful and not beautiful, and others that are beautiful and impractical; but neither of these extremes can be considered normal the normal is a balanced combination of the two. Thus in looking for the best approach to pottery it seems reasonable to expect that beauty will emerge from a fusion of the individual character and culture of the potter with nature of his materials—clay, pigment, glaze—and his management of the fire, and that consequently we may hope to find in good pots those innate qualities which we most admire in people. (18)

That’s a pretty powerful observation, in my opinion. We like things made by people for the same reasons  that we like people. 

It is for this reason that I consider the mood, or nature, of a pot to be of the first importance. It represents our instinctive total reaction to either man or pot, and although there is no guarantee our judgment is true for others, it is at least honest and as likely to be true as any judgment we are capable of making at that particular phase of our development. It is far better to run the risk of making an occasional blunder than attempt cold-blooded analyses based upon other people’s theories. Judgment in art cannot be other than intuitive and founded on sense experience, on what Kaway calls ‘the body’. No process of reasoning can substitute for or widen the range of our intuitive knowledge. (18)

This dovetails fairly well with David Pye’s assertion that design sense is founded in experience; intuitive knowledge seems to be grounded in these theories not in some sort of “innate” sense but rather in experience; the more we experience, the more we can understand and judge the qualities of things. This works for me. This final section is uncharacteristically  modest and quite human.

Leach admits, at least in theory, that other people’s (non-blessed) judgements have the merit of being honest.

Personality Crisis

New York DollsAnd you’re a prima ballerina on a Spring afternoon
Change on into the wolfman, howlin’ at the moon, hooowww

All about that personality crisis you got it while it was hot
But now frustration and heartache is what you got

Now with all the crossin’ fingers that mother nature says
Your mirrors get jammed up with all your friends

I doubt very much if Bernard Leach would have cared for the New York Dolls. And yet somehow, the conclusion of A Potter’s Book made me think about  “Personality Crisis.”  Civilization’s mirror is indeed jammed up with all our friends:

Personal relationships of a group of individual craftsmen are not easy to resolve. The inability to give and take seems to be more pronounced than in ordinary human contacts. In the East, restraining influences of tradition still enable people to work together as the limbs of a body under the directing mind, with us a more highly developed individualism, nowhere more conspicuous than among artist-craftsmen, tends to create an impatient and critical desire for independence.

Experience prompts me to advise any young potter contemplating sharing a workshop with others to choose untrained local labour. Likely boys learn the jobs quickly, enjoy them, and readily form a permanent team if sensibly handled. An older man, trained in the pre-War Winchcombe Potter making pancheons and flower-pots is an asset, for such men know their locality and set a standard of horse-sense and breadth of treatment necessarily lacking in art students. In many cases the latter are capable of doing excellent work under direction, or as moderately free members of a group which is held together by a living tradition, but it is quite another matter when they cast off their shackles and begin to make shapes and patterns of their own.

They then usually join the ranks of the thousands of indeterminate second-rate artists for which high industrialism is responsible. It stands to reason that only rarely does the work of a student from one of the Schools of Art bear the imprint of a character. It is difficult to advise those whom one feels practically certain will not achieve genuine originality. (257-8)

poindexter_inThe problem, as always, is who gets to say whether a unique moment in the history of craft (such as the New York Dolls) is “genuinely original”? I find it altogether too fitting that David Johansen’s next move was to appropriate a traditional form and re-introduce it.

This reminds me of a strange moment in my own history, during the heyday of Buster Poindexter. My friend Slim was appalled that I wasn’t familiar with the New York Dolls, and made it his mission to introduce me to a lot of the old school punks. We were listening to a Replacements album that I hadn’t heard that he bought me one evening.

The blinds were drawn, and a few minutes in there was a knock on the door. It was the police. They informed me that they were there to search the premises and did not require a warrant because I was currently sheltering a parolee (my first wife’s little sister).

As twenty policemen (I’m not exaggerating) filled my living room, they started looking at my walls and noticed the hundreds of photographs that surrounded them. One asked:

“are you a professional photographer?”

