A Critique of Japan's Living National Treasure System

(Article originally written for e-y Net, Courtesy of e-y Net)

Written by Wahei Aoyama (2004/2/26)


It has been four years since I had written an admittedly passionate criticism of the so-called Living National Treasure System.

I was quite surprised to find, in later years, that the article had far exceeded the expectations of its writer in terms of reach - the critique would be used as material for art history classes at universities, and would be often quoted in art journals and web articles. Several readers of this particular article even came up to me in London during Collect to mention that the article had made them think about the subject in a difference light -not solely with blind reverence, but with a studied and objective eye.

Thus in hindsight, I must admit that I am pleased with the article's response. However, four years have passed since the article had been written, and yet we continue to find ourselves in a world where not much has changed in terms of the system itself. Rather, it seems that recent selections had only bolstered the arguments made herein -a sad predicament indeed. We have also witnessed the passing of many LNT that had represented the last breed of artists who had carried on the exceptional creative legacies of their predecessors -Shimaoka, Shimizu, and Miura, for example, and we can now consider ourselves in an era where LNTs hardly carry the artistic weight of past generations. Are we to simply lament this day and age, or are we to look beyond the system for new art and artists? I would strongly advocate the latter, rather than drowning ourselves in the quagmires of days past.

Wahei Aoyama (2008/3/25)

A Critique of Japan's Living National Treasure System

We can't get enough of Living National Treasures. Kaneshige Toyo, Arakawa Toyozo, Hamada Shoji -- we reminisce such legendary ceramic artists with almost holy reverence. Likewise, the term "Living National Treasure" rings with a certain legitimacy, as the title is officially stamped with the seal of approval of the Japanese government. The name vividly calls to mind something far beyond the layman's world. The greatest art and traditions of Japan -- Korin's screens, Koetsu's chawan, Rikyu's tearoom, Itsukushima Shrine, Himeji Castle -- are all national treasures. By designating a person a "living embodiment" of a national treasure, one is led to believe that such a figure himself would surely be equivalent to the aforementioned symbols of Japanese culture. Unfortunately, this is far from truth.

The truth is this -- there is no such thing as a "Living National Treasure." It does not exist. If one visits the Agency for Cultural Affairs website, a subsection of the Ministry of Education and Science, one will not find the phrase on its pages, nor will they find a mention of it in any official document composed by the government. To put it bluntly, a Living National Treasure is a non sequitur. It is myth.

Then what were Kaneshige and Arakawa? Essential to tackling this question is the 1954 Cultural Property Preservation Act, and the phrase "Important Intangible Cultural Property" contained within it. The term "Living National Treasure" is merely a colloquial one coined by a newspaper journalist in 1955 to both simplify and mystify the official but clunky title "Important Intangible Cultural Property." Many Japanese are aroused by the glamour of "treasure," not "cultural property." Hence, the ingenuity behind the phrase. It both captivates and misleads the public eye.

Those persons designated with this distinction are not "Important Intangible Cultural Property" themselves. Rather, Kaneshige and Arakawa were "holders" or "protectors" of an important but intangible cultural property of Japan. In Kaneshige's case Bizen, in Arakawa's case, Shino. To put it simply, the Living National Treasure system is but a law designating some endangered thing for preservation, something akin to preserving forests or saving whales -- only in this case, we are saving something that is intangible, of cultural importance, and is held within the hands of certain individuals.

The cultural property being preserved is not the man, but the technique or style of pottery he creates. The man is not the treasure; rather, the treasure is the style of pottery. For example, Miwa Kyusetsu XI is not an important intangible cultural property (IICP); rather, he was designated the protector of an IICP (Hagi); it is his obligation to see that the traditional techniques behind IICP are passed onto the next generation (this may strike one as funny, as his son Miwa Kyusetsu XII is anything but the protector of Hagi). Likewise, Shimaoka Tatsuzo's Jomon-zogan (rope-patterns) and Matsui Kosei's Neriage (the technique of mixing different clay textures together) are eligible for protection. Emphasis is placed on a potter's "technique."

