Sunday, February 27, 2011

Serizawa, Mingei and Studio The Artists' Dilemma.

Functional yet exceptional in design and more than ordinary:  herein lies the tension epitomized by Serizwaw’s productions, which were promoted and marketed through department store exhibitions starting in the 1930s.  In keeping with Mingei disavowed signatures and ciphers, Serizawa's works bore no emblazoned brand name. His distinctive designs, however, became a signature of their own.
Serizawa's subsequent acceptance of the Living National Treasure designation reinforced the elevated status of his works, Ultimately, he became a commercially successful artist producing recognizable and eminently marketable products, but they were not ordinary, nor were they ''made by the many for the many.
How then did Serizawa -whose later works were anything but anonymous, inexpensive, and collectively produced - navigate the ideological terrain that separates mingei objects from recognizable works produced by artists who attain government recognition and sponsorship? The debate regarding the role of the anonymous artisan versus the individual artist began in the 1930s and went increasingly public when the government instituted a system for designating Living National Treasures. The 1950 Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties was enacted in part to prevent the disappearance of skills in arts deemed to have historical or artistic value. It was later revised to include all arts bearing significant historical or artistic value, endangered or not. While the selection criteria remained opaque, the laws were amended in 1955 to emphasize three basic tenets: ''artistic value, importance in craft history, and local tradition" Serizawa's was an exceptional designation. Beyond celebrating his works because they produced a painterly composition that ''cannot be found in designs painted by hand," government authorities coined a new term, kataezome (stencil-picture dyeing), for his technique.
This neologism effectively acknowledges Serizawa's innovative, even transcendent, dyeing practices.
As a founding member of the Nihon Kogei Kai, Serizawa presumably was cognizant of shifting attitudes toward ''tradition.'' In 1955 the first board director, Nishikawa Tekiho, expressed his hopes for the organization as follows: ''This association is not about being hidebound by the word 'tradition' nor simply worshipping the culture of the past. Our foremost goal is to promote works that make the best of both Japanese traditions and elements learned from foreign countries," It would be naive to assume that the term traditional can be equated with qualifiers such as unchanging or bound by national borders. In either of these cases, materials, techniques, motifs, and formats would ossify and quickly lose their freshness and appeal. The paradox of mingei is that it promotes the suppression of the artist's individuality for the sake of preserving time-honored techniques and collective practices.. yet some of its major proponents, like Serizawa, nevertheless produced highly individualistic, nontraditional works. Similarly, the Living National Treasure system promotes and preserves the traditional arts of Japan, yet even as the system acknowledges how artists bow to Japanese precedents, rarely does it recognize the myriad cultural borrowings and adaptations - Korean, Okinawan, European, and American - that reflect the wider world in which the artists conceive, produce, and sell their works.
One might ask: How many generations must pass before a foreign novelty becomes part of a nation's ''tradition''? Serizawa as remembered in the cultural imagination represents an important transitional figure moving from the anonymity of the mingei artisan to the celebrated position of Living National Treasure as embodied in an individual craftsperson. While his works reveal polarities between tradition and innovation, everyday and extraordinary, inexpensive and costly, regional and international, anonymity and identity, their attraction may lie in their ability to extract essential elements from the visual arts and technical processes of various cultural practices and transform them, appearing fresh yet steeped in time-honored conventions. His commercial success made it impossible for him to remain an ''unknown craftsman'' and thereby adhere to the strict mingei ideal, yet he ensured the longevity of certain motifs, techniques, and formats by cultivating a demand for his deliberate selections of eclectic motifs and tech- niques. Later in life, he established a research institute to train apprentices in his paper-dyeing technique.
His works link one generation of Japanese artisans to the next at the same time that they bridge cultural borders. Serizawa navigated the turbulent wafers between tradition and innovation, steering a new course for successive generations of Japan's artist-designers.

From Cataog:  Serizawa, Master Of Japanese  Textile Design.
Photo above SERIZAWA KEISUKE (1895-1984) Japanese Syllables, 1960s. Framed, stencil-dyed raw silk, 25 3/4 x 13 3/4 in. John C. Weber Collection.

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