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.

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.

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.

Public and Private Beauty

Graceful SimplicityThere is a distinct abuse of bulleted lists in Segal’s book. Nonetheless, many of the concepts buried in these bullets deserve close attention and comparison with other variations on the general ideas.  The “graceful” aspect of Segal’s formulation of graceful simplicity is steeped in aesthetic values which converge and diverge with earlier deployments of the concept.

It amazes me just how frequently these basic concepts can be traced directly to William Morris, Ruskin, and the intrusions of industrial capitalism. William Morris lamented the shoddy products of his time and the lack of aesthetic beauty in the lives of the many.

Segal implicitly agrees with Morris, though he never cites him. There are however many   divergences on a path to a quite socialist conception of the problems. Segal places the lack of the beauty into the public sphere, rather than the private though he does bulletize the household first:

  • Beauty must not be thought of as residing solely or even primarily within things. There is a beauty that is the architecture of time; it requires slowing down and doing things right, and it may call for less income and more time, rather than the reverse.
  • A life of graceful simplicity does not require that our homes be museums; it does not require that every artifact of daily use be striking. At the same time, from the point of view of gracefulness, a life that is aesthetically impoverished is abhorrent.
  • One dimension of graceful living is the awakening of aesthetic appreciation, and with that will come a selectivity that often, without any additional cost, results in attainment of things of beauty. Anyone who has wandered through flea markets and garage sales and thrift shops knows that there are great things to be found—beautiful objects, not noticed or not valued by others.
  • Things of beauty exercise a special power—they radiate within their spaceand as they draw us into their orbit they close our consciousness to that which is outside. Thus, it is not necessary that all our possessions be beautiful, only that some things are. (68)

The first point, about an “architecture of time” seems more unique, or at least reactive to the “slow” movements that were emerging around the time that he composed his book. The second, third, and fourth points are eerily similar to Yanagi Sōetsu’s concepts of mingei and the intimate nature of craft beauty, which probably had Morris as their original source. Ultimately, it seems as these concepts flow through many mouthpieces who differ largely only in emphasis rather than substance. Where Segal really breaks ground, in my opinion, is in next few bullets

  • One of the inexpensive sources of beauty is in our own creative ability. In part, this is a matter of tapping into our own latent abilities to take a beautiful photograph, to sculpt, to draw, or to play an instrument. These to some extent involve mastery of technique. But within the household, we are constantly engaged with the issue of design and arrangementwhether it be the utensils, the tools, the furniture, the towelswhat we find in every space is that beauty resides not just in the objects, but in how they are arranged with one another. Perhaps this is better understood by thinking about marketplaces. If one has traveled in the Third World countries and gone into marketplaces, sometimes one is stopped short by an exceedingly beautiful display, formed with fifty loves of bread or with a few dozen shirts. (68-9)

I’ve got some serious issues with this section. First, it seems really horrible to suggest that photography, playing music, sculpting, etc., are somehow latent in people and only need to be summoned by practice and technique. Photography, for example, is largely (in my opinion) a matter of disabusing oneself of the notion that you actually know anything about it simply because you’ve seen a lot of it. It’s not latent, in fact, it is perhaps the most opposite of a latent skill I can possibly think of.

Photography is a recording technology that you might think you understand by simply being exposed to it: it only takes a few stabs at imitation before you figure out that maybe you don’t know so much about it after all. It’s hard, at least if you’re doing it right. Skill isn’t an internal matter of getting in touch with yourself and your hidden talents; it’s about understanding a variety of technologies from the pencil to the chisel, including perhaps also the piano and the camera. Practice and education are far more constituent of “talent” than any innate quality, at least in my opinion. In design and arrangement however, things might well be different.


I remember stopping at Buc-ee’s in Lulling, Texas a while ago and being struck by this wall of products. It struck me then that it didn’t represent real choice, but rather the illusion of choice. Though there are a multitude of flavors listed, they’re pretty much the same product (salt, sugar, soy, etc.) with just a touch of different in the chemical/spice treatments added. As I’ve learned to do more with basic food products like rice (which comes in a myriad of varieties with completely different properties) it occurs to me that the knowledge of how to transform raw materials into meals presents a more impressive array of choices than the wall of flavor powders. But I digress: the display was beautiful in a bizarre way.