Slim, in his typically punk fashion, replied: “Oh, he’s just a second rater!”

It may sound odd,  but it was the biggest compliment that he could think to give me. I thought he was brilliant, and he was sure that all the best people were “second-rate,” at least when examined by people who were fans of the current popular taste. It became a bit of an inside joke between us; we were the “second raters.”

Bernard Leach, obviously, isn’t using it as a compliment, and doesn’t think the modern “personality crisis” is a good thing either:

In a machine age, artist-craftsmen, working primarily with their hands, represent a natural reaction valid as individual expression, and they should be the source of creative design for mass-production whether they work in conjunction with industry or not. The machine has split the human personality.

It has brought humanity within sight of safety and leisure for the first time in history, but at this moment fear of a universal disaster is upon us all, and the only leisure is of the unemployed and the rich and idle, because we have not learned how to use art, science, leisure, or real wealth. Instead, we increase the tempo of industrial slavery, and, refusing to distribute money equal in value to saleable goods and madly pursuing escapist pleasure, we allow under-consumption to be described as over-production, and as a consequence the sheer technique of living has overwhelmed life itself.

Under such conditions of national life artists and craftsmen are obliged to live and work parasitically or precariously because they have no recognized function. Evidence admitted by observers on all hands points to the end of an age. (258-9)

Herbert Read has a completely different take; he declares that the “humanists” have lost the battle and that the reigns of industrial design belong to a special class of abstract mathematicians, as rare as artists but even more precious. The designer is, according to all accounts at the turn of the twentieth century, something to be severed from the reigns of the average “artist-craftsman.” Even Leach suggests that only a few carefully selected traditions are worth of continuing into a new age.

Whether we shall emerge into a time of plenty and a unification of cultural values after violence, or by slower stages of decay and recrudescence, it is not for me to say. Not improbably those who seek the meaning and beauty of life through art may suffer an eclipse, but meanwhile let us ‘bring out weight and measure in a year of dearth,’ as William Blake urged amidst the blindness and apathy of early industrialism. (259)

I suppose that the New York Dolls/Buster Poindexter moment might be a perfect example of the “decay and recrudescence” that Leach is on about; Poindexter and the resurgence of lounge singers of the old school did indeed happen in the era of post-punk.

The Blake quote is quite interesting. It’s from “the proverbs of hell” in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a series of aphorisms where only about half of them can be considered as useful: “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires” is another one. Really? Sounds like something Satan might say, which is of course what Blake was on about. It’s hard to tell the devils from the gods, really. Not exactly a set of prescriptions for the good life.

Bringing out “weight and measure in a year of dearth” would have been precisely the wrong move in reaction to the punk rock movement; some of the most raucous voices in the punk movement also turned out to be the most eloquent. Another “proverb from hell” springs to mind as I read Leach: “The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.”

Isn’t it ironic? And not in Alanis Morrisette’s usage. Leach’s personality crisis doesn’t seem as useful as David Johansen’s. Perhaps, like Rev. Dr. Trusler, he’s fallen out with the spirit world.



Reading Josiah Wedgwood

rawlings-walter-statue-of-josiah-wedgwood-stoke-on-trent-staffordshire-england-united-kingdomOne of the most easily predictable things about late nineteenth/early twentieth century writing is the consistent call to dead white men for authority.

In Herbert Read’s case, the two major figures he summons are Josiah Wedgwood and William Morris. Morris, I have some familiarity with; Wedgwood was more of a mystery to me so I did a little research.

After flirting with Bernard Leach a bit, it’s fun to visit another potter. I found it intriguing that Wedgwood and Leach actually have some overlap in their attitudes toward labor. I’ll return to that later.

The epigraph that opens Part 1 of Art and Industry is from Lewis Mumford’s Art and Technics, which claims that in order to become more “profoundly human” we must learn the lessons of the machine; Wedgwood fits nicely into this, as he apparently brought the factory approach to the problem of supplying pots to a nation. The lessons of the machine that Mumford identifies are objectivity, impersonality, and neutrality. I begin to get suspicious any time the word “neutrality” is invoked.

