1) Utz (Part2)
OK, I confess: I just cannot get Utz (see Utz Part 1) out of my mind. Utz, of course, was the unforgettable porcelain-crazed "hero" in Bruce Chatwin's best-selling novel about the highly enigmatic collector of Meissen porcelain; who, living in Cold War Czechoslovakia, again and again contemplates defecting to the West. Each time he leaves Prague, however, he always returns, preferring in the end to remain a prisoner of his precious collection.
The novel is often brought up when people talk about the psychology of art collecting. Any such discussion inevitably leads to the question of what exactly is an art collector?
Of course, the simple answer is that an art collector is a person who collects art, right?
Well, Kant-- in all his glory-- added some important provisos to this definition (all of which Utz magnificently embodies), and these provisos would prove to have a profound impact on Western art history. Indeed, they have functioned as a vicious stumbling block in any cross-cultural appreciation of art when one is moving from West to East.
What exactly did Kant have to say about art, then? Tackling the way in which Kant's Critique of Judgment has effected our modern Western way of thinking about art, Stanley O'Connor (of Cornell University fame) writes that our modern way of talking about art is strongly based on
"the assumption that collectors, critiques, and the generality of the interested, urban, literate, art public subscribe implicitly, at least to some of the following: Art is a realm of its own differentiated from other activities of life; artworks are autonomous and self-sufficient; their purpose is simply to be rather than to instruct, to edify, or be of use; the artist creates out of some kind of inspired freedom and in this way the art work differs from that made by the craftsperson, who is subsumed by purpose and constrained by craft subscription; and, finally, the proper response of the viewer is disinterested contemplation of the object of art for its own sake rather than as an instrument of the viewer's purpose or desire."
Not only is the above summarization of Kant's ideas essential for truly understanding the concepts that inform our own modern response to art, but it is also helpful to keep in mind that these ideas originating in Kant's writing are not universal; as, in fact, most of the rest of the world does not view art-- nor do they practice art collecting-- in the same manner.
Based on Kant-- enslaved by Kant, in fact-- Joseph Alsop, in his book the Rare Art Traditions, defines the art collector's project in the following manner: The art collector 1) Collects art for no other reason than for art's sake; that is, the works of art are sought as (in Kantian terms) "an end in itself;" 2) An art collector has a defined category; and 3) with this category, the whole then becomes greater than any of the parts.
The above definition is interesting for several reasons. First, the idea of category explains why authenticity becomes so important; and this-- therefore-- is the reason that should a national gallery discover that one of its masterpieces is not authentic (that is, a fraud), the work of art is immediately pulled out of the collection (and then put in storage). Nothing outwardly has changed about the painting or sculpture-- which people had otherwise been appreciating for decades perhaps-- but its authenticity has been undermined, and therefore the work loses its value (sometimes as much as 95% of its value).
More interesting perhaps is the idea that should a person collect works of art for any specific "purpose"-- they have placed themselves outside the category of an art collector. Napoleon's many, many "souvenirs," as well as Catherine the Great's buying art as a way of joining the European Club are the obvious examples. This is because the trophies that Napoleon dragged home from Egypt and elsewhere where not brought home as "art for art's sake" but rather dragged home as war booty.
Treasure gatherers (whose prizes are valued for the material worth of the object) are also-- for obvious reasons-- discounted.
And, finally, Alsop's last category of the bogus art-collector: the aesthete. Alsop actually does a great job of hinting at what is perhaps a real (or not) distinction between the art collector and the aesthete; the aesthete being that person who, rather than searching for objects to fit a certain category, instead purchases for what Alsop describes as "use plus beauty;" that is, the aesthete's project is to simply surround herself with beauty and beautiful objects. Alsop would argue, this is not the project of the true art collector as a true art collector never buys objects of art for purpose or usefulness. Like most Western discussion about fine art, Alsop is much indebted to Kant for his ideas.
2) A Western-style Japanese collector: Hideo Kurita
This brings me to my next man: a certain Hideo Kurita. Two weeks ago, we took the train over to Ashikaga to spend the afternoon at the Kurita Musuem. The museum is the collection of one man and is composed solely of his great collection of Arita (Imari)and Nabeshima porcelains (An overview history of these famous Japanese porcelains can be found here).
Japanese porcelains are not my cup of tea. In general, I find the color of the clay to be sickly and even the overglaze painting is almost always under-whelming to me. However, the museum is quiet and there is a great restaurant and teahouse (along with many beautiful buildings on the grounds, including a traditional climbing kiln/noborigama). And, most important Hideo Kurita's great love of these porcelains is apparent no matter where you look. His passion is well, not quite infectious, but at the very least it is *humbling*
The museum stands as the culmination of Kurita's passion, and his loving attention to each and every detail is what really intrigues. Walking in the main gallery, I immediately thought of Utz, for in the most prominent place in the entrance was a tiny arita-yaki blue and white vase. Like Utz's harlequin, this vase was the start of it all. Kurita was still a university student, but he knew he had to have it. To think that that one very small and sweet vase would be the spark of what would be an explosion of collecting activities costing a fortune and spanning his entire life is hard to believe, really.
