Mike's Pots

The International Conference of Craftsmen in Pottery and Textiles
Dartington Hall 1952

Dartington Conference 1952


By Soetsu Yanagi

Allow me to quote a few passages from Laotze, the old Philosopher in ancient China: "When the Great Reason is obliterated, We have benevolence and justice. When wisdom and sagacity appear, We have much hypocrisy. When family relations are no longer harmonious, We have filial piety and paternal love. When a nation is in disorder, We have loyalty and allegiance."

I think there is significant truth in his saying.

The fact that a great moralist appears in this world is nothing but the evidence of immorality prevailing on the earth. He has to rise against the immorality, in other words, though it may sound a little cynical, he appears in this world on account of its immorality, that is, if the world were completely virtuous, he would have little chance to make himself famous. He is respected and esteemed highly on account of unvirtuous circumstances. We look with admiration and respect to a sublime moralist. But does it really mean we are happy to have such a moralist in this world? It is true we are thankful to him; and our life will be unhappy and restless unless the moralist is born. But is he required at all times? No, only when the world lacks morality. We wouldn't need him particularly, if morality were common and a usual thing in this world. And if he in such a state endeavours to reform the world, it will be funny indeed, that a moralist teaches morality to a world which needs no moralist at all. The fact that he is noted on the earth is the mere proof that the world is still in such an unhappy disorder. A doctor cannot live unless he has patients, while the ideal of medical art is to decrease their number. Therefore, we, mankind, have paid an unreasonably expensive bill to get a Socrates. This is why Laotze said, "Wisdom and sagacity appear, and we have hypocrisy", and it seems well said. Loyalty and filial piety are highly esteemed in Confucianism, but we should praise the world which needs no loyalty and filial piety, shouldn't we? Call me dreaming a fantastic dream or talking about Utopia, if you like, but you cannot deny that the world badly needs great moralists and great philosophers for it is getting worse and worse. Today, many artists gather here to discuss the improvement and progress of crafts, And what's the need of it? It is because the world of crafts has so much degraded as to need a conference. Not only in Europe and America such circum- stances are seen but in the Orient as well.. Unless conscientious and able artists or craftsmen rise and do their best work, the world of crafts will be threatened with the peril of stagnation and become dull and cold.

Especially in Europe, traditional manual work has been obliterated since the Industrial Revolution. by reason of the machine industry which took the place of manual work, there have been few products which are really humane. This is due not only to the limitations of their mechanisms but also to the fact that machines are operated by commercial people who aim at profit first and neglect beauty and stability of articles. Therefore the degradation of quality is not the fault of machinery itself but the greedy ambition of commercial people to make enormous profit by using machines.

In America, as it is a young country having no tradition from the beginning, almost all articles are made by machines. Of course some machine-made goods are quite good, yet many defects consequently come out and have been well acknowledged even by Americans. Comparing the machine-made articles with the hand-made, it is natural that people come to desire to possess various excellent qualities which are special attributes to handicrafts. They consider the word "hand-made" as synonymous to "good quality".

And now I point out three elements which are specially required in the sphere of crafts. In the first place, a large number of conscientious individual artists in handicrafts are especially needed. Next, their importance and value should be widely acknowledged and respected by society. And thirdly, the intense cooperation should be considered between the individual artists and industrialists of machine production. The first element that conscientious artists should rise up nowadays is to protect the beauty of craft. They may be compared with moralists in immoral times. Our life would be abominable if we had no artist in this world. Therefore, an artist should be a proper appreciator of beauty, also its creator, and in a word, a wonderful genius. The more we have such geniuses, the more our aesthetic culture will improve.

The degradation of quality is found not only in mechanical products but also in hand-made products of the Orient where traditional artcrafts have thriven in the past. It is entirely a sacrifice to mercantilism by the wholesale dealers. Artisans as a whole are economically subordinate to wholesale dealers, who pay as little as possible in order to get big margins of profit. Vulgar articles gradually come out in this way, and conscientious artists are needed in the Orient, just as in Europe.

