You know those “artist names” that get passed down from one generation to the next in Japan? I always assumed those were about art. That the passing of the torch from one generation to the next was about choosing the most gifted artist of the next generation to take their predecessor’s place at the top of the podium.
Turns out, I was wrong. It’s all about living forever.
When you see them like this—one bowl per generation—you can see the differences between them. One has straighter sides, one is more rounded, one has a thinner rim and less of a foot. But when you step back and look at them all together, without reading the tags, they could have all been made by the same man.
And they were.
Because when someone takes on the exalted artist name, his lifetime pledge isn’t to be inspired by his heritage and interpret it in brave new ways. It’s to continue that artist’s work as if he were still alive, with the same glazes, the same clay, the same aesthetic. Fifteen generations of Raku ware looks like the work of one artist who is enjoying a very, very, very, long life. Some might say an unnaturally long life. Sure, the pieces change over time, but in the kind of subtle way that an early Renoir looks different from a late Renoir, but they were both very clearly painted by Renoir.
And it’s not just pottery
You know how kabuki actors in woodblock prints are always making this crazy face?
An artist’s name migrates from body to body, passing from one generation to the next, and each individual agrees to subvert his own individuality in the service of preserving the vision of the original holder of that name. Which raises the question—
Is it still art?
What do you think?
This is one area where Japanese thinking can be quite different from Western thinking. I bet we can both make a case for both ideas being art, just as a case can be made for the Ise Shrine embodying a very different notion of antiquity. However…
I didn’t realize until a podcaster asked me about artist names in an interview about The Last Tea Bowl Thief that the character Yakibō is my real answer to that. And you only have to look in my dish cupboard to discover why…
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Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had