Yet, to ignore the fact that we attach great importance to the phrase "Living National Treasure" is like shutting one's eyes from an eminent truth. We do not just look at a man's technique. We look at his product, his art. The works are works we wish to emulate. The works are desired for the status imparted by owning them. To us, the person should be paramount.

But if one may recall, the actual legal statute has nothing to do with honoring or awarding someone a title; the IICP system was not intended to praise individual potters, but was intended to protect an individual potter's craft. If so, then why do we hold a preconceived and flawed image of what a Living National Treasure is supposed to embody?

Both confusion and frustration abound within the LNT system. Prominent voices in the ceramic art world talk of reforming or abolishing the system altogether. Yet before descanting the relevancy of the law, we must first quell the misinformation surrounding the Living National Treasure system, not only for bettering one's understanding of the Japanese art world, but for the betterment of the Japanese art world itself.

Of Law and Politics
Perhaps it is essential to begin with the history behind the Cultural Property Preservation Act. It is, quite frankly, the beginning to all the problems behind the current Living National Treasure system.

The original act, enacted in 1950, was specifically intended to "preserve such important Japanese heritage that, without government protection, will decline and fall to ruin." The law's purpose, thus, was to preserve the traditions and traditional techniques of Japanese arts and craft. In no way was the law intended to be an award that confers a higher status to an artist for contributions to his art, nor did the law designate the artist himself as a treasure; rather, the treasure was the traditional techniques he possessed. The law was not to praise, but to protect.

The 1950 statute states that "intangible cultural property, such as theatre, music, crafts etc., which to our country is of high historical and/or artistic value," will be deemed "intangible cultural property" and will be "eligible for protection."

All intangible Japanese things possessing high historical and/or artistic value were considered intangible cultural properties. Of course, there are many things in Japan that have high historical and/or artistic value, and thus this definition was subject to criticisms of broadness and inability to discern what property is really of value, both historically and artistically.

1954 brought an amendment to the 1950 Cultural Property Preservation Act by adding the word "important" to "intangible cultural property." This was intended to weed out the "unimportant" aspects of a particular art. For example, Satsuma-yaki is an intangible cultural property, yet it is not designated for protection due to its smaller impact upon Japanese culture as a whole (yet aren't smaller kiln sites in greater need of protection from extinction?). On the other hand, Shino and Bizen are considered "important intangible cultural properties," and those individuals with masterful technique are designated as holders of "important intangible cultural properties."

How is an "important intangible cultural property" selected? The Cultural Property Preservation Act states that the Minister of Science and Education appoints LNTs. The Minister makes his decision based on the proposals of the Committee for Cultural Property Preservation, comprised of academics and members of the Agency of Cultural Affairs. It is this Committee which debates, discovers, and researches potential candidates for IICP status. They gather their information from small regional committees throughout Japan. In fact, these regional committees are similar to lobbyists that try to promote their respective prefectures by pushing a regional potter for LNT status. Receiving such a status will bring fame, prestige, and tourists to local kiln sites associated with the potter. Unfortunately, this process has become one reason for the politics and discontent behind LNTs.

This politicization is further seen in the long rivalry between two Japanese institutions: the Japanese Traditional Arts and Crafts Exhibition (Nihon Dento Kogeiten) on the one hand, the Japan Fine Arts Exhibition (Nitten) on the other. The former predominantly exhibits works associated with traditional kiln sites and craft art, while the latter features a more eclectic, modern selection of potters and pots. In fact, the "puppet-master" behind the LNT selection process is the Japanese Traditional Arts and Crafts Exhibition. The Exhibition and the Committee for Cultural Property Preservation are intertwined, and it is now a silent truth that only potters associated with the Japanese Traditional Arts and Crafts Exhibition will be designated LNT's. Nitten potters (and conceptual ceramic art, for example) are excluded altogether, and the highest award for a Nitten potter is being named a Fellow of the Japan Art Academy (Nihon Geijutsuin Kain), an institution with the "purpose of honoring artists for their contributions to art." Itaya Hazan, Kusube Yaichi, and Ohi Chozaemon are examples of Fellows. Undoubtedly, a "Fellowship" hardly receives the same fame and reputation as a "Living Treasure." This is unfortunate, as the "Fellowship" is a full-fledged award honoring potters for their artistic merit, not for the preservation of traditional techniques.