But in proportion to the importance of their duty and responsibility, their work will be difficult. They must be qualified with (1) the right sensibility toward beauty; (2) sufficient technical training; (3) scientific knowledge, which is indispensable to crafts; (4) strong will and passion; (5) creative talent.

Because of the difficulty to fulfil all these conditions at the same time, we cannot expect many excellent individual artists. Statistics will tell us strictly there are few geniuses upon the earth.

Especially in Europe and America where you have little vestige of tradition in the sphere of handicrafts, it seems most difficult to work. The artists have to do everything themselves and whatever they make they often have to take a roundabout way. Artists in Japan, on the contrary, are much blessed in this point. They still have tradition, proper materials which are easily obtainable, many artisans who are able to assist them, and many good traditional patterns. For instance, in Japan, perhaps more than 5000 pottery kilns actively work nowadays with handicraft. That shows Japan is working under favourable conditions. In spite of that the fact that we have only a few artists in Japan can only be explained by their rarity anywhere.

However, as I stated before, whether artists can do good work or not depends chiefly upon society. Both in Europe and America for a long time, painters and sculptors have been socially acknowledged as "artists". But it seems but recently that craftsmen also have got the same position in their estimation. It is quite doubtful if people in general would look at a pot with the same respect as they do at a painting. Without the recognition of society even the greatest artist cannot do sufficient work, because he has to face incessant economical anxiety. Accordingly, education to improve the recognition of society, through aesthetic and cultural education at school, is very important. Education at school these days seems to be inclined too much to intellect and is lacking in cultural sentiment.

Different from Occidental countries, Japan is under the very blessed social condition in respect to the arts of pottery. Japan may be a paradise for potters, people have a special inclination and regard for ceramics; there are a great number of collectors, and publications about pottery have never failed to sell. That is because of the typical and traditional culture of Japan. "The Tea Ceremony" in Japan has taught many generations how to choose and use the proper tea utensils. It also has brought, however, some defects; thus even the second or third-rate craftsmen of pottery can live fairly well in Japan. There may be many who wish to be the patrons of craftsmen. But the duty and responsibility of craftsmen in society should not be limited to making good products themselves, or to holding their own exhibitions, or to permitting their products to be bought by collectors, but they should also do something which is directly connected with society. Therefore, it is natural that a closer relationship between the machine products and craftsmen should come about.

Considering the future, the hand-made products alone are insufficient on account of the fast increasing population, and also the necessity to make the price as cheap as possible. Consequently, it is desirable for the artists to have some connection with the machine production in order to reform and improve its quality. In machine production, designers decide everything. If they are excellent we will have excellent productions, and if not, low quality will be produced. In making articles by machines, artisans have little or no privilege to select the materials.They are only there to work according to the decisions already made. There is no chance for them to apply any originality. Therefore, it is necessary first of all to employ excellent designers. That has been, to tell the truth, hardly realized, at least in Japan. Neither entrepreneurs nor employers have real understanding toward beauty. They scarcely let the designers work freely. Companies, should recognize the high position of the designers and pay them well. But the fact is, which I greatly regret, their mercantilism oppresses them and restricts their designs. The most desirable thing, though, is that their freedom and originality should be applied with mutual confidence. While the designers' responsibility is very important, they should remember all the time that if their designs are not right they commit the sin of sending many wrong products to society. They should not neglect scientific knowledge thereby failing to distinguish the function of machines, the quality of materials, the aim of products, and the natural form and colour which are proper for the machine to produce. They should carefully avoid, for instance, the forms which are difficult to make by machine and designs which are unsuitable for some materials. They should also avoid unworthy products and too expensive methods of production. It is needless to say they should endeavour to produce articles which are pleasant to the eyes, practically useful, and helpful as our daily companions to make life happy.

Today the artist characteristically does his work individually and finds freedom in his individuality. But an artist in the future should have the social consciousness to supply social demand; the mechanical industry needs his cooperation. In the Oriental countries where many handicrafts from ancient times are still in existence the individual artist has the responsibility of leadership, guidance, and protection of many artisans of towns and villages. In other words, the individual artist should feel that his new mission is to work together with many other artisans. Though the work which no one but he can produce has naturally its value, nevertheless the essential aspect of the practical art will be found in the presentation of the individual artist together with many other artisans. To absorb the individual character in a union of artisans, or in other words, to revive the individual artist in a united corporation, will be necessary. We call him the individual artist because he generally lives by himself, but the artist in the future should sometimes live outside of his own tower of ivory. His final object should be, I think, to live among people, not to live alone forever.

I have recollected again the words of Laotze. The world needs an artist lest this world should be unhappy. The one who brings the light into a degenerated age of darkness is the artist and, as he does so, he performs a mission. But the world which does not require the special individual artist is a wonderful world the world where the genius is merely a common individual, I think that is the most honourable world of all. I am not telling you a story like a dream. Let us take the beauty of Sung pottery for an example. The Sung potteries were not made by a few distinguished geniuses. All pottery of the Sung age was made by unknown artisans. Not any of this pottery was made by an individual artist as in these days. Everyone made wonderful pottery, so genius, so to speak, was found everywhere. The word 'genius' had not yet been invented. No one admired the single individual artist. Sung potteries were made in such a wonderful age that they have won the greatest admiration, and incidentally an unreasonable price today.

Then what is the power which protects and puts such great value on these wares. It is not the power of the individual, but something above and beyond which gave this protection. One might say that the Sung potters had relied entirely upon grace given by Heaven. This grace was tradition, surroundings and their materials. Each beyond the power of the individual. The beauty of their goods is gained and assured by accepting these blessings. Most ordinary artisans, and poor men and women without any education, or sometimes even old people and young children, produced wonderful works merely because they readily accepted these blessings obediently. If they had rebelled against them they would instantly have fallen into distressing circumstances, for they were weak and powerless as social persons. It is very interesting to say that many progressive craftsmen of pottery at the present time have always considered the Sung potteries as their models. But these modern craftsmen must endure many difficulties, while it was easy for the old craftsmen of Sung potteries to produce such wonderful goods. What is the reason? The reason is that no individual artist today is living in his proper environment. When tradition has decayed, only the genius is left at work. This is not a fortunate condition at all.

Once tradition has died out, it is necessary for individual artists to work in place of the tradition. Their purpose, however, must not be to work for themselves or by themselves, but to prepare the way to make a new tradition. For that reason it is desirable that they have strong social consciousness. Otherwise society around them is not helped even though they have salvation. Without social salvation the Kingdom of Crafts shall not be prosperous. The difference between the mission of a pure artist and that of craftsmen will always exist around this point. Of the former it will be said that he goes his own way, while of the latter, that he readily goes together with society. Furthermore, in seeking the essential meaning of crafts, it should be remembered that these goods are widely used, rather than widely appreciated. I think myself any work of art should not be separated from practical use, but rather be harmonized with it. Then its beauty will be truly displayed. It may well be the craftsman's duty to enhance the practical beauty of goods, rather than only to make goods of practical use beautiful. But if the craft-goods are made only for appreciation, their existence will naturally be unsound. Everyone knows the important role craft plays in the Kingdom of Beauty of this world. It is because its products have a close relationship with the daily life of common people. And because they are closely related with people's lives they are of practical use. So we can see how the usefulness of goods is very important. Let us not forget the beauty of Sung pottery. It did not accumulate only for the beauty's sake, but by the close connection with its use. Yes, because of that character of usefulness, craft is firm and special in comparison to pure fine art.

When the work of an artist has developed properly, he need not worry about recognition by others, also naturally his work will not need his signature on it. Peacefully he will make goods, though nobody will ask what is the name of the maker. If he must say occasionally, "I made this and this", then his circumstances are not yet such as will promise him true happiness. The most beautiful work will be completed when the artist entirely absorbs himself and his honour in his work. It does not mean killing himself; on the contrary, it is the best way to keep himself alive. But if he sticks to himself or is restrained in some way or another, he cannot freely make his goods nor give them true meaning. Without freedom there is no beauty. Beauty will be accomplished only when complete freedom is acquired. Most of the artist-craftsmen are the slaves of artistry.

