The Arts Grow Cold


Some Thoughts on Art,

Craft, Meaning

and the Market

Art Monthly, 1996

















The Japanese word, 'kogei', once meant craft, in particular Folk craft. But during the period of industrialisation after the Meiji restoration, 'kogei' came to mean 'industrial technology'. In the 1920s, philosopher and art critic, Soetsu Yanagi, a contemporary and friend of Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada, coined the word 'mingei', an abbreviated form of the Japanese for 'people's art', which he defined as follows:


'Mingei ... have two characteristics: the first is functionality, and the second is ordinariness. In other words, objects that are luxurious, expensive, and made in very   small numbers do not belong to this category. The makers of mingei objects are not famous people but anonymous craftspeople.’  Yanagi founded a museum devoted to mingei, which includes pottery, textiles, basketwork, furniture and so on. They are all objects of great beauty. Nevertheless, by the 1960s, the word mingei' had fallen into disrepute, being associated with bad taste.


These examples illustrate the difficulty of establishing a philosophical basis for discussion about the relationship between art and craft. The words themselves mean only what people choose them to mean. Those who expect the Japanese to have developed a well thought out indigenous art-craft philosophy might be disappointed to discover that Yanagi was deeply influenced by John Ruskin, William Morris and William Blake. Furthermore, he was elitist. He thought art should be the province of the sophisticated and the well educated.


'Although the Japanese folk artisan is poor and uneducated,' he wrote, 'he is a fervent devotee of his craft. While it is difficult for him to describe fully what he believes in, his surprising personal experiences are clearly expressed in the crude vocabulary of his work. And even though there is nothing unique or rare about his artistic technique, the essence of his creed is reflected in the objects he creates. Unconsciously, he is motivated by his belief in Kami the spirit of nature) and seized by its indomitable force.


'I can say the same thing concerning this dish that now absorbs my attention. It might seem to be something scorned as a poor or clumsily made object, since it is lacking in extravagant elegance and ornate stylization. Because he was not self-conscious about what he was doing. the man who made this dish had not planned the final outcome of his creative effort. As though he were a passionate believer repeatedly chanting a god's name. he forms the same shape on the potter's wheel again and again, and time after time he paints the same picture on the vessel using the same glaze.


'What is beauty? What is the art of the kiln? We cannot expect him to be prepared with clearcut answers to such questions, but even though he may not have a thought-out knowledge, his hands move rapidly at his work. And we could perhaps say that just as the voice that speaks the Buddha's name is not actually the man's voice but is that of the Buddha, so too the hands of the potter are not his own, but are those of nature. Rather than the craftsman directing the work, it is nature that comes and protects its beauty. The craftsman has forgotten all worldly cares. As belief grows out of selfless immersion in faith, beauty springs forth spontaneously in the vessel he makes. His creation thus holds me in rapt absorption.'


Kichiemon Okamura, explaining Yanagi's beliefs, says that an artist differs from the folk craftsman because his ego is involved in his work. In other words, the artist self consciously and intentionally creates a work of art while the craftsman is guided by nature. One of the criteria for inclusion of a work in Yanagi's Japan Folk Craft Museum is that it not be signed, although exceptions are made for those - such as Bernard Leach - who are said to be working in the spirit of mingei. (When asked by a visitor why he did not sign his work, Hamada said it was so that only his good work would be attributed to him, and his poorer work would be attributed to his students).


Yanagi's distinction between the artist and the craftsman would be nice if it were true. It falls down on two counts. Firstly, the 'dish that now absorbs my attention/ was in all likelihood thrown by a potter and decorated by a painter. possibly in a workshop managed by a third party. The beautiful costumes in the museum were surely not woven, resist dyed, cut and sewn by the one person. The lone folk craftsrnan is something of an idealization. Secondly, it is simply wrong to believe that the 'poor and uneducated' artisan is not conscious that he is creating a work of art. I have had experience with weavers, potters and makers of folk toys in India, and tribal weavers in Afghanistan. If they are good artists, they know it and are proud of it. They are generally poor, and must produce large quantities of functional work for customers. But in the marketplace, artistic work carries a premium. In the West. since the Industrial Revolution, truly functional objects have been made by machine, leaving potters, weavers and basketmakers to sell (or attempt to sell) what is, in effect, their art. They are keen to distance themselves from the followers of Woman's Weekly knitting patterns or the  makers of pipe-cleaner toys. They are even avoiding the 'craft markets'. So, to all intents and purposes, the craft movement is simply an art movement. While we can be inspired by the noble craftsperson, wax  lyrical about the inherent  quality of the handmade object, in the real world most craft work is just hard work. The hand weavers in village India work for low pay in appalling conditions and would probably prefer to be operating a machine in a factory. In Walden, Thoreau describes being inspired by feelings of admiration when, still in his bed, he sees the farmer off  to toil in the fields. But he has to admit that he'd rather be in bed. We have idealised craft work. Australian craft potters aren't in the business of manufacturing thousands of identical flower pots or honey jars - that's for factories and machines. But traditionally that's just the sort of work potters did, and indeed still do in pre-industrial economies. Most of us would rather be able to stay in bed. The masters of the medieval guilds might be an inspiration but they are an exception. The founders of the craft movement were painters - William Morris, Rossetti~ Burne-Jones, Ford Maddox Brown and others. They believed that they could reinstate the role of skilled craftspeople that the industrial revolution had eliminated. In doing so. they would be able to earn an income which real art - painting - could not provide. The prospectus for their first company sounds as though it was written by a committee. but it does convey their ideas quite well:


‘The growth of Decorative Art in this country, owing to the efforts of English Architects, has now reached a point at which it seems desirable that Artists of reputation should devote their time to it. Although no doubt particular instances of success may be cited, still it must be generally felt that attempts of this kind hitherto have been crude and fragmentary. Up to this time. the want of that artistic supervision, which can alone bring about harmony between the various parts of a successful work, has been increased by the necessarily excessive outlay, consequent on taking one individual artist from his pictorial labours. 'The Artists whose names appear above hope by association to do away with this difficulty. Having among their number men of varied qualifications, they will be able to undertake any species of decoration, mural or otherwise. from pictures, properly socalled, down to the consideration of the smallest work susceptible of art beauty. It is anticipated that by such Co-operation, the largest amount of what is essentially the artist's work, along with his constant supervision, will be secured at the smallest possible expense. while the work done must necessarily be of a much more complete order, than if any single artist were incidentally employed in the usual manner.


'These artists having for many years been deeply attached to the study of the Decorative Arts of all times and countries, have felt more than most people the want of some one place, where they could either obtain or get produced work of a genuine and beautiful character. They have therefore now established themselves as a firm. for the production, by themselves and under their supervision of... Mural Decoration... Carving... as applied to Architecture... Stained Class... Metal Work... including Jewellery.. Furniture...


'It is only necessary to state furthers that work of all the above classes will be estimated for, and executed in a businesslike manner: and it is believed that good decoration, involving rather the luxury of taste than the luxury of costliness, will be found to be much less expensive than is generally supposed '


By the early twentieth century, although expressed in a manifesto rather than a company prospectus, the basic idea remained the same:


'The coming years will demonstrate that craft will be the salvation of us artists. We will no longer exist alongside the crafts but shall be part of them since we are obliged to earn money. For great art this historical inevitable development is a necessity. All the great achievements of the past, the Indian, the Gothic miracles, arose out of total mastery of craft.’ Walter Gropius~ Bauhaus Manifisto, 1919.


Morris at least mastered his crafts, although ultimately he had to be a designer and businessman, employing labour. Gropius quickly moved  on to workers' housing and  dropped the Gothic miracles altogether. Painters, though, have continued to turn to the decorative arts, or crafts, as a source of income. Toulouse-Lautrec designed interiors for clients. Gauguin turned his hand to pottery. 'Ever the dreamer, Gauguin counted on his ceramics to provide a livelihood when his paintings did not sell.’