Of Purpose and Practice
Perhaps it is optimism that leads me to believe that Bizen will never die out. The Japanese government does not seem to share my opinion, as the Ministry of Education has designated four "Living National Treasures" from Bizen alone -- the most out of all Important Intangible Cultural Treasures. Surely, this should imply that Bizen is on the brink of extinction. Yet, I think it's more than obvious that this isn't the case. There are pottery centers that are in far more dire straights, but have yet to muster a LNT from its ranks. Echizen is a good example.

This becomes strong evidence for the fact that preservation is not the only premise for selection, and that the committee choosing LNTs are not merely looking for vanguards of tradition. Naming four Bizen LNTs gives way to their true intent. They are praising the artist and his art. Or are they just bringing home the notion that Bizen is four times as important as other kiln sites or traditional techniques? This notion is hard to swallow. If we go against the initial raison d'etre of the system and use it as a reward for contributions to art, past selections will make sense. But at the same time, acknowledging LNTs as a type of reward will be a refutation of its initial purpose of saving traditional art and techniques from "decline and ruin." Ultimately, smaller kiln sites will fade away like shadows on a cloudy day. (2008 update: now there is a 5th LNT for Bizen, with Isezaki Jun gaining recognition!)

But at the same time, the 2001 LNTs were, to put it crudely, straight from the kiln. Many a voice could be heard mumbling that the potters were actually big CEOs of "business-oriented" kiln sites, and were but victors of the politics behind the selection process.

If one carefully reads the statute, the selection process appears flawless and on the mark. If the intent of the law is to preserve and protect, the techniques and traditions of Arita and Kutani are well worth protecting. Even if the artists named are not often found on top of collectors' wish lists, their traditional techniques give them a quality worth recognizing. If the law's purpose is to preserve and protect technique, the discontent should be quieted.

It seems we have jumped back on the right path. Why, then, the frustrated voices pleading for something more?

That "something more" is symbolized by the early LNTs, like Kaneshige and Arakawa -- legendary potters with amazing technique and the utmost in artistic excellence. Living Treasure? You bet. We don't want to simply preserve technique. We long to praise worthy artists.

Thus, we sometimes find an odd conundrum at play. The more we strive to fulfill the law's original intent (protecting potters whose art may die out), the less we reward potters for artistic creativity. The less we heed the law's original intent (hence ignoring the preservation of traditional technique), the more we might reward potters we want to praise for artistic excellence. With the present law, it can be difficult to gratify its intentions and our inner wishes at the same time. Something has got to give.

Of course, the legal connotations are not always negative. Ito Sekisui, the latest addition to the LNT club, well illustrates the idea that the Cultural Property Preservation Act actually works. Ito Sekisui is undoubtedly a kiln-site CEO. But at the same time, his kiln site, located on tiny Sado Island, is not exactly a tourist destination, and its traditional technique of Mumyo-yaki (see photo at right) is truly endangered. Designating Ito as LNT brings tourists and publicity to a small locality, and at the same time, it preserves the tradition of an island's craft. On top of this, the government is recognizing the artistic contributions of Ito Sekisui. Praise and protection, therefore, do not automatically contradict, for conferring LNT status to a dilapidated kiln-site or to a near-dead traditional technique can also be recognizing its high artistic value.