Almost all craftsmen believe that they are deserving of the honour of signing their names on their wares. Because they call themselves individual artists. Their customers and critics, too, appreciate goods with signatures on them. Gradually the public begins to respect these signed works because they are made by artists. But then interest in goods without any signature wanes. Prices of goods pften depend upon the existence of signatures. Even if there are no signatures on them, critice and historians will reveal and record who the makers are. These records become very important, because they stabilise the value of the goods and set customers' minds at ease, and raise the market price. We may call these modern times the Age of Signatures or the Age of Attribution From another point of view, it means the age when artists are acknowledged as heroes in the craft world.

Is this the answer to the question and will this age of the individual artist promise the world a great happiness? I am one of them who does not agree to this opinion; because it is merely one of the phenomena in the age of individualism, and an event when a hero is needed. People may need a hero at any time, as history necessarily shows, but as Laotze said before, it is caused by the unhappiness of the age.

When I was a student, I read Carlyle's "Heroes and Hero Worship" and Emerson's "Representative Men". These books present the ideas of the nineteenth century; nevertheless, perhaps their ideas may have much value at any time. Hero worship may happen when the world is full of people who are not heroes, and at such a time the world would show no social happiness. Times when heroes are not needed, the times when they become ordinary people and their existence is not uncommon, then they are most admirable. As you know, there is a homespun cloth called "St. Kilda". St. Kilda is the name of a little island off the coast of Scotland. I have never seen bad cloth come from there. Every piece is very beautiful. And even if It seems they are very beautiful, you will never find signatures on them. they are not made by a hero; nor shall they be called herocs. Such circumstances are ideal.

Signing one's name on one's goods is not wrong, but from the viewpoint of Oriental religion, it reveals his relative deed of attachment. He signs because he advertises himself through his goods. But are there any circumstances when the artist entirely forgets himself and makes his goods shine brilliantly? Meaning simply that his goods speak for him instead of propping him up. Briefly, his goods themselves are the best signature, so that his real signature is not needed on them. He need not advertise his name, but his goods will speak for him. We cannot imagine a finer circumstance than when the artist shines as brilliantly as this. When potters admire the Sung pots they wish to be makers of similar beautiful goods. Yet everyone knows that Sung pottery is without signatures. One of the essential causes of the beauty of Sung pots lay in their anonymity. The goods themselves were a better assurance than any signature could give. The problem of craft cannot be solved entirely by craftsmen's individual work.

In Japan where many individual artists have appeared for a long time, it is now a great problem for them to make goods in any other way. In a word, they should brighten their goods rather than themselves, remove all the honour from themselves and make their goods honourable. And then a real salvation is found even in the field of craft as in the religious field, one should finally find the real self-affirmation in the abandonment of self. Modern fine art may be established in the individuality of a person, nevertheless craftsmen in the present times should live in society and think of the essential character of craftsmanship. Let us give cheers for that age when again many beautiful unsigned goods are produced. I want to admire the times when such beautiful goods are used as a matter of course in daily life. It will be the golden age of craft when those many beautiful goods are sold cheaply. If there is a reason for the existence of individual artists, it is that they prepare for the realization of such an age. The happiness of society is not to be stabilised in individual goods themselves. This is not a dream but there really have been many periods when beautiful unsigned goods were sold cheaply and widely used. In the Orient, where tradition is still retained, such a Utopia is still partly to be found. Seeing these facts, individual artists cannot restrict themselves only in their individuality and continue to go their own way. They should look more freely from their narrow road to a broad highway. Therefore in Japan the greatest problem is to set the individual artist free from his individuality. Japan is suffering from the flood of too many worthless artists. She is also suffering because goods made by second and third-rate artists are selling well. It is due to the over-exaggerated admiration of signed goods. Mr. Hamada and Mr. Kawai, who are Japan's two best pottery artists, do not put their signatures on their goods. It is really the first significant phenomena in history among individual artists. When someone asked Mr. Kawai, "Why do you not sign your name on your work?", he said, "My work itself is my best signature". Mr. Hamada was asked the same question. His answer was, "I will make the goods which are to be used without the question of who has made them". Both of them naturally are earnest admirers of old unsigned crafts.

Reproduced from the conference report with the permission of the Dartington Hall Trust Archive.

Dartington Conference 1952