So, eros appears in the form of this tiny blue and white vase. Kurita falls in love and thereafter is obsessed, and his obsession-- like Utz's-- has two aspects: the desire to possess and the desire to know. This can be said of all love affairs, and it could only be hoped that a love affair between two people could last as long as this one did for Kurita . This desire to know, in fact, is what separates the true art collector from the aesthete and is again connected to Alsop's ideas of categories; that is a true art collector is the person who sets out to build a collection of a certain category and in the process becomes something of an expert in this category.
3) Matsuda Takashi & the Collectors of the East
What is interesting about Hideo Kurita, in fact, is that, while his project is familiar enough to us, in fact, he was quite unusual for his time. And, indeed, his collection was the first ever in Japan to be dedicated to one type of ceramic art (Imari, etc.) Kurita has less in common with traditional Japanese concepts of art and art collecting, instead being more along the lines of the European-style private collecting practices we see in men such as Percival David, JP Getty, or the other great Western-style Japanese collector, Magosaburo Ohara.
I am in the middle of re-reading Christine Guth's book: Art, Tea and Industry: Matsuda Takashi and The Mitsui Circle. It is without a doubt the best book about Japanese art collecting I have ever read (unfortunately it is now out-of-print). The book, for me, more than anything pushes Kant's theories on art to their limits, for if we were to hold with Kant's theories on true art collecting, well, then there wouldn't have been any true art collectors in Japan till men like Kurita and Ohara came around in very recent times. I personally became really interested in this topic both through my own practice of tea ceremony (which opened my eyes to this different concept of connoisseurship and art collecting) but also through the translation I do for the Hiroshima University professor, whose work is in aesthetics (see my post here).
The professor takes this concept to a political level claiming that this overwhelming and unquestioned acceptance of the Western concept of fine art is a form of "cultural colonialism." He and I argued over his insistence on calling it a form of "violent" imperialism. I, as always, lost the argument, but..... well, if we put aside the question of overt power, at least we can all agree that within aesthetics this Kantian conception of art and the upholding of the fine arts reigns supreme down today. Indeed, the professor says that even in Japan scholars who want to work outside the Western concept of fine art, have a very hard time getting funding and publishing. In his own work, he straddles the line between aesthetics, education and sports (sports because he is trying to grasp at a wider definition of art where "practice" is central-- which is another crucial point-- see below).
There are, of course, other traditions, and going back to my truest desire of owning a "Martaban" heirloom jar, I recall that these jars, of course, were never meant to be looked at objectively behind glass. Along with all heirloom (pusaka) objects of SouthEast Asia (including Kris daggers, spears and musical instruments) the great jars of Borneo had an ontological reality that was woven into the context of daily life; as I wrote in the UTZ (part 1), it was an existence that stood on the boundary of the human. the medicinal and the spiritual (or religious). That is to say, these objects, rather than being something that existed "as objects in themselves" for objective contemplation, rather exerted what O'Connor calls a "controlling pressure on imagination"-- which really only points to the power that works of art have to affect our hearts and minds.
Here is the full quote by O'Connor who is discussing the fantastical stories and myths that surround such heirloom objects; including their ability to fortell the future, go on walkabouts and even bear offspring:
"What we do see here, I think, is an account of pots as they would to someone grounded in a tissue of memory and expectation, inhibiting a familiar landscape amid tutelary spirits and ancestral guardians. We are directed in these stories to look at pots not as self-sufficient entities but at the traces of their activity, at how they bring together and make possible the practices and expression of a way of life. It is the power of these heirlooms to *seize and exert a controlling power on the imagination, to enforce their vital presence in a field of experience, that is the most striking characteristic of the myths. The aura around these wares, the radiance that shines through them, is the quality of a thing as filled with presence."
We actually see something similar at work in Japanese aesthetics as well; in particular with the heirloom or named objects (o-meibutsu) found in Tea Ceremony. The famous heirloom objects venerated in Japanese art history, are given names and take on a life of their own in ways similar, in fact, to the jars. For example, there have been teabowls believed to have been cursed and tea caddies (cha-ire), in particular, were thought to contain the life force of their present and past owners. Guth writes:
"The mystique associated with these and other imported tea caddies cannot be attributed solely to their intrinsic aesthetic properties, however. More than any other utensil, a tiny tea caddy was equated with the living essence of its owner. It was small enough to be carried on a person or in one's baggage, and it could, in fact insure its owner's protection: the owner who presented his tea caddy to an adversary was often trading for his life. Because of this, tea caddies often served as tokens of fealty or succession. Nobunaga, who confiscated Hatsuhana from its owner in 1569, eventually presented it to his son and heir."
My tea teacher as well went to great length to make sure that I understood while most of the attention is paid to teabowls during any tea gathering, in fact, practitioners all value their tea caddies above all. My teacher said the largest amount of money she ever paid for anything was for her favorite tea caddy. I cannot even recall what it looked like-- all I remember is she said it cost more than her car.
Takashi Matsuda, one of the great collectors of the very early 20th century, owned a tea caddy called White Dew. The tea caddy received its name from a poem about green willows and white dew from the Kokinshu, and was kept lovingly in several layers of nested paulawnia wood boxes. Of course, the tea caddy had its 3 changes of clothing: casual, semi formal and formal (you can see these shifuku in the picture below). While the casual shifuku was often made of 16th-18th century Indian sari, which arrived in Japan by way of Canton (which is why they are known as "Canton kireji"), the formal shifuku were created out of antique pieces of brocade (often from the great Continent).
Each of the nested boxes had the previous owners name written in calligraphy (often by the Grand Tea Master of the Time) and the tea caddy itself was always placed inside a wooden hikiya canister (to further protect the precious jar). The "poem about green willows" which gave the jar its name was painted delicately in golden lacquer on the dark wood of the hikiya.
We can already see how this collecting practice, involving poetry, brocades and practical use, ownership and preservation practices differs greatly with Western-style collecting as represented by Kurita or Utz, for example.
There are many accounts of Westerners being absolutely astounded to watch the powerful men of 16th or 17th century Japan-- wishing to show their honored guest their greatest treasure, taking off the protective layers that surrounded these jars: Three wooden outer boxes containing cloth that contained a wooden canister which finally contained the treasure. And imagine their surprise when a tiny, almost black earthenware jar was lovingly passed to them for perusal. (The jar's shifuku were, of course, kept in their own set of boxes).
"In the process of returning White Dew to its storage bag, hikiya and boxes, reconstructing the bundle and tying it up in the sky blue furoshiki, one is struck by how many people's labor has contributed to the bundle: the potter, of course; several owners and chanoyu school masters; all the craftspeople whose work went into the sewn cloth and bags, the joined boxes and turned hikiya; the lacquers; the man who turned the ivory lid; the cord makers. Further removed yet not less important are the dyers and weavers in China who produced the fabrics used to make the shifuku. One might even include the Kokinshu poet who composed the poem bout the green willows. In the creation of a chaire like White Dew, *out of an anonymous little jar selected from among hundreds of similar jars*, there was a conscious effort to integrate it on many dimensions into the flow of Japanese cultural traditions. It was ultimately a communal effort of imagination, spurred by a shared reverence for self effacing craftsmanship. Without this, White Dew is just another jar; all cha-ire, indeed, are just another jar."
"Just another jar"-- yes, poor Kant has been turned on his head. For the work of art being celebrated was not made but *discovered* and does not in any way exist objectively outside of time, place or context. And, its appreciation cannot be separated from its purpose either.
Museums, of course, are another "by-product" of Western aesthetics. In Japan, traditionally, art works were not objectively viewed out of context, but rather were stored very carefully in pauwlania wood boxes and wrapped in layers of protective cloth and only brought out for appreciation during certain events. For example, when they were to be used in some way (for example, used during a tea gathering, or displayed in honor of a special occasion). This was the traditional Japanese manner of art appreciation and connoisseurship."
Another very interesting point to bring up as well is that while knowledge and objective appreciation were the hallmarks of the Western tradition in Japan, the notion of practice or practitioner was as central to art collecting as it was to the practice of art. A better way of saying this is that there was not this sharp differentiation between artist and art collector as we see, for example, in the case of Hideo Kurita or JP Getty.
In the East, of course, there is this long history of the traditional artist-scholar gentleman, which sees as ideal the "cultured gentleman" who is adept in one or more of the traditional arts, is well read and well-traveled. Even the infamous Li Qingzhao, who is often cited as an art collector gone awry, was perhaps even more well-known as a poet then as an art collector. No matter how hard you look, all the famous art collectors of the East (who collecting under traditional means) were themselves adept at some art: often calligraphy and sometimes music, painting or chanoyu. And, most importantly for our debate, the art collected was above all: "beauty plus use."
O'Connor, in his discussion of the jars of Borneo, states that
"Modern art theory deprives art of its context and in this way beauty has been banished to museums as something apart from daily life."
I am not the first person to make this point, but I think it bears repeating, that when we banish beauty to museum glass cases, we are in an effect banishing beauty itself from our daily lives. So, that in this way, our lives become enslaved to a kind of Heideggerian efficiency whereby only the rich can have "use plus beauty" and the rest of us must be content to go and see beauty at the public museums on our days off (this was the basic concept behind the founding of the Met, you will recall).
To be continued...
**Christine Guth's Art, Tea and Industry: Masuda Takashi and the Mitsui Circle
**Asian Art (Arthur Sackler Gallery): Art Collecting (Fall 1991). This is a great publication, which includes the article by Stanley O'Connor.
**Louise Allison Cort's Looking at White Dew (in Chanoyu Quarterly No43). This article is about Matsuda's prize tea caddy White Dew, but rather than discussing its history, she focuses exclusively on the object within the context of traditional Japanese art appreciation practices. Here is the Kokinshu Poem:
Tender green threads
And slipping off
Beads of white dew--
The willow in spring
** American art collectors Peggy and Richard Danziger are unusual in two regards. First was their choice in art. They fell in love with Japanese tea utensils, and their collection exists as the finest outside Japan (I think White Dew, in fact, is part of their collection). Also unusual is that they were committed to understanding their collection from a Japanese traditional aesthetic viewpoint. And, so they too became practitioners. I am not certain how much they practiced tea, but I do know they remained very adept at the essential Japanese practice of toriawase, which is the creative display of objects in the tokonoma. (On aspects of practice in Tea, see here) For, as was mentioned, in Japan, people do not traditionally display their objects as part of the decor, but rather bring them out on special occasions where they are arranged in unique and always different ways. The choice of objects and display manner must reflect the season and the event. Usually, it hints or affects at some shared cultural context (perhaps a poem or a past tea gathering) in which all the participants share, but also can feel stimulated by the hosts fresh and creative take on the context.
On the Danziger collection and toriawase:
**Also for more on practice in tea ceremony, see this excellent online article:
**Collecting Chinese Art: Interpretation and Display (Colloquies on Art and Archeology in Asia No. 20, Percival David Foundation) Tim Foster analyzes prices of Chinese art at auction to discover what forces determine monetary value (and the results would show Kant to be alive and well at Southey's) and Hiroko Nishida discusses tea ceremony's early days, before the influence of Zen, when the practice existed for the sole purpose of appreciating priceless Chinese art (karamono). From the very start the focus of tea ceremony was the creative presentation and *subjective and shared* appreciation of art objects (at the very start those art objects were composed solely of Sung and Yuan dynasty imported works of art that had been at one time part of the great collections of Shoguns or emperors).
**Finally, one of my all-time favorite books by my hero, French Scholar Michel Beurdeley, The Chinese Collector through the Centuries ... There is so much to say about this book, but. for now, I will just copy a poem written by the tragic lady art collector par excellence, Li Qingzhao. Lady Li and her scholar-official husband had built up one of the finest collection of ancient bronzes-- not to mention books (unbelievable volumes of books) in Chinese history. She and her husband were known during Song times for their schoalrship and passionate love poems (many to each other). They were like movie stars. That is until the Jurchens stormed the walls of Kaifeng and everyone had to run for their lives. Leave behind the collection? She screamed, Never! And so it went. Here is her last poem
"The wind dies down, the scent of flowers fills the dusty air
The flowers are fading.
When evening comes I am too tired to dress
But I still have my pieces. My beloved is gone, all is finished.
I cannot speak wthout weeping."
For more of shifuku:
From an old email to a friend about imari porcelain:
In tea ceremony, fabrics from the Silk Route are
actually, they probably really only to continue to exist in Japan. The world owes a debt to Japan and their imperial family at least for this. Any scholar wanting to study silk road textiles, culture, dead central asian languages or musical instruments usually finds their way to Japan-- for some of the best surviving samples are stored safely in shosoin.
Tea ceremony kireji are mostly based on the old textiles preserved in Shosoin-- either Indian (and Persian) textiles, or the ones from the Continent: Sung, Yuan Ming or Qing textiles:
(My own formal kobukusa is a reproduction of a Yuan textile preserved in the shosoin. It is the oddest shade of blue that the more you look at it the more you think its really green. The pattern is made up largely of a jade color background upon which there are red lacquer color phoenixes. the brocade thread is stunning against the simplicity of a black raku bowl-- so says my sensei)
These kireji are not stored away behind glass, but rather are cut up and used to make tea ceremony fukusa-basami (the wallet used for holding your kanshi, etc.) and the kobukusa (tiny textile cloth used to set the teabowl on ), etc.