Perhaps the ambiguity would have been cleared if not for the premature deaths of Yagi Kazuo and Kamoda Shoji. Not only did Yagi Kazuo possess great technique and skill with clay, he made challenging, avant-garde works that sent shock waves through the art world. He deserved every bit of respect for his work with Sodeisha, yet the nature of his work would commonly suggest awarding him a Fellowship of the Art Academy, not entitling him a LNT. If he was designated a LNT for "avant-garde" yakimono, it would be clear to all that the law has changed its course. Not merely the preservation of traditional technique, but the rewarding of artistic merit and new techniques -- is this not what a LNT system should strive for?

Likewise, Koie Ryoji received the most votes in the Toujiro magazine's "Critics Poll of Contemporary Ceramists" in 2002 -- which asked "who do we want as LNT" in 2002. As the conundrum maintains, if it is merely traditional techniques we seek to have protected, it is highly unlikely that Koie will ever be designated. Yet if the law were also to be an award recognizing artistic creativity, excellence, and contribution to the ceramic art world, Koie would undoubtedly be head of the nomination process.

Kawai Kanjiro and Rosanjin refused the LNT -- Kawai because he was too humble, Rosanjin because he did not want to belittle himself by tagging a label that associated himself to his "apprentice" Arakawa and his disgust for Hamada Shoji and the Mingei Movement. If these potters had accepted, one might make a stronger claim for the fact that the award is also based on merit and artistic excellence.

I find it only natural for fans of pottery to want "Living Treasures." We relish the mystique behind the idea. But if we are to continue the current system, we must stop the idolatry and exaggerated status of LNTs and follow the law -- to preserve and pass on, not to praise and honor. If we long for a reward system backed by the government that recognizes significant contributions to ceramic art, the Agency for Cultural Affairs should make an award that is independent from the protection of intangible cultural properties. Yet if we are to honor, why ask for government intervention in the first place? A non-government organization should suffice, although it is hard to ignore our love for "authenticity" and the "official-ness" behind a government stamp. In the meantime, there is no denying the transformation of the "Important Intangible Cultural Property" system into an art Hall of Fame. This does not necessitate despair. Let us simply hope for clarity and consistency, as well as a strict eye for quality, in regards to future LNT selections.

by Aoyama Wahei 青山和平 (2004/02/26)

posted by Toku Art Limited at 22:48| Comment(3) | Japanese Ceramics Now/E-Y Net Articles | このブログの読者になる | 更新情報をチェックする


What are Rankings For?

Japanese Ceramics Now
Commentary on Honoho Geijutsu
Cover Story and Ranking Survey

(Courtesy of e-y Net)

By Wahei Aoyama, February 2004
(with thanks to my dear friend and mentor Robert Yellin for its use)

(Link to original article and rankings)

With 20 years and 76 issues behind it, ceramic art and craftwork magazine Honoho Geijutsu (The Art of Fire) has persevered to educate, inform, and sharpen the public eye on the beauty of Japanese ceramics. Without question, the tremendous respect it receives from all people privy to pottery is well deserved. Now onto their 77th issue, the people behind Honoho have decided to pat themselves on the back with a retrospective of sorts. Not quite. What does preoccupy the intelligentsia over at Honoho is the current place (or pedestal) Japanese ceramics rests upon. Where have we been? Where are we now? And where are we going?

These intriguing questions ring throughout the stale air of a conference room wherein three commentators -- a museum chief curator (Todate Kazuko), a museum chief researcher (Karasawa Masahiro), and a prominent gallery owner (Kuroda Kusaomi) -- discuss the predicament of Japanese ceramics today with the chief editor of Honoho (Matsuyama Tatsuo). Such is the cover article: a sprawling, sometimes confusing four-player interview that sheds some, but not much, light upon the current state of Japanese ceramics. Please allow me to mention from the forefront that Mr. Kuroda, the gallery owner and art connoisseur, has my complete and humble respect for his candid insights during that interview.

Furthermore, Honoho asks 82 ceramic art critics, art scholars, journalists, gallery owners and collectors the rather broad question of voting for "twenty (living) ceramists you think represent Japanese ceramics today." Without an inkling of objective criteria for analysis or standardization, Honoho Geijutsu has allowed the critics free reign to determine the parameters of assessment and to evaluate, as they see fit, who represent "Japanese ceramics today." Such an affair can predictably fall ill to ambiguity or prejudice.

For example, one art journalist voted for artists only from the Kansai region. A museum chief voted for only conceptual ceramic art. Another journalist based his votes on technique: a collector, solely on functional wares. Living National Treasures are excluded from the voting, as they "represent what the Agency for Cultural Affairs has chosen."

Perhaps we are not to long for more exacting standards of assessing art and its artists. Similar to the criticisms posed at the infamous USA Today American College Rankings, rankings often exhibit more hype than credibility. Yet, we common folk love the glamour and mystique (and parsimony) behind a simple list of who's who, something that smack on tells us who's hot and who's not- and needless to say such lists sell like hotcakes.

Yet the point is this; if one is going to do a ranking at all, why not have it in a uniform format with intelligible standards for evaluation? Anything less leads not to a vivid depiction of the current state of Japanese pottery, but to a muddied quagmire of thoughts, pots, and potters. This plea in no way necessitates numerical evaluation. Quantification can oft be an empty intellectual affair, whereas empathy and sincere opinion oft tells tales from the heart. Yet something a bit more is wanting, lest we sacrifice integrity for mere popularity, trend setting, or academic name-dropping without valid justifications.

That said, there is much to commend about the rankings, with only a few questionable positions or votes. The list lacks shock value, and many a name can be seen in which heads will nod in agreement. This is a good thing.

However, striking is the fact that Honoho Geijutsu's "list of 109 artists representative of Japanese ceramics today" appears to favor potters of modern sculptural/conceptual ceramics over functional, 'traditional' ceramists. This emphasis on the current vogue towards an "international" style of pottery seems to trump or usurp the position and importance of some potters who make pots in a "traditional heritage" style unique to Japan. Upon first glance, the list seems to suggest "conceptual/sculptural" is analogous to "contemporary".

I have no qualms with loosening the odd and suffocating form of "nationalism" that some attach to traditional styles of Japanese ceramics. With the progression of the modern day and age, it is only inevitable that Japanese ceramics and their ceramists must move along with it, lest we risk degradation over evolution. Potters can try to revive Momoyama Bizen, but what makes such revivals valuable in the eyes of the contemporary ceramic art scene is the fact that their products are not simply carbon copies of ancient styles, yet are exciting, innovative, and from the heart.

There is no doubting the fact, however, that there is a strange convolution of the two aesthetic concepts of 'the traditional' and 'the contemporary.' Perhaps the confusion between such superficially antagonistic ideas, especially within Honoho, best illustrates the fact that we Japanese might not be quite certain as to what it means to be "Japanese" - and furthermore, what is actually embodied by the phrase "contemporary Japanese pottery". Perhaps it can be said that Honoho's article does not elucidate 'Japanese ceramics today,' but rather elucidates a more philosophical question of identity. Or is the phrase simply a matter of semantics?

Porcelain sculptor Fukami Sueharu tops the list with 46 votes, with an amazing 24 votes from art critics, academia, and journalists (numero uno in this category), while gaining 22 votes and third place from gallery owners and collectors. This comes as no surprise, as Fukami's talent is not only internationally recognized, his edgy 'ceramic sculptures' are the pinnacles of both originality and technique. Next on the list is Koie Ryoji, the tremendously popular 'noble savage' who never fails to surprise the art world with fresh forms and techniques that not only shock but also impress upon the heart. Third is the 15th generation Raku Kichizaemon, a spirited potter who fires the convention-restricted Raku style teabowl with flair, experimentalism, and a contemporary feel- quite simply, chawan for the modern age. Fourth is ever-popular Bizen potter Kakurezaki Ryuichi, whose fresh forms burst onto the Bizen stage with a fashionableness that enraptures all who lay eyes upon his art. Tied for fifth are Mori Togaku and Takiguchi Kazuo. The former is the Bizen master who has invested his life towards not simply recreating the grandeur of old Momoyama Bizen, but making Bizen with traits that only Togaku can achieve; the latter, a sharp, Kyoto potter who is captivating audiences with his sleek, organic, even intellectual wares.

Without question, the top positions are a lucid representation of the past, present, and future of Japanese pottery. These potters' contributions to the contemporary ceramic arts world are profound, not only for making keen ceramics, but for being innovative, imaginative and actively pursuing a higher level of ceramic art. They are recognized today, and will be remembered tomorrow.

Yet if one looks closely at the two separate categories (if simply split between critics and fans), one may notice that something is slightly amiss. The opinions of the critics and fans, regarding some ceramists, largely diverge at times. One example is Suzuki Goro. He does not appear amongst the top thirty artists recognized by art critics, academics, and journalists. Odd, I thought. But when looking through the votes from gallery owners and collectors, Suzuki Goro receives as many votes as Kakurezaki, and rightly so. His contributions to Seto wares, be it Ki-Seto, Oribe, or Shino, are astonishing; on top of that, his 'Los Angeles Oribe' and large stacked boxes, as well as wobbly chairs, are not only original and new, they embody a "modernism" that is on par with Kakurezaki, Koie, and Raku. Yet if so, what explains this wide rift in the recognition of Suzuki amongst "critics" on the one hand and "fans" on the other?

Various reasons can be entertained. Suzuki can be aloof to events where the art mafia kick out their cocktail suits. Another is that Suzuki always leaves an element of functionality to his works, while Koie's works can be conceptual installations or sculpture: the critics give more points to conceptual ceramic sculpture as opposed to functional ceramics. Another is that the above reasons should not really matter at all. They do not focus on the actual art, yet on exposure or "trendy-ness." In other words, potters who: 1. Do not do something totally conceptual or abstract, 2. Do not pucker up to the pundits, and 3. Who just churn out good pots that are recognized by lovers of pottery, can't seem to garner enough respect from the art mafia, who hunger for fads stripped of tradition. They want shock value. But what is shocking is the fact that the pundits do not understand that such conceptual art is not superior or inferior to traditional/functional art, but are equally representative of the current ceramic art scene in Japan. Other notable omissions from the critic's list are porcelain potter Kawase Shinobu and Shino expert Yamada Kazu, while Shigaraki master Tsuji Seimei and chawan champion Tsujimura Shiro are in a surprisingly low position. Ranked higher than expected were the likes of Nakamura Kinpei, Miwa Kyusetsu XII, and Kiyomizu Rokubei VIII (also spelled Rokubee).

Another major reason is the influence of Kaneko Kenji, Chief Curator at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. Ten years ago in the cover article of Honoho Magazine issue 40, Kaneko produced an "encyclopedia of contemporary ceramics", which was, at the time, revolutionary in its aggressive advocacy of conceptual ceramics. In that 1994 issue, Koie, Fukami, and several other potters still influential today were mentioned. Yet at the same time, many of the potters he handpicked do not show up in the 2004 Ranking. As such a state of affairs illustrates, what is important is picking artists that will be truly relevant 10 years from now, rather than jumping on the precarious bandwagon of trends and fads.

I believe the art mafia may be confused as to what "contemporary" means. Contemporary means "the present day, the current, the modern". The word does not contain the evaluative labels of "avant-garde, sculptural, conceptual or non-functional". If given the former definition, it becomes evident that the critics do not see what is happening in the art world today. Rather, through myopic vision, they only see what is happening in museum galleries, books, and in theory. In the interview, numerous times can the art mafia be heard explaining their focus on pieces that "look good in museums"- something meaning large, cerebral, conceptual pieces similar to sculpture. Unfortunately, their eyes do not reach what the masses are actually touching and seeing, or what the many ceramic artists of Japan are actually doing. One pundit states that "contemporary artists must control the clay into the forms they envision", although Tamba potter Ichino Masahiko, a talented potter ranked in the top 30, has personally said that, "ceramists must communicate with the clay, not try to force or manipulate it." The schism, then, occurs because the critics not only cannot grasp the hearts of the potters themselves, they also subtract the traditional from the contemporary.