Almost in reaction, art - real art: painting, sculpture - moved to distance itself from this grubby materialism. Schoenberg declared that nothing done for a purpose could be art. Malevich proclaimed that 'Art no longer cares to serve the state and religion. It no longer wishes to illustrate the history of manners, it wants to have nothing to do with the object as such, and believes that it can exist, in and for itself, without things.'


The creed of the Art Nouveau movement was Art for Art's sake Since the 1920s, it seems, the creed has been Art for the Artist's sake. This certainly is far distant from the humble potter, or even the noble potter.


If there was a creed for craftspeople in the 1960s and 1970s, when the many state and federal craft organizations were formed, it was probably something like Beauty in Utility. Certainly the creation of utilitarian objects was at its heart. Like William Morris. they said 'Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful'. But in the 1990s the newer craft artists are now fibre artists or ceramic artists or even craft conceptualists. Beauty and utility hardly come into it. The craftsperson is first, the object is secondary. If contemporary art is deskilled art, perhaps craft is becoming art with skills.


Art movements are firmly embedded in economies. Without patronage, art might continue to exist, but cannot prosper. Medieval art is wedded to the Church, Renaissance art to the mercantile age; Impressionism and later movements developed under the patronage of the bourgeois collector. I suspect that future historians will see the second half of the twentieth century as the Corporate Age. There is some irony in the fact that the large modernist paintings which decorate corporate office blocks grew out of art movements which were radical, nihilistic and socialist. But, as Tom Wolfe points out in From Bauhaus to Our House, the office blocks themselves had their origins in an architecture which was intended to provide housing for workers. Morris and Co. sought work decorating the structures of bourgeois Victorians, while contemporary artists/craftspeople hope to decorate the interiors of office blocks and casinos. But it is always a buyer's market.


The potters and painters who created the magnificent Greek vases in our museum collections were often slaves, at best poor freemen. We don't know their names although we sometimes know the name of, the workshop owner or the buyer. They were great artists, though, as were the potters who worked on Yanagi's dish. They created their art for art's sake.


In The Gift, Lewis Hyde writes, 'A work of art is a gift, not a commodity... Every modern artist who has chosen to labor with a gift must sooner or later wonder how he or she is to survive in a society dominated by market exchange. And if the fruits of a gift are gifts themselves, how is the artist to nourish himself, spiritually as well as materially, in an age whose values and whose commerce consists almost exclusively in the purchase and sale of commodities.'


William Blake put it more succinctly:

 'When nations grow old, the Arts grow cold,

And Commerce settles on every tree...'





I Quoted in Mingei - Masterpieces of Japanese folkcraft. Japan Folk Crafts Museum, Tokyo, 1991

2 Yanagi, The Beauty of common objects, quoted in Folk arts and crafts of Japan, Heibonsha, Tokyo, 1973


3 Quoted in Henderson, P. William Morris, his life. works and friends, Thames and Hudson, 1967


4 Watler Gropius, speech given to students. 1919. Quoted in Mingei, Masterpieces of Japanese folkcraft, op cit.

5 Gauguin, exhibition catalogue Art Institute of Chicago

6 Quoted in Gablik, S. Has Modernism failed, Thames & Hudson, 1984

7 Hyde, L. The Gift, New World, 1983. Quoted in Gablik, op cit




Turkoman weavers, Northern Afghanistan, 1997. There is no prepared design. The woman acknowledged as the superior designer instr ucts kerfellow weavers, describing a design (naksha) which she holds in her mind. Carpets are rarely signed but the designer s name is known and respected in the bazaar. Superior design is pained over workmanship. In~erestingiy, superior design goes hand in hand with superior workmanship The ucknowkdged master designer win be able to sell her work more readily and con work oath weavers who have the most skill.


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'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean neither more nor less'. Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass