|Sunday, April 25, 2004|
"I am not a genius; ... just a remnant!"
— Shiko Munakata, wood-block maker
WITH the simple word ‘folk’ having come to carry so much cultural, and political, baggage on its back, especially in the context of the visual arts, the Japanese term mingei seems to offer an interesting alternative. In itself the term is not very old, being a coinage only of the last century by the distinguished Japanese scholar, Soetsu Yanagi, but it says it all: for min, in Japanese, is the word for people, and gei for art. Our own lok kala comes quite close to it, but sounds a bit contrived: mingei rolls off the tongue far more smoothly, on the other hand, and even has a precious ring to it. This last is exactly as it should be.
One has only to visit another of those fine San Diego museums – the Mingei International, located in the Balboa Park – to understand the ways in which the intrinsic preciousness of the arts of the people can be projected, and put across. For, there is passion, and flair, in the presentation. In exhibition after exhibition – for close to 25 years now – the Museum has succeeded in drawing even the most casual visitor’s attention to the noble virtues of simplicity and directness that reside naturally in the arts of the people. To come close to the objects on view is to partake of the joy that was there in the making of them, to sense that what is useful can also be satisfying to the human spirit. And this, as the philosophy of the place states, without taking any cognizance of ‘the barriers of time, space, or race’.
Beyond space & race
The sheer range of the objects in the permanent collection of the Museum, or presented in the exhibitions and reflected in their titles, brings this fact forcefully home: Lacquer work and ceramics from Japan, marine animal forms in pre-Columbian art, textiles from the Indonesian archipelago, early quilts and weather vanes from America, painted furniture that figures in dowries from eastern Europe, rugs from Ethiopia, beaded objects from all over the world. The list is long, and the titles seductive: "Kindred Spirits: The Eloquence of Function in American Shaker Arts of Daily Life"; "88 Turnings"; "Art that Soars" and so on. And there is warmth, expressiveness and integrity in the objects: that little flare in the nostrils of a carousel horse, the near weightlessness of a ceramic bowl, the startled look in the eye of a woven tiger, etc.
The Mingei International bears upon itself the clear imprint of two people: Soetsu Yanagi, the Japanese scholar mentioned before, and its founder-director, Martha Longenecker. Yanagi had a clear sense of mission. Early on, in the last century, seeing culture reel under the onslaught of industrialism, he asserted that articles made by unknown craftsmen of pre-industrialised times were of a beauty seldom equalled by artists in modern societies, and this because traditional, self-effacing craftsmen, engaged in making things that were integrally related to life, had minds that were not attached to a conscious idea of beauty or ugliness. A ‘unified expression’ was theirs, in which there was ‘no division of head, heart, and hands’. Yanagi’s influence was profound in Japan, and the group of craftsmen he worked with and inspired, the societies and museums he founded, the seminars he gave, are still remembered with respect and affection. It was his vision, and his ‘liberating teachings’, that led Martha Longenecker, Professor of Art, who taught ceramics, to leave everything else some 40 years back, and dedicate her life to becoming one with the spirit of mingei. According to many that know her, the flame still burns bright. The Mingei International Museum is where it can be seen.
Many names come to mind when one thinks of the revival of, and respect for, the crafts of the past: among them, most naturally, William Morris; Ananda Coomaraswamy whose Medieval Sinhalese Art remains a classic to this day; and, much later, Pupul Jayakar. Here, however, I am tempted to cite a passage or two, not on authorship, or on the distinction between art and craft, but only on ‘seeing’, and only from Soetsu Yanagi.
They say: before all else, they saw. They were able to see. Ancient mysteries flow out of this spring of seeing. Everyone sees things. But all people do not see them in the same manner; therefore, they do not perceive the same thing.
And again: Those who employ their intellect before they see are denied a real comprehension of beauty.
Moving words these, and profound in their own manner.
The Indian connection
With the tradition of Indian crafts – shilpa should be the word used – being as robust as it is, has there been an Indian presence at the Mingei, one would naturally ask? It has: fine exhibitions like "Village India: Art of Compassion and Devotion", have been held; I saw a wonderful group of pichhwais from Nathdwara shown there some time back; and potters from India have been asked to hold workshops at the Museum. Even now, a nine-foot-high terracotta horse, made on the spot by craftsmen from Tamil Nadu, stands there in all its majesty: a reminder, and an assertion. True to the thought that there are no barriers of time, space and race when it comes to the arts of the people.
This feature was published on April 18, 2004