Such boundaries should NOT be built. Liberal-minded pundits pay lip service to the fact- that both contemporary sculpture and traditional are on an equal and level playing field. Yet such pundits featured in the interview, as well as in interviews and articles from similar magazine rankings, claim revivals in traditional pottery are copies: that such pots and potters lack an air of originality or link with the modern age. This is a bit worrying. They further suggest guardians of the traditional hold a superiority complex against the contemporary: one criticism being that contemporary potters are lacking of technique. Of course, potters of Bizen and Shino revivals, such as the late Kaneshige Toyo and Kato Tokuro, are far from mere copycats; at the same time, it is obvious that modern potters are not lacking of skill at all- the 12th generation Miwa Kyusetsu fully illustrates this. Pigeonholing or simple generalizations fail to grasp the realities of the current ceramics art scene in Japan.

But why must they clash? Why cannot Mori Togaku's Bizen revivals, along with Suzuki Goro's Seto and Mino wares, play on the same field as any avant-garde potter? Why must we punish or knock down the old for the new, or the new for the old? I am not certain if the pundits intentionally divide the contemporary from the traditional, as they do often allude to the importance of traditional potters. Visa versa, I am not certain if the collectors and gallery owners intentionally put down conceptual works. The ideas do not only conceptually co-exist: they actually do co-exist. Both critics and collectors who sincerely love pottery should see the parity. There is equal artistic value to Tsujimura Shiro's Ido-chawan as much as there is artistic value to the modern works of Akiyama Yo. One cannot say one is superior or less representative of the present age. Rather, they equally represent Japanese Ceramics Now.

Perhaps this schism is created unconsciously, as their tastes might taint their objectivity. I will like to give the academic intelligentsia the benefit of the doubt, as this poll is not an indication of anything more than that: tastes. Yet one curator mentions that when arranging an exhibition, she first contemplates if the artist's art will "look good" in a museum of ceramic art. Is she suggesting large installation pieces, or ceramic sculptures meant to be gazed upon and not touched? Another curator says when he thinks of tradition, he thinks of revolutionary. Revolutions often suggest something new whilst discarding what came before it. Further, the exclusion of Living National Treasures is also evidence of a conscious decision to eschew tradition and traditional masters. Of course, the Living National Treasure system is often times questionable in regards selection process and what it stands for, yet this should not be a reason for excluding them from the ranking. Again, a separation between the traditional and the contemporary takes place.

In many ways, I am left with the impression that the critics see pottery as a means to an end, rather than being the end itself. It is almost as if they are actively pursuing the elevation of pottery to a higher art form- something akin to paintings, installation art, and sculptural art. They are ambitiously seeking to further the respect and self-esteem of ceramic art in the art world, yet they seem to ignore the fact that most potters and pottery fans don't care about the categorization of their pottery- as long as they make quality pots, labels don't matter.

What is important to remember is that every single potter ranked fire clay to form a particular art- the art being yakimono. And in yakimono, both the contemporary and the traditional are the same entity. There is unity. There is virtue in both. Separating functional from non-functional is only confusing the essence of what ceramic art is all about. And likewise, we should not be blinded by the cosmopolitan sentiments of advocating an "international" style of yakimono without keeping in mind what it means to be a Japanese potter with Japanese sensibilities. An artist who forgets where he comes from is lost. And at the same time, one cannot appreciate the new without understanding the past. By accepting the past, one can take the step forward.

My ultimate conclusion is this. Honoho's article, rather than exhibiting "Japanese Ceramics Now," actually does well in exhibiting "the politics and preferences of art critics of the modern age." Of course, the viewing and interpretation of yakimono is far from sacrosanct. All can inject differing opinions and emotions into a pot. I only hope this divide will not tear us apart.

Aoyama Wahei 青山和平
February 10th, 2004

Toku Art Limited

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