Monday, August 18, 2008

Great art is that before which we long to die.

"The inros, the netsukes, the sword-guards, and the delightful lacquer-work articles of the period, were playthings, and as such no embodiment of national fervour, in which all true art exists. Great art is that before which we long to die. But the art of the late Tokugawa period only allowed a man to dwell in the delights of fancy."

Kakuzo Okakura, The Ideals of the East (1904), Stone Bridge Press, p. 121.

Toss in, with the lacquer boxes and inros, the woodblock prints of Hiroshige, Hokusai, and others. I left out that part of the quotaton - it was a bit too wordy.

Okakura is presenting us with a Buddhist version of the sublime, art as annihilation, art as something bigger than we are, something that could crush us. That line about "national fervour" has an unpleasant odor, but it's a logical extension of the idea: Real art, great art, is important. Important!

I should try to reword Okakura's passage into its exact opposite, then adopt it as my motto. Great art is that before which we long to live. Inros and lacquer boxes, Hokusai and Hiroshige, are playthings, and embodiments of individual creativity, in which all true art exists.

The delights of fancy are exactly what I want from art. Surely there is room for more, though. This week I will try, probably indirectly, and time permitting, to challenge myself a little. Perhaps I'm too suspicious of the sublime, too sceptical of ideas. Let's think about it.

Inros, if you don't know, are Japanese lacquer medicine cases, hung at the waist by a sort of button, the netsuke. I know them from the collection on the second floor of the Chicago Field Museum, which contains nothing but wonder and delight. Cats and frogs, children and fat little monks, the rabbit in the moon - lovely things. My favorite objects in that museum, way better than Sue the T. Rex.

Okakura was the crucial link, for decades, between Japanese and American artists and intellectuals. He crossed paths with everyone. His story, very much worth knowing, is told in Christopher Benfey's The Great Wave, where Okakura appears in many chapters.

The Ideals of the East, written in English, was an influential account of Asian and Japanese art history and aesthetics, mostly traced through the international flow of ideas about Buddhism. It is probably only worth reading for people with a particular interest in Japanese aesthetics, or in the history of the exchange of ideas between the East and West.


  1. Oh, I don't know. It's interesting enough. It's worth a read if you are interested in Heidegger or Gadamer or aesthetic theory "a la Adorno." It reminds me a lot of J.J. Bachofen, actually -- not a bad read, useful in the context of understanding later authors (in Bachofen's case, like Walter Benjamin). "The Book of Tea" is better, I think, though not for what you're talking about's just a better read for a winter's Sunday afternoon, curled in an armchair, stuck inside on a sleety day.

  2. I'm not sure how many potential Okakura readers you have created here. But if I get a Google hit on "Gadamer Japanese aesthetics", I'll have you to thank.

    I was considering "The Book of Tea" - you just cast the decisive vote in its favor. The department store over the train station has a copy.

  3. Have not had the chance to read this but am adding it to the list along with the Book of Tea. Both sound right up my alley.

    And Stone Bridge Press is a great publisher, just thought I'd add two cents on that one!

  4. Can you believe it, someone beat me to the copy of "The Book of Tea" that was in the department store bookstore.

    It was another Stone Bridge Press edition - I've bought several here.