What’s also curious to me is the way that Read refers to holistic aesthetic sources, such as Walter Pater, while attempting to divide and conquer the problems of aesthetics. Read fashions a history in which “cabinet painting” is evolved from book illustration; at one time pictures of patrons were woven into illuminated books, and eventually these portraits were separated from their (implied) public use to create a private genre. He suggests that it’s a case of the aesthetic being separated from it’s applied, holistic function in a useful object (the book). That stretches credibility for me, because it seems to me that wall painting precedes book illustration in human history, but that’s a qibble.

I think it’s a much bigger leap to suppose that aesthetic appeal can be divided into three categories:

  1. formal elements of dimension and proportion which have a direct sensory appeal;
  2. elements of emotional or intellectual expression which may be combined with the formal elements;
  3. elements of an intuitive or subconscious nature. (14)

Further, Read asserts that the elements that are not “humanistic” are then labeled abstract. Looking at this list, unless we’re opening up sensory appeal to the animal kingdom, all of these elements (as listed) are humanistic. Alternatives to “abstract” read lists as “nonfigurative,” “nonpictorial,” “nonrepresentational,” etc., which to me also read as human in a very direct sense. Later, he defines form as simply “shape.” which is indeed not necessarily humanistic. This is easier to abide by.

Turning from this naturally into proportion, Read assumes that mathematical proportions have a strong relationship with aesthetics, turning to the usual “golden section” argument, which is a historically mathematical concern rather than an aesthetic one. Of course, he is aware of the limitations citing Ruskin: “All beautiful lines are drawn under mathematical laws organically transgressed” (18). He also cites Freud’s notion of the subconscious, returning full circle to what appears to me to be a humanistic concern:

I do not raise these problems to present a solution; I merely wish to suggest that the question of form in art—even in industrial art—is not a simple one. It cannot be solved by a rule of thumb. If the Golden Section or some other canon of proportion were made compulsory for all industrial design, I have no doubt that the whole standard of production would be improved; but only at the cost of a profounder and more essential vitality. (20)

All proposed divisions aside, Read accepts that there is an “intuitive” side to art (but oddly, not a cultural one) that must be dealt with. Read pivots to the subject of ornament (or decoration) offering a distinctly Western upper class take on the subject:

At present, all I wish to insist on is that the instinct is not essentially aesthetic. All ornament should be treated as suspect. I feel that a really civilized person would as soon tattoo his body as cover the form of a good work of art with meaningless ornament. The only real justification for ornament is that it should in some way emphasize form. I avoid the word “enhance” because if form is adequate, it cannot be enhanced. (23)

It is to this end, and to address the issue of “decoration” that he summons Josiah Wedgwood and William Morris. The adulation of Wedgwood is palpable:

It would help at this point to consider two historical attempts to solve our problem. One comes right at the beginning of the industrial age, and is so interesting and instructive that it would merit a separate and exhaustive examination. All the problems that confront us now were obvious to Josiah Wedgwood, one of the greatest of industrial genuses, a man who in his own lifetime converted a peasant craft into an industrial manufacture, a man who, in whatever sphere he had applied his gifts for organization and rationalization, would have effected a revolution. (23-4)

Before Wedgwood, apparently, pottery was not worthy of notice, “a cult of few dilettanti” (24). The word choice is telling, because it shows up in Read’s description of William Morris. In fact, he can’t even stop talking about Wedgwood when he turns to Morris:

The case of William Morris, a century later, is equally instructive. He differed from Wedgwood in not being born to a trade. Wedgwood’s reforms sprang from an internal necessity of the time and the craft. Morris was external, dilettante. (29)

My jaw just dropped when I read that. There are many words that I might choose to describe Morris, but dilettante certainly isn’t one of them. Yes, he’s the son of a stockbroker. But even David Pye agrees that even an amateur (and Morris wasn’t even that) isn’t necessarily a bad craftsman. The more I read about Wedgwood, the more it seems like Read was willing to overlook what he would consider as grave sins (the division of form from ornament, for example) to adore his capitalist hero.