Though I find the reference to the beauty of Third World markets a bit condescending and imperialist (ah, those simple peasants and their displays), Segal is onto something with the beauty of arrangement. Of all that he’s mentioned, arrangement is as close to a “latent” talent that most people can be said to have. While it can be developed through education and practice, we all “know what looks right” if we give ourselves half a chance. The fact that he chooses an economic locus (the market) as an example of commonplace beauty is a bit like a Freudian slip; lusting after products in a shop window is a beautiful thing.

I recall my mother, being a woman used to living on very little, would just revel in moving her furniture around from time to time to “improve” her surroundings. Furniture arrangement was probably the only “artistic” pursuit she ever attempted. Crafts, like needlepoint or knitting, though popular with most of her sisters, always reminded my mother how much better they were at it. She didn’t find it relaxing in the slightest. But furniture arrangement, well, that was just her way of getting in touch with beauty. So, I think Segal’s point is a good one even if it is clumsy in its expression.

But the real breakthrough, I think, is in the final bullet of his list:

  • The beauty in our private spaces, inside our homes, is accessible only to us and our friends. But perhaps of more significance is the aesthetic quality of public space, be it the architecture of houses, yards, gardens; the pavement of the streets; the shops; the trees; the skyline; or access to the sunset. In economist’s terms, these are public goods, in the sense that the enjoyment of them by one person does not diminish their availability to others. They are not, in the ordinary sense, consumed.

It is this point that really merits discussion at greater length. It’s not really something that can be addressed by individual action. It’s a question of social beauty, not of individual or consumer beauty. I hadn’t really thought of beauty as a social concept before.

I must admit that I felt “happier” living in the Twin Cities*, though I was of lower economic means then.  With the highest per capita arts spending of any major metro area and a park system pretty much second to none, Upstate New York suffers by comparison. Natural beauty is widely available here, and wonderful— but the lack of civic beauty is hurtful to the spirit. I live in a beautiful enclave, accessible only to those with means. And my heart sinks when I step outside of it.

*There is a rebuttal to the linked article, but I stand by my opinion– it’s the best place I have ever lived.

The Way of Craftsmanship

Yanagi Sōetsu, (March 21, 1889 – May 3, 1961)

I have been writing for a long time about crafts, digging into almost virgin soil, and what I say may seem strange to unaccustomed ears, dubious, and difficult to accept because it is contrary to prevalent thought. I have continuously received a flow of doubting enquires from friends and strangers alike, so I decided to gather my ideas together into the form of a series of questions and answers reviewing the bone structure of my arguments.

Q. What are crafts?

A. Things made to be used by people in daily life, such as clothes and furniture. Something different from fine arts, such as pictures made to be looked at.

Q. What is the particular kind of beauty in crafts?

A. Beauty that is identified with use. It is a beauty born of use. Apart from use, there is no beauty of craft. Therefore, things made that do not stand up to use or that ignore utility can barely be expected to contain this kind of beauty.

Q. What is the meaning you attach to the word “use”?

A. The word is not to be understood merely in its materialistic sense. The reason for this is that mind and matter must not be thought of as separate. Use therefore covers both. Such objects are to be looked at and touched with a responsive feeling of pleasure in use. If crafts are only designed from a utilitarian point of view, then pattern, for example, is uncalled for. But good pattern adds to the function of that utensil. It becomes an indispensable part of use. On the other hand, however useful an artifact may be, if it causes in the mind a feeling of ugliness, it detracts from total service. The issue becomes clear in the province of food. Satisfying the demand of hunger is not the sole province of good cooking. We need good presentation and good flavours—that helps our appetite. Again, use that fulfils the mind alone is meaningless, like a wax replica of food. By use, then, I intend the indivisibility of mind and matter.

Q. What is the special quality of beauty in crafts?

A.  The special quality of beauty in crafts is that it is a beauty of intimacy. Since the articles are to be lived with every day, this quality of intimacy is a natural requirement. Such beauty establishes a world of grace and feeling. It is significant that in speaking of craft objects, people use terms such a savour and style. The beauty of such objects is not so much of the noble, the huge, or the lofty as a beauty of the warm and familiar. Here one may detect a striking difference between the crafts and the arts. People hang their pictures high up on walls, but they place their objects of use close to them and take them in their hands.

The Unknown Craftsman, 197-8

Additional material of interest can be found in “A Japanese William Morris: Yanagi Soetsu and Mingei Theory