Review: Soetsu Yanagi's The Unknown Craftsman

There are very few books written in Japanese that explicitly discuss wabi sabi.  There are of course many books by Japanese authors that touch on aesthetics as they are known and appreciated within the Japanese context.  Kakuzo Okakura's The Book of Tea (1964) was translated from Japanese to English and has enjoyed prominence among English readers but its broad aesthetic does not feature an explicit look at wabi sabi.  Another book, Soetsu Yanagi's The Unknown Craftsman (1972) is worthwhile read as well.  For those interested in reading explicitly about wabi sabi, there is only the briefest mention of each of the terms and they are isolated from one another. Nonetheless, Yanagi's description of craft, as it pertains specifically to pottery, and the distinction he makes between the humbler creation of pieces for everyday use and the more elaborate work aimed at being art is illuminating.

While Yanagi's emphasis is on pottery, he includes examples of other tradition Japanese crafts and architecture amongst the illustrations at the front of the book and his contemplation of the objects and creative endeavours that he discusses On the surface is an examination of the making of pottery but serves as a profound look at art, creativity and, as promised, beauty. Yanagi's exploration of the aesthetics of pottery and the distinctions among, art, craft and the manufactured provides a deep, nuanced and illuminating discussion that extends far beyond the humble topic he begins with.

In his opening chapter, Soetsu says "Truth is both old and new," and talks about the pursuit of and the openness required to recognize the beauty that exists in the commonplace.  It is also the first indicator of the ambition and attention that informs his contemplation of this particular realm of craft and the insight that allows him to transcend pottery and ceramics to speak about much, much more.  He illuminates his discussion of pottery with the Soetsu talks about the need to be open in a way that we acknowledge things freshly no matter how often we have seen things or encountered concepts in our lives.

At the core of the book is the distinction between craft and art.  Craft is the humbler pursuit, defined by the discipline that an individual artisan can put into his or her work and to, upon completion, send out into the world unsigned. Soetsu strives to elevate this work, the achievements of the unknown craftsman cited in the title, and contrast it not only with art that risks ostentation at times, but also with the manufactured implements that threatened to undermine the respect and place of these artisans' work.  The book was first published in 1964 but features essays (or chapters) that were first written between 1931 and 1954 and Japan's shift to modernity and industrialization was still not charted.

The freshness of Yanagi's writing, conceivably, comes from a Buddhist perspective that strives to see things as they are and as they essentially impact us rather than letting ourselves succumb to the influence of a signature on a piece of art, the veneer of modernism, or other elements that may enchant a less-focused perceiver might fall for.  In Seeing and Knowing, he makes the simple case that it is quite easy for one to convince oneself that there is beauty where there may be none but instead an abundance of technique that impresses the self-declared "expert eye."  It was his chapter "Pattern," he departs on an interesting discussion of patterns are they are intuited from nature and created by man.  It also raises questions about how this chapter would be translated today, with a deeper interest in fractals than may have existed 80 years ago.

Throughout, Yanagi's contemplations are profound and his discussions touch on the freedom from thought that contributes creative freedom.  In his essay "The Beauty of Irregularity" he grapples with the question of perfection that is central to wabi sabi and contributes the following, "the precise and perfect carries no overtones, admits no freedom; the perfect is static and regulated, cold and hard. We in our own human imperfections are repelled by the perfect, since everything is apparent from the start and there is no suggestion of the infinite.  Beauty must have some room, must be associated with freedom." (p. 120-21)

Yanagi's emphasis on a craft that he appreciates rather than a point of view that is distinguished by his expertise about and his fondness for the craft that goes into making the everyday objects that he focuses on rather than defining the aspects of Japanese aesthetics that Western writers would deploy in their application of the terms.  In the end, this is a deep book that holds the promise of a deeper understanding upon continued readings and maybe revitalized by a more contemporary translation.