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.

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.