“Meditations about Pottery”
ARTIST OR ARTISAN
The late Shoji Hamada, whose life spanned the first three quarters of the twentieth century, was one of the outstanding figures of modern Japanese art. In the years before WWII, Hamada, a potter by trade, launched an investigation into the profound traditions of Japanese pottery as produced by the common people of that country for centuries. Along with Soetsu Yanagi, Hamada eventually influenced pottery technique and design throughout the world, and Hamada is primarily responsible for the revival of mingei, the folk art of Japan.
“There are two kinds of people,” said Hamada, “those who make themselves the center, who live as though their ancestors lived only to create them; and those who make themselves as low as possible, consider themselves nothing in relation to the whole, live in order to protect and cherish what their ancestors lived for and who bear children in order to pass on that idea of protecting and cherishing. Most artists fall into the first classification. Most artisans are in the second one.”
Artists, to use Hamada’s analogy, perceive themselves as the pinnacle, the top of whatever pyramid——- writing, painting, pottery——–they have chosen to ascend. They may not believe they are the best or the most talented or the most successful, but they do see their medium primarily as a means by which to express themselves. Artisans, on the other hand, regard themselves more as links in a chain, as part of a tradition, and their primary aim is to continue that tradition. The weakness of a pyramid’s top block is that from such an elevated position it is impossible to see the rest of the structure that supports you. That doesn’t happen when one is part of a chain. A chain link is in constant contact with the links behind it. The person who is a link in a chain is aware of the support that precedes him. And he tends to be a stronger individual for it.
Another weakness for the one who is on top of the pyramid is that it is a position, a narrow point, from which little else can be built. There is no balance there. The tip of the pyramid is after all the final part of the structure’s construction. A chain, on the other hand, is perfect for making additions, since an infinite number of links can be added, as long as each is as strong as those behind it, so that each link can be added without any harm to the structure.
For me, to be an artisan in pottery is a tough enough task. I may not make it to the top of anything, and it’s more likely I will be just another link in the chains of those potters I have elected to follow. But considering that as an artisan I will be in the company of links the likes of Shoji Hamada, that is a chain on which I can comfortably live.