Saturday, December 5, 2009

Japan - What's Art, What's Not

This morning I heard Cynthea Bogel speak at the Seattle Asian Art Museum as part of the lecture series, No Passport Required: Saturday University Lecture Series, Asian in Focus.  Her lecture, What's Art and What's Not in the History of Japan was full of new insights for me.  Bogel looked at the history of Japan's National Treasures: how the process has favored certain types and periods of art over others, and how the distinction has done much to shape Japan's regard for it's art and artifacts. 

A couple take-aways I got:  1. that the list of National Treasures currently includes not a single Japanese ukiyo-e print or painting.  That's right, not one.  No Great Wave, or Ohashi, or Kambara, or anything by the mysterious Sharaku.  2. that the People in Charge decided in 1950, to wipe clean the list of National Treasures and start over, bestowing the honor on only a fraction of the works of art that were previously included on the list, and 3.  that the word for 'art' in Japanese,
bijitsu, was coined, along with new words for painting, sculpture, textiles, and handicraft, around the time of the 1873 and 1876 World Expositions in Vienna and Philidelphia, in order to better market Japanese art to the West.  Particularly in the case of Buddhist iconic figures, the new term 'sculpture' chokōku, allowed these sacred figures to be regarded as art, which allowed for their removal from temples, and later exhibition in Japanese halls and subsequent sale to Western collectors and museums.  

If you have attended any of the lectures this fall, there will be one more round table discussion next Saturday morning at 9:30.  Thanks to SAAM for putting together this great series!


  1. In connection with the content of this post, you might enjoy "Faith and Power in Japanese Buddhist Art 1600-2005" by Patricia Graham (U. of Hawaii press).

    The creation of the canon of art in Japan has all of the same marks of economic interest, power, and politics as the creation of canons of art in the west (and more broadly, throughout history).

    Jon Ciliberto

  2. Thanks for the suggestion, Jon. I will check it out.