Japanese mingei and the history of American studio ceramics
American Studio Ceramics: Innovation and Identity, 1940 to 1979, which is out this week, is the first book to fully explore the ceramic movement alongside the societal trends that shaped it and the organizations that propelled the movement. Author Martha Drexler Lynn considers the movement’s fluctuation across geographic regions as well as stylistic responses to advances in technology and cultural influences from across the United States and abroad. In this guest post, she shares with us insight into the engagement of the American studio ceramics movement with Japanese mingei.
Martha Drexler Lynn–
American Studio Ceramics: Innovation and Identity, 1940 to 1979 recounts the history of the American studio ceramics movement and its many anomalies. One interesting aspect was the penchant American potters had for Japanese mingei, especially ceramics. “I am not quite sure whether younger potters quite realize how deeply the Japanese influence has struck root, and how much it still affects their work without their knowing it” wrote British scholar Philip Rawson in 1983. Yet even as this widespread influence persisted, worldwide devotion to mingei-inflected objects had grown from a cultural philosophy in Japan to one that became tinged with disturbing political currents not comprehended (or espoused) elsewhere.
The Japanese ceramics that beguiled American potters after World War II was derived from Japanese folk arts (mingei) and it championed the beauty of useful everyday objects fashioned in all media. Japanese mingei was formulated in Japan during the 1920s and prized artifacts made by “humble craftsmen.” At the time, many Japanese felt threatened by Western-influenced modernization and mechanization as their culture moved rapidly from a seventeenth-century lifestyle into the twentieth century. Many felt a need to maintain a distinct and historically based Japanese identity as a bulwark against the onslaught of Western values and aesthetics. To preserve traditional culture the Japanese looked to other Asian eras and sensibilities to emulate (among them Korean ceramics and Chinese-inspired Buddhist thought). Locating cultural value and aesthetic purity in items made by unnamed artisans and artists, the movement, first in Japan and then across the world, sparked a worldwide revival of interest in indigenous folk crafts from the 1930s on.
Mingei’s introduction to the United States was accomplished by the unlikely trio of Bernard Leach, an English potter raised in China and Japan, Yanagi Sōetsu, an independently wealthy Japanese philosopher, and Hamada Shōji, a potter from Mashiko, Japan. As Yanagi originally styled it, mingei theory was a hybrid concept of beauty that combined Korean art (the result of a gift of a ceramic piece that pointed him toward its presumed “ethical” roots), Zen Buddhism, and notions derived (via Leach) from the English nineteenth-century theorist William Morris and critic John Ruskin, among others. It operated outside of any political arena, except as it stood against the rampant spread of modernity. A central tenet of Japanese mingei which also attached to the later hybrid American mingei was the notion that appreciating and creating beauty was available to all men, regardless of rank or education. And as a result, the work of nameless makers fashioned from humble materials were revered as worthy, authentic, and spiritually imbued. This formulation appealed to post World War II Americans’ thirst for transcendent meaning in their lives and the image of the humble craftsman and his honorable work resonated with the engrained American respect for an “everyman” ethic. When this sensibility was luted to European nineteenth-century reform notions (supplied by Leach and then communicated to others in his passionate patrician manner) the returning American veterans who found self-expression in ceramics were drawn to Japanese mingei on both aesthetic and philosophical grounds.
Yet the indigenous and troubling connotations underlying mingei in Japan were unknown (or unacknowledged) by Americans. If they had known the political connections the movement had developed in Japan would they have shied away from the powerful aesthetic lure of Japanese ceramics? The West’s fascination with Asian (especially Japanese) culture had simmered for years and rested nicely within the earlier nineteenth-century interest in transcendentalism and theAmerican fascination with non-Western spiritual traditions. From the 1920s on, a mania for Asian-influenced arts and fashion was partnered by an interest in Eastern philosophy as a counterbalance to Western Enlightenment ideology. All of this predisposed American potters to see Asian tropes and motifs as (safely) exotic yet familiar, and an enriching part of their artistic toolboxes.
Yet by the time mingei (as expressed in ceramics and other media) made its most heralded arrival in the United States in the 1950s, it had attracted a darker sensibility in Japan. The mingei that Leach, Yanagi and Hamada presented during their groundbreaking workshops and lectures at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, Montana, in December 1952, harkened to the earlier formulation of mingei philosophy as a historically-based stance and a compelling way to achieve a happy and productive life/practice continuum – and as an essential for making good pots. This wholesome, living example of a unified philosophy and enthusiasm for studio ceramics rubbed off on many, including future leaders and teachers Peter Voulkos and Rudy Autio. American potters delighted in the Asian respect for ceramics and dreamed of living a humble, useful, and honorable potter’s life.
However, not included in their presentation was the fact that mingei in Japan during the interwar years had attracted a political edge. Devotion to traditional and uniquely Japanese crafts been adopted in the 1930s and 1940s by the Nationalists who sought to extend Japanese imperial hegemony over territory belonging to others, including China and Korea. This desire manifested in political and military aggression that was not originally part of the mingei vision. And yet it was this group who instigated the notorious attack on the United States at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The contradiction of adopting the cultural and aesthetic traditions of a country (Japan) that had so recently attacked the United States did not seem to deter American studio potters in their devotion to Japanese mingei after 1945. To further the irony, postwar American potters turned away from their own indigenous folk traditions to engage with the by then politically-tinged Japanese mingei. It can only be wondered why other compelling ceramic traditions that were well-known to Americans (European, Scandinavian, South American, or Native American, etc.) were less honored. Perhaps the reason rests on the aesthetic beauty and integrity of Japanese ceramics themselves. Yet this American engagement with Japanese mingei continued across successive generations of potters with many unaware of the riddle at the heart of their embrace.