Sunday 31 May 2009


So much has happened I don't know where to begin.
I am sitting in the Ebiya Gallery in Nihombashi, it is late and all the guests have left after the opening party. This is my sixteenth exhibition here, and now I have the gallery to myself. The last few weeks/months have been so hectic I haven't had time to scratch myself. It is only after the exhibition begins that I can catch my breath. I will be here for a week, so each night I will try to catch up on one of the exciting episodes that have occupied my time.
For tonight I would like to just talk about mingei, as it has been featuring significantly in my recent endeavours. Having studied under Shimaoka sensei both his and mingei's influence are unavoidably entwined in my work and philosophy. There seems to have been a great deal of discussion about the meaning of mingei this year, particularly its definition and place in modern society. So, let's start from there.
Mingei is a word which was invented by Yanagi Soetsu in 1926. It is a contraction of the phrase "minshuteki kogei" , which has been, I believe, unfairly translated as "folk craft". In fact "Minshuteki" means "Democratic", and I would translate "Kogei" as "Art", though it is labelled "Craft" by many, and the definition of "Art" is so blurry as to be almost meaningless; the "Craft vs Art" argument doubly so. Art embraces such a plethora of meanings that everything from War to Palmistry is considered "The Art Of....". There is a huge difference in the implications of "Democratic Art" as opposed to "Folk Craft", wouldn't you agree?
What then is "Art", and what is "Democracy"? My goodness gracious I have opened a can of worms! "Kogei" in Japanese I feel would be best literally translated as the "Skill of Making things". "Art", the associated words "Bijutsu" and "Geijutsu" are a much bigger discussion, let us deal with that another day.
"Democracy", a concept with which the ancient Greeks blessed the world, has more recently been defined in political terms as " Government of the people, by the people for the people". The man who said "All great art is political" was a politician, not an artist. I don't believe that Yanagi sensei had government in mind when he coined the term, so let us put it together as "The skill of making things of the people, by the people for the people". Cumbersome, but nevertheless relevant. If at this stage you feel that you don't fit into any of the aforesaid categories (ie people, people or people) then you may stop reading any time you like.
Simply put, Yanagi felt that the objects created by a traditional lifestyle (and that includes the lifestyle itself), not appealing to a critical audience for aesthetic plaudits, were made of necessity in the same way that nature dictates the forms of "things" as an expedient to their existential efficiency. No pretense or "Artifice", merely the most effective use of available natural materials to achieve a healthy and humanistic lifestyle. Nature makes things in the most efficient way possible, bound by the laws of physics, and they are always beautiful. In a traditional society humans live lives that are bound to the rhythm of nature. They do not distance themselves from those constraints but embrace them as common condition of existence. Consequentially they find solutions to problems of survival by utilizing those same laws in as efficient a method as possible with the materials at hand which are, as a matter of course, beautiful. They do not set out to make something beautiful in the Ars Gratia Artis sense, but as a result of shedding unnecessary adornment achieve a beauty of uncluttered and healthy efficiency. That is Mingei in its essential form.

The Mingei movement, as opposed to pure mingei, acknowledged that the "traditional" lifestyle and culture of the world was doomed to extinction by the global industrialization of society. The grand homogenization had begun and an urban society which ignored natural process and deified uselessness was robbing people of their humanity. The cumulative error of fashion and ephemeral, superficial gratification was creating an artificial culture where sameness was the rule and humans (who are by nature like nature and infinitely variable) were losing their sense of self and self purpose.
The objective of the Mingei movement was to consciously incorporate the aesthetics of traditional MINGEI into products which were relevant to modern lifestyle, thus rehumanising a rapidly desensitised society.


The problem is that, a generation later, so called Mingei artists are now making "mingei-like" virtually useless objet d'art which is irrelevant to the needs of modern society. They are either mistaking regurgitation for tradition and producing things people neither need nor want, or are equating technique with tradition and producing work which looks fine but is unpleasant to use.
I asked Shimaoka sensei one day, when I was wedging clay for him in his studio, " What is the future of mingei?"
He said, "Euan, you always ask difficult things," and laughed.
"Mingei as such is finished. Traditional society is unable to compete with the luxury of materialism. It is the task of the mingei artist, however, to make work which reminds people of their individuality and their place in the natural world. To make work in line with the principles of mingei and a natural, traditional society, which people can use every day and be reminded of their own humanity and the beauty of life." Of course that's a translation of what I seem to remember he said in Japanese, so it's probably just my interpretation.
For me, the challenge has been to discover that which does not change, the things which all people in all cultures identify with because we are all human. I have discovered that it is as simple as asking myself, "What do I love?"
Regardless of culture, race, religion, language or education; every single person on earth can look at a sunset every day and be moved by its beauty. Though we individually may have preferences, we all love delicious, fragrant and wholesome food. There are intrinsic commonalities that bind us one to another, and we have more in common than we have that differ. Though the differences are obtrusive, they are superficial.
I am not a people, I am a person. All of humanity is made of individuals like me, like you. I will continue to use all of my skill to make things that I personally find beautiful and useful, of a personal nature, by this person, for the person I love. That's Mingei.