Art

Trading in a master for an agent

One man's crusade to take calligraphy into the art market

by T. Robin Kelley

When Yasuo Kitai first attempted to introduce Japanese calligraphy into Western art markets, he discovered he was up against thousands of years of tradition.

Calligraphy’s bold, striking characters made with sweeping brush strokes have long held international interest, but Kitai aims to bring the art form out of classrooms and museums — what he calls “art cemeteries” — and into the commercial realities of the international art market. For the last six years the art dealer and gallery owner has been devoting himself almost exclusively to selling Japanese calligraphy at art expos in Europe and America. And, he says, Western buyers are slowly but surely catching on.

But a fully-fledged international calligraphy market is far from a reality. One significant barrier is the Japanese idea that traditional arts should not be sullied by the vulgarities of business. He also says that the most talