As described on the first page of his book “Soetsu Yanagi” (1889-1961) was a philosopher, art historian, aesthete and poet”. A collection of his writings on different aspects of art, design, craft and material was published as ‘The Beauty of Everyday Things’ by Penguin Classic in 2018. Produced as a beautiful object, the small but thick book, seems to be conveying the best example of what it discusses in its 346 pages. Yanagi “evolved a theory of why certain objects made by unknown craftsmen were so beautiful”.
A theory necessary to know for a number of practitioners of pictorial arts in our surroundings, who often argue about the difference and distinction between art and craft; about form and function. About decorativeness and utility for all what is made, imagined, used, abandoned and discarded. To find a fine balance between two sides of a work made by human being has been a continuous quest for those who proclaim themselves as the maker of ‘high art’. In the past a number of artists discovered beauty in everyday objects and sought to incorporate it in their works. Some were trained in the traditional methods such as ceramics and weaving, but others consciously accepted ‘art’ that was scattered around: on signboards, cinema posters, film hoardings, decorations of trucks, buses and rickshaws, embroidery, needle work, carpet patterns, tapestry etc.
This opening up also led to investigate the nature, material, history and conventions of what is usually described as folk art, or folk craft. Now someone inquiring about it can open any page of ‘the Beauty of Everyday Things’ and pick gem like sentences such as “Folk art is necessarily a hand craft. Aside from the hand of God, there is no tool as astonishingly creative as human hand. From its natural movements are born all manner of beauteous things. No machine, no matter how powerful, can match its freedom of movement. The hand is nature is greatest gift to humankind.”
Divided in 16 essays, the book (originally published in Japan as Soetsu Yanagi: Selected Essays on Japanese Folk Crafts) is fluently translated by Michael Brase. Information necessary to provide because like the makers of crafts, who remain, more or less, nameless, the translators from different languages are not given much importance. In a sense craftsmen and translator are treated alike. Their product is praised but they are not mentioned mostly.
However, one can’t imagine a world without presence of craft or the contribution of translators. It’s through Brase’s words that we are able to find diverse new dimensions of things we normally take for granted. The author draws a comparison between different approaches, from past and present. “We no longer look upon objects as we used to, which is undoubtedly due to their poor quality. In the past, everyday objects were treated with care, with something verging on respect.” But he observes, “In recent times a shadow has fallen our sense of beauty, on our aesthetic sensibility. There are many reasons for this, but one is certainly the fact that our everyday utilitarian utensils and implements have become so ugly.”
Yanagi discusses the origin of the word folk art or folk craft, because it is after modernization and mechanical production a term such as ‘folk craft’ can be coined. Once you are surrounded by and are producing items for everyday usage, with material found in your vicinity, based upon format and designs which are repeated from past – you are not conscious that all that is ‘folk craft’. It is just part of life. Practical. It is only, in the words of Octavio Paz, when one is removed from a tradition, one becomes aware of its existence. Likewise, “The Japanese word for ‘folk craft’ or ‘folk art’, mingei, is actually new to the language. Being new it is often confused with tribal art, peasant art, or even the more inclusive arts of the common people. In coining this word, however, Shoji Hamada, Kanjiro Kawai, and I had something simpler and more direct in mind. We took the word min, meaning ‘the masses’ or ‘the people’, and the word gei, meaning ‘craft’, and combined them to create mingei. Literally, the word means ‘craft of the people’.”
This simple and direct yet captivating tone runs through his essays dealing with nature of pattern, woodblock prints, and Japanese perspective and many more pictorial concerns. Perhaps the parallel can be drawn between the subject and text addressing it. As a teapot, a bowl, a spoon is perfect in shape, true to its material and serves the purpose, similarly the prose of Soetsu Yanagi is precise, concise and communicative, qualities that make this small volume a thing of beauty and a joy forever.