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The Unknown Craftsman

I recently finished a book that might be of interest in this forum: The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty by Soetsu Yanagi.  I first learned about this book through mention in a Brian Eno biography, but it is highly relevant for anyone invested in making, repairing, or appreciating handcrafted objects.

Yanagi was a maker and connoisseur of pottery in early 20th century Japan.  His appreciation of handcraft is rooted in Eastern traditions and Buddhist thought, and as such it provides ample exercise for a Western mind.  In Yanagi’s world, the objects we use enrich our human experience, and the best objects are made by anonymous craftsmen whose honest, imperfect work embodies genuine beauty. 

Yanagi particularly admires Korean pottery, especially from the 16th – 18th centuries, and he examines it in great detail.  Its beauty comes from craftsmen with a simpler mindset than he observes in Japan and the Western world.  As he explains, Korean craftsmen didn’t strive to assert their artistry or to create works of excellence.  In Buddhist terms, they worked in a non-dualistic mindset, one formed before the differentiation of artist and layman, beautiful and ugly, good and bad.  They relied on the traditions and materials at hand to create simple, useful objects without self-awareness.

Yanagi discusses the two paths through which artists and craftsmen may achieve their goals: the way of the individual and the way of grace.  Success is attainable through both, but the way of the individual is far more difficult.  On this path, artists must reinvent the wheel at every step.  With keen focus on defining and expressing themselves, they must labor to find and master materials and techniques that suit their needs (whose very definition requires even more labor.)  By contrast, craftsmen taking the way of grace can reach the same goal with greater ease by relying on tradition.  Rather than focusing on self-expression, they immerse themselves in inherited practice to create works of integrity and humanity. 

This is a fascinating take on craft tradition, one with keen awareness of the repetition inherent in learning to work with one’s hands.  Within Western culture, it provides an interesting framework through which to consider different kinds of artwork.  One can imagine the Abstract Expressionist painstakingly blazing the path of the individual, while the painter of monastic art followed the path of grace and stood on the shoulders of giants.  Who was more genuine?  Who was more skilled?  Who was happier?

Modern day Westerners like me will likely puzzle over arguments like these.  Aren’t we supposed to express our individuality?  Don’t we praise trailblazers as leaders and visionaries?  Head-scratchers like these hide on nearly every page of Yanagi’s book.  For example, Yanagi praises Korean potters for their simpler frame of mind, and for the genuine craft it produced.  But it took a more modern, sophisticated sensibility to appreciate that simple beauty.  Does this paradox pose a kind of duality?  And when we follow Yanagi’s line of thought, do we fly dangerously close to the noble savage argument, assuming that the grass was always greener in another country and another time?  

Regardless of the answers to such questions, The Unknown Craftsman is a genuinely thought-provoking counterpart to life in 21st century America.  It’s a look back to a time when machine-made goods were a new concern, and that’s fascinating for digital-age readers to whom even the machine era can look like the good old days.   The mind reels at how our culture has moved from handmade things to machine-made things to digital un-things.  Yanagi’s book is a snapshot from our walk along that path.

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