Wednesday, December 17, 2014

BOOK REVIEW ~ The Unknown Craftsman

The Unknown Craftsman  by Soetsu Yanagi

The Unknown Craftsman is a compendium of articles given by SoetsuYanagi over a pivotal period in Japanese culture from 1939 to 1962. Through these Yanagi became the pre-eminent figure in a revival in the appreciation and practice of Japanese folk crafts after the end of the Second World War. Eventualy he Founded the Japan Folk Craft Museum in Tokyo. Yanagi was a close friend, mentor and profound influence upon the English potter Bernard Leach, who helped translate and compile this book and provides useful background context via his introduction. Most of what we in the West understand of Japanese pottery and aesthetics, such as wabi sabi etc comes in large part from Yanagi's work.

Yanagi's route to becoming a pottery obsessive, arose as a result of his rediscovery of 16th century Korean pottery of the Yi dynasty. These simple, often crudely executed pots became for him, not just the aesthetic benchmark by which he measured all other work, but a sort of spiritual talisman for the creative attitude that a potter or artist should endeavour to cultivate. It is this latter aspect; the creative process being shadowed by spiritual practice, that I found the most inspiring thing about this book. I have read no other book that so clearly and imaginatively explains how creative work can become a spiritual practice.

Those Yi dynasty pots are in themselves the key. Technically those pots are poorly made, with misshapen bases, glazes blobby,irregular, and riddled with cracks and surface imperfections. Churned out by local craftsman with no thought to aesthetic appeal, beauty or there being perfect objects. They were simply made to meet a practical requirement. These pots became highly sought after by Japanese masters of Tea Ceremonies, often paying huge sums for them. They also become the models for Japanese versions of this pottery, where imperfections became highly valued, however self-consciously created.

Yanagi is quite dismissive about this artistic contrivance, particularly when these potters later on began to sign their pots. This declaration of creative ownership was anathema to the ideal relationship he thought one should have with what is being created. Part of the aesthetic appeal of Yi pottery is the anonymity of their creators, the men and women who made them are all unknown. There probably was no one person involved in their creation, being collectively and unselfconsciously formed. It isn't just what was created, but how they were created that makes them important. He is particularly good at teasing out that this absence of an individual creator is what makes them the epitome of beauty and the role model for Buddhist artists desiring to make their work a spiritual practice. Here are a few representative quotations:~

' The deepest beauty is suggestive of infinite potential rather than being merely explanatory.... All works of art, it may be said, are more beautiful when they suggest something beyond themselves than when they end up being merely what they are.'

'Truly beautiful objects usually contain in them some element of irregularity......Beauty dislikes being captive to perfection. That which is profound never lends itself to logical explanation;it involves endless mystery.'

'Would it not be possible to say that all beautiful work is done by the work itself? When an artist creates a work, he and the work are two different things. Only when he becomes the work itself and creates the work (in other words, when the work alone is creating the whole work) does true work become possible. Not the artist but the work should say "I am" : when this state is reached, a work of art deserving the name has been produced.'

'So long as the man who strikes the drum and drum that is struck are two different beings, true music can never be born.

'As soon as the principle becomes formalised, death approches'

I could go on and on quoting, as the book is packed full of such pithy and inspiring aphoristic sentences. Though written over sixty years ago The Unknown Craftsman, is still quite relevant to modern day artistic and Buddhist practice. Some of Yanagi's hopes for a craft revival have petered out in our high tech world of the internet. His analysis of the role of Individualism on the creative process is still particularly prescient to today's art market.

'They did not see the extraordinary in the extraordinary...They did not draw their cherished treasures out of the valuable, the expensive, the luxurious, the elaborate or the exceptional. They selected them from the plain, the natural, the homely, the simple, and the normal. They explored the uneventful, normal world for the most unusual beauty  Can anything be more uncommon than to see the uncommon in the commonplace....Most of us today have grown so commonplace that we cannot see the extraordinary save in the exceptional.'

The Unknown Craftsman is for me a very significant book, one that inevitably will roll out changes in the wake of my having read it.

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