One of the primary themes of Read’s book is to argue against the separation of aesthetic qualities as separate from (0r applied to) products, and yet that is precisely what Wedgwood’s big innovation actually was. He had separate production lines for aesthetic or “art” pieces and “useful” articles. Read acknowledges this, claiming that while the “artistic” items were of little or no merit, his useful pieces were among the best ever made and destined to be emulated. It is primarily Wedgwood’s embrace of modern industrial labor practices and improved tooling that Read admires, feeling that it delivered quality products to the reach of more households than ever before, a problem that Morris simply didn’t address.

Morris actually did set up a working factory and embraced technologies that would improve the quality of his output, but that’s a subject for another piece. What I’d like to look at here instead is Wedgwoods employment practices and his contribution to the labor problems of the Industrial Revolution.

His designs aimed at a conveyor belt progress through the works: the kiln room succeeded the painting room, the account room the kiln room, and the ware room the account room, so that there was a smooth progression from the ware being painted, to being fired, to being entered into the books, to being stored. Yet each process remained quite separate.

He organized his men on the same basis, for he believed that ‘the same hands cannot make fine, & coarse-expensive & cheap articles so as to turn to any good account to the Master’. The ‘fine figure Painters are another ord(e)r of beings’ compared with the common ‘flower painters’  and must be treated accordingly—paid higher wages, set to work in a different workshop, and encouraged to specialize. His workmen were not allowed to wander at will from one task to another as the workmen did in the pre-Wedgwood potteries. They were trained to one particular task and they had to stick to it. Wedgwood felt that this was the only way to improve the quality of the ware-‘ We are preparing some hands to work at red & black… (ware)… constantly & then we shall make them good, there is no such thing as making now & then a few of any artcicle to have them tolerable.’

Neil McKendrick, “Josiah Wedgwood and Factory Discipline,” The Historical Journal, Vol. 4, No. 1 (1961)

In essence, this is the Henry Ford assembly line operating in the late 18th century. He’s credited with inventing the time clock by instituting the ringing of a bell to mark work periods, etc, as well as conveyor systems. Like Ford, Wedgwood was concerned with behavioral engineering of his workers:

Wedgwood had not only to train a new generation of skilled potters, he had also to mould these workers to the needs of his factory system. It was not an easy task, for he had centuries of local tradition to oppose him. The potters had enjoyed their independence too long to take kindly to the rules which Wedgwood attempted to enforce-the punctuality, the constant attendance, the fixed hours, the scrupulous standards of care and cleanliness, the avoidance of waste, the ban on drinking. They did not surrender easily. The stoppages for a wake or a fair or a three-day drinking spree were an accepted part of the potter’s life-and they proved the most difficult to up- root. When they did work, they worked by rule of thumb; their methods of production were careless and uneconomical; and their working arrangements arbitrary, slipshod and unscientific. For they regarded the dirt, the inefficiency and the inevitable waste, which their methods involved, as the natural companions to pot-making. (ibid)

And of course, he ruled his factory with an iron fist:

There can be little doubt of his authority. The impact on his workmen of his almost brutal face-stern even when composed by a Hackwood or portrayed by the grace of a Reynolds-was clear even to himself: ‘my name has been made such a scarecrow to them, that the poor fellows are frighten’d out of their wits when they hear of Mr W. coming to town, & I perceive upon our first meeting they look as if they saw the D(evi)l ‘.His discipline was not, of course, universally accepted. Some found an irresistible challenge in the figure of Josiah. Like many men with powerful temperaments he evoked rebellion in the fractious. Like young bulls in the herd some of them had to try their strength against the old patriarch. Few came out of the contest well. There were a succession of such men-leaders of pay demands, subordinates with their own methods. But they were quelled and if not quelled, replaced. (ibid)

This is Herbert Read’s hero. A man who did everything possible to scare the humanity out of his workers and create an environment where men might be interchangeable like machine parts. However admirable the products might be, the process is something I find terribly abhorrent. For the modernists, the trains must run on time and with a profit.

