Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Mingei Spirit by Warren MacKenzie From "The Beauty Of Use"

What Yanagi really recognized was the relationship between the crafts and the society that nurtured them as a necessary part of the culture, and the fact that this interaction was rapidly dying out. Although mingei started in Japan, parallel situations existed in Europe, Africa and North and South America. In the U.S. the folk potters of the Appalachian Highlands were closing down unless represented by mass marketers in a metropolitan area. In England the traditional redware potteries were closing or making knickknacks, and the wonderful tweeds of Scotland and Ireland were more likely to be found in swank tailor shops of London and New York than in the country stores of their origin.
In the course of establishing the Mingei Movement in Japan, Yanagi dwelt on even more subtle thoughts. He wrote and talked about the Buddhist idea that there were two ways of becoming a Buddha (achieving a state of perfect illumination). "One is called jinki-do or the way of self-reliance, and the other tariki-do or the way of reliance on others: the one is the way of reaching the destination by one's own power; the other that by relying on an external power ...The way of self-reliance is for men of capacity to follow. :rat of reliance on others is for men without the power, or one may even explain the former as the way for geniuses and individualistic artists, and the latter as the way for ordinary people and craftsmen."' Embracing this second way was to become the essence of the Mingei Movement. Yanagi recognized and honored the strength of craft works that were produced by relying on the power of others who had gone before. This was MINGEI!

When Gerry Williams asked me to write about "where we are now in relation to the Mingei Movement," I wasn't sure whether he meant to focus on the world situation (I know nothing about that). the American situation (I have opinions but know little about that either), or the attitude that Soetsu Yanagi talked about when he organized the original Mingei Movement. When I read about mingei and heard Yanagi talk about the original conception, it was to be a recognition of the values of the anonymous craftsperson who sold articles of dailyuse for modest prices. Yanagi wrote about the first showing of mingei articles in the Ginza, Tokyo, June 22, 1927. "In many ways it was an unprecedented sort of exhibition. Not an article was signed. All of the work was created by nameless artisans. None of the articles had value attached to them, yet they spoke eloquently of beauty."'

Yanagi even went so far as to delineate the criteria for mingei articles: it must be made by an anonymous craftsman or woman and therefore unsigned; it must be functional, simple, and have no excess ornamentation; it must be one of many similar pieces and must be inexpensive; it must be unsophisticated; it must reflect the region it was made in; and it must be made by hand.(2)
While this may have been the beginning of the Mingei Movement in Japan, it was not to be the complete story. Yanagi in his original conception had sought the advice and help of friends who were involved in the crafts and who agreed with his original premises. Among these people were Shoji Hamada, Bernard Leach, Kenkichi Tomimoto and Kanjiro Kawai, potters; Keisuke Serizawa, stencil dyer; and Shiko Munakata, printmaker. These people were not anonymous craftsmen. They were artists who were influenced by the mingei type of work, but they were also trained artists from art schools or colleges. They admired and sought to emulate the mingei attitude, but they could never be anonymous. All of these people fell into the category of jiriki-do cited above. They were the "men of capacity" and not anonymous craftspeople. Because of his intense feelings, Tomimoto eventually dropped out of the group, saying in effect it is wrong to try to preserve these folk traditions. If they will die, let them die and new found traditions will rise in their place.

The situation related above represents the case for America today. The only mingei craftspeople that I can think of are probably situated in the remote areas of the Southern Highlands. I have met potters, quilters, basket makers and furniture makers in that area who are working in the way their ancestors did, without desire for personal recognition but with pride in the quality of their work and a strong sense of preserving the best of what went before. The Southern Highlands Handicraft Guild was originally formed for and by these people, and it was at their fairs that this anonymous work was shown.

In much of the world today, folk crafts have been bastardized to conform to what will' sell or what the makers mistakenly believe is a better form of expression. This "better" form often reflects the tastes of people with whom the craftspeople have come in contact, whose opinion they accept because they are wealthy or come from urban areas. As remote people become aware of what is being done in urban centers, it takes a lot of strength and conviction to resist being influenced by such commercial considerations. Yanagi, with his desire to honor and preserve the folk traditions that he loved, inadvertently sowed the seeds for their demise. There is an old song sung by the Mills Brothers which reflects this situation well: "YOU ALWAYS HURT THE ONE YOU LOVE, THE ONE YOU WOULDN'T HURT AT ALL." Once work was shown and talked about, the shops and dealers entered the scene, buying cheap, selling dear and then subtly pressuring the craftspeople to change their work to conform to the tastes of their urban customers. One of the best descriptions of this process is in the book Lost Innocence by Brian Moeran.' He points out the difficulty of maintaining an integrity of product and attitude once the publicity of recognition has hit.