The work of craft in the age of mechanical reproduction

Bernard Leach by Setsuo Kato
Bernard Leach by Setsuo Kato

The art of the craftsman, to use Herbert Read’s terminology, is intuitive and humanistic (one hand one brain); that of the designer for reduplication, rational, abstract and tectonic, the work of the engineer or the constructor rather than that of the ‘artist’. Each method has its own aesthetic significance. Examples of both can be good or bad. The distinction between them lies in the relegation of the actual making not merely to other hands than those of the designer but to power driven machines. The products of the later can never possess the same intimate qualities as the former, but to deny them the possibility of excellence of design in terms of what mechanical reproduction can do is both blind and obstinate. A motor car such as a Rolls Royce Phantom achieves a kind of perfection although its appeal is mainly intellectual and material. There I think we come to the crux of the matter: good hand craftsmanship is directly subject to the prime source of human activity, whereas machine crafts, even at their best, are activated at one remove—by the intellect.

Bernard Leach, A Potter’s Book p. 2

I have a lot of difficulty accepting that our relationship with “mechanical reproduction” is primarily intellectual compared to intuitive or sensuous relationships with “hand” crafts. A potters wheel, to me at least, is at a basic level a machine. It enables reasonably  replicable  curves compared to strictly “hand” work, and is certainly “intimate.”

Where the eyebrow really goes up, though, is the use of Rolls Royce as an example. What set them apart in most ways also included hand work such as fine upholstery, etc..  As an American who grew up around bikers, I would select Harley Davidson or Triumph as my benchmark models for transportation design. I’ve known a lot of people who were attached to them, and their relationship with their machines was about the furthest thing from “intellectual” you could find. Triumphs always leaked oil and broke down. So did Harleys. They didn’t use the finest materials available, nor did they have superior engineering.

It’s possible to attach a nationalist agenda to either, for example defending “American” engineering  against the assault by the (then superior) Japanese imports, but it’s not what drew most of the people I knew to love those machines. The narrative of American or British superiority was a layer applied over the outside over what was really a deep love of a particular machine and how it felt and what it enabled. These machines were emblems and tools of freedom. Superior engineering was for accountants and academics, not for bikers.

Japanese motorcycles were nicknamed “sewing machines”  or “lawn mowers” for the way that they sounded and their emphasis on performance and utility; their mechanical precision was what marked them as soulless designs. It was the imperfections that made people love their machines the most— an anti-intellectual reaction to what was seen as an American (or British) tradition that was in need of preservation. A biker’s relationship with his machine was nothing if not intimate.

My dual discussion of Yanagi Sōetsu and Bernard Leach is necessary because the two seem in most ways inseparable, with both sides filling a need to identify a cultural “other” to demonize. What happened to William Morris’s socialist approach to Arts and Crafts in the 1930s is a bit shocking by any measure. Edmund de Waal has done some interesting work on it, and in an article from 1997  titled “Homo Orientalis: Bernard Leach and the Image of the Japanese Craftsman” tells a story of how the capitalist powers deployed these craft rhetorics to ultimately racist ends:

Since Leach had left Japan in 1920 the small metropolitan network of artists and intellectuals with Yanagi at their centre had changed. Where there had been transfixed attention paid to contemporary Western art and ideas there was now an evangelical nationalism. Yanagi’s Mingei or ‘art of the people’ group had burgeoned in the early 1930S in the climate of increasing nationalist fervour. It was now a substantial movement with a monthly illustrated journal, a regional network of associations, patronage from the powerful Tokyo department stores, and annual exhibitions:

They have their shops and press and sales and their work is on the point of really entering the households of taste of new Japan as an antidote to the wretched half caste and modern products which so sicken Western visitors to this country.

Journal of Design History, Vol. 10, No. 4, Craft, Culture and Identity (1997), pp. 356

The excerpt de Waal cites is from a letter from Leach, and the “wretched half caste” reference speaks volumes. Ultimately, it wasn’t just machine products that were the enemy, it was “impure” products from unworthy national traditions as well. It almost seems like Americans discussing the wretched half-caste AMF Harley Davidsons.

I’m having some trouble processing what happened to the populist/socialist slant in the late nineteenth century as it transformed into its variants in the 1930s and was subsumed by Japanese and American imperialism, National Socialism in Germany, etc.. I never would have thought it possible that such beautiful sentiment could be transformed into cold and calculated murder and oppression.

The Nature & Aesthetics of Design

The Nature of DesignIn 1964, David Pye published his second book, a slightly longer (91 page) volume called The Nature of Design.

I haven’t tracked an original down to look at it, though I’m curious about the differences between the original and revised edition. There are references to computers in the revised edition that I’m sure probably weren’t in the subsequent expanded edition.

the nature of art and workmanshipThis was followed in 1968 by The Nature and Art of Workmanship, the canonical text that ends up on most woodworker’s reading lists.

One difficulty in looking at mid-century craft theory is the fracture between design and craft. Pye was a pioneer in theories of both, and because he sought to tease out differences he was instrumental establishing these pursuits as separate. Pye’s writing presents, for me at least, the most lucid and structured attempt at a non-economically based theory of work. However, the division is problematic.

Dividing things in this fashion has advantages over the holistic approach of Morris et al., because it allows for fine grain consideration of various aspects of the problems that artisans and designers face, but it also reifies the divide between modern machine culture and earlier forms of craft.

Most productively though, it opens a space for the popular (not just “professional”) interest in emergent trends in design and consumer products. This echoes his earliest writing. Nonetheless, the division presents problems on where to “sort” certain aspects of the artisan/craftsman skill set. Pye’s final words on the problem come in the revised edition of his second book.

The Nature & Aesthetics of DesignThe book was issued in a revised and expanded edition in 1978 which adds “aesthetics” to the title and contents, stretching it out to around 160 pages. The growth in his theories is apparent from the frameworks he’s established—aesthetics appears not in the volume on workmanship, but attached to design.

Of course aesthetics is present in varying degrees in all his writings—it is after all “the art” of workmanship— but after reading Bernard Leach, this decision makes more sense.

It may be that workmanship is equivocated with technique, and thus skill; this undercuts the core performance of the designer, who has offered his own aesthetic perspective by his choices, prior to the execution of workmen. Obviously they can work in concert, or at cross purposes, but no workman can really rescue or compensate for ugly designs.

Leaving workmanship aside for the moment, what I’d first like to look at is the development of Pye’s thinking regarding functionalism and aesthetics that began with The Things We See No. 6: Ships.

To summarize his early position, design operates by making changes within constraints; design choices are not logical or rational, but represent aesthetic decisions that have their own mechanism which cannot be elaborated using words or logic. Aesthetic experience is what enables and improves the ability to make these choices. Function presents constraints, but does not negate nor enhance the aesthetic viability of a design. Something that functions can be either beautiful or ugly; that depends on the choices made by the designer.

Sleeping on this, I wonder if it might be more productive to think in terms of affordances rather than constraints, but that’s really a topic that deserves its own essay. It’s best to get through where Pye actually went with this first.

Although the importance of design is realized, the essential nature of the activity seems not to be understood except by designers, and they have not formulated what they know. It is not of the slightest use for us to ask ‘what is good design?’ until we can answer the question ‘what is design?’

The thing which sharply distinguishes useful design from such arts as painting and sculpture is that the practitioner of design has limits set upon his freedom of choice. A painter can choose any imaginable shape. A designer cannot. If the designer is designing a bread knife it must have a cutting edge and a handle; if he is designing a car it must have wheels and a floor. These are the sort of limitations which arise, as anyone can tell, from the ‘function’ of the thing being designed.