My feeling is that we of the 1990's cannot even approach the sense of anonymous creation that tome is the essence of mingei. Even those artists of Japan who were influenced by mingei and who wanted to embrace the sense of mingei in their work would never become the unsophisticated craftspeople that they admired. Personally I love the jugs and bread pans of the Appalachian potters. I admire the early German salt ware such as whiskey jugs, baking dishes and kitchen storage jars. The work of French potters who made milk jugs, eating bowls, wine jugs and even rabbit feeding bowls was of the mingei tradition; it all fulfilled a need in the community and became a part of the life of the people.
There is no easy way that contemporary craftspeople can approach that special sense of fulfilling a need in the life of our communities. We sell, for the most part, to an elite patronage that is willing to pay for the pleasure of owning a handcrafted object (which they may or may not use), or to those (usually young) people who are willing to sacrifice a great deal in their attempt to surround themselves with objects that they feel reflect their values and the maker's personality. In my own experience I have found that customers are either students who have been imbued with a love for personal expression in artifacts, or older and presumably wealthier people who have been educated to the values of the arts and hand crafts. I hate to say it but, in my experience in America, the great majority of people would rather go to a movie or ball game than to spend a comparable amount of money on a craft work. We live now in a society where people think little of spending thousands of dollars for a car which will rapidly depreciate and deteriorate, while they would seldom spend $100-$500 for a craft object which they could use in their daily lives and which would eventually pass to their descendants as an heirloom of our times.

If all of this seems to dwell too much on monetary value, I have to apologize, but it seems that the attempt to look at the aesthetic and cultural value of objects (which was, in fact, the basis for Yanagi's first forays into collecting) is honored more in the breach than in the practice. Yanagi demanded that the people of his time and countryappreciate what was around them, work that was all too often being taken for granted ' or ignored completely. There were people in other countries who also did that. Muriel Rose of the British Crafts Council, the Swiss Hiemetwerk and the Southern Highlands Handicraft Guild, mentioned above, all attempted to make people aware of the qualities of objects used in their everyday lives. I am sure that there were others as well, but today while there may be an appreciation of that traditional work, the usual maker in the developed world is working as an "artist craftsperson," producing individual works that are expected to be looked upon as ART. They are signed, exhibited and written about so that people may understand that these are "important works." While we may pursue our crafts in this manner, we still look for and collect the works from other cultures, not knowing who made them and probably not being interested. In purchasing work from other cultures, we are much more likely to trust our gut reactions about the sense of the piece. If it speaks to us then we will buy it to use and enjoy in our homes.

In Stillwater at our showroom, we show the work of several other craftspeople. It is disappointing to see people select a piece because they like it, but then put it back if they find it is not by someone they consider important. I feel they are considering their purchases as investments rather than responding to the object. This is true in other countries also. In Japan the craftspeople have been divided into artisans and artists and even further, "holders of Intangible Cultural Properties" or, as they have become known, "Living National Treasures." Prices vary according to the status of the maker and under these circumstance it is very hard for the "elevated" artist to remain "mingei."

Should we despair? I don't think so. Our artists work in a manner that reflects our times and their own personal attitudes. To do otherwise would be false and the work would lack integrity. Many people miss the fact that Yanagi, in his writings, accepted that craftspeople can rise to the highest achievement in two ways, as stated above. The first is the anonymous mingei craftsperson who builds upon and strengthens that which has gone before. The other is the route of the individual artist who strikes out in unknown directions, driven by her or his inner search for a personal expression that hopefully will speak to the times and find a broad response from an educated public. Hamada, Kawai, Leach and Tomimoto were of this sort, and most of the potters working in America are attempting this route. Even these artists, however, are building on what has preceded them. No artist works in a vacuum or starts from nothing. We all build and alter based upon what we have seen or experienced. The difference is that some alter and develop radically while others work much more closely with tradition.
Shiko Munakata Working.
Beyond the social criteria for a mingei object, I believe there were aesthetic judgments that Yanagi and his friends used. The mingei objects were usually simple, unpretentious and restrained, reflecting their creation as an object for everyday use these were. For the most part, these were rural crafts, and decoration, if it existed at all, was drawn from the countryside. Colors and techniques were very basic. Articles that had been used and sometimes damaged and repaired were likely to be valued over new production. The terms associated with the tea ceremony, such as sabi and wabi which describe reserve, detachment and frugality were adopted by Yanagi. Much of this aesthetic is available and used today by our American craftspeople. If our customers see the beauty that exists in everyday objects (if made with care and love), then they too will enjoy the essence of mingei. But it will not be mingei. It will be art that derives from the mingei spirit.

'Transcript of Yanagi's talk at the First International Conference of Potters and Weavers, Dartington Hall, Devon, England, 1952.
' Mingei: Masterpieces of Japanese Folkcraft. Published by Kodansha, 1991, p. 
2 [bid., p. 15.

Moeran, Brian. Lost lnnocence. University of California Press, 1984
This article originally appeared in the December, 1996 edition of The Studio Potter, Volume 25,

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