Little is ever said which touches on the fundamental  principles of useful design, and what is said is often nonsense. Most of the nonsense probably starts at the point where people begin talking about function as if it were something objective: something of which it could be said belonged to a thing.

The dictionary defines function as ‘the activity proper to a thing, the mode of action by which it fulfils its purpose’. What on earth can that mean? Surely if there were activities proper to things, and if things acted, and if they had purposes, Newton might have been relied upon to take note of these facts? ‘Function will not square with physics. And if function is a fantasy, what of functionalism —the doctrine that form follows function? (11-12)

The point of departure, that useful design is born from constraints is unchanged, but the assertion that there is no “activity proper to a thing” is new.

What is the activity proper to a straight cylindrical bar of steel a quarter inch in diameter on cross section and four inches long? What function is this form following, or ought it to follow? What activity exclusively or distinctively belongs to this thing, is in other words proper to it? There it lies on the bench, what are we to say? ‘Well, it isn’t active. You could make it active if you heated it enough. Otherwise it will not do anything unless the bench happens to collapse. Of course you could use it for an enormous number of different purposes, but then for nearly every one of them you could use something different equally well . . .’ the question still has to be answered, ‘what is the function of this thing?’

Now plenty of people do really believe that form can follow function; that if you thoroughly analyze the activity proper to the thing you are designing then your analysis will provide all the information needed, and the design can be derived logically from the function. Plenty of people still believe that ‘purely functional’ designs are possible, and believe that they themselves produce them, what is more! But none of them has yet divulged what an analysis of function looks like and what logical steps lead from there to the design. All you will get from them is talk about the purpose of the thing, which, as we shall see, is a statement of opinion and can never be anything else. (12)

Pye writes this so forcefully and convincingly that it is clear that he hasn’t stopped thinking about these issues since 1950. The clear development here is that function is framed as an opinion; opinions are not logical— they are rhetorical, function is an instance of endoxa, commonplaces that we accept that are not necessarily true or false. It is important for designers to have a clearer sense of what is happening when we evaluate designs. These issues are also interrogated in courts of law with the legal commonplace, “fitness for purpose.” It can be litigated in contract law, but ultimately it is an opinion, not a physical fact.

Someone will reply ‘This is all pedantry. Think out what the thing has got to do, design it in the simplest form which will will do that and there you have a purely functional design; and what is more it will look right.’

This sort of question raises three questions:

  1. How do you determine what the thing you are going to design ‘has got to do,’ and what ‘activity is proper to it’, what ‘it is for,’ what ‘its purpose is?’

  2. Having done so, does the information you have gained govern the design and determine its form, or does it merely guide it, restricting the choice of a form and setting limits within which it can be  varied at will?

  3. What does purely functional mean? (12)

The initial answers that Pye proposes are “arbitrary,” for the first question, “it merely guides it,” to the second and for the final question his answer is a bit more flip: purely functional means “‘cheap’, or else ‘streamlined’, or else more rarely ‘light’.” The implications of these answers are treated at greater length in the remainder of the work. The core sentiment, and point for this excursus is to propose something quite remarkable:

Whenever humans design and make a useful thing they invariably expend a good deal of unnecessary and easily avoidable work on it which contributes nothing to its usefulness. Look for instance, at the ceiling. It is flat. It would have been easier to not make it flat. Its being flat does not make you any warmer or the room above you any quieter, nor yet does it make the house any cheaper; far from it. Since there is a snobbism these things flattening a ceiling is called workmanship, or mere craftsmanship; while painting gods on it or putting knobs on it is called art or design. But all these activities: ‘workmanship’, ‘design for appearance’, ‘decoration’, ‘ornament’, ‘applied art’, ’embellishment’, or what you will, are part of the same pattern of behaviour which all men at all times and places have followed: doing useless work on useful things. If we did not behave after this pattern would indeed be poor, nasty, and brutish. (13)

What a powerful description of the human condition: “doing useless work on useful things.” That’s one of the best descriptions I’ve read in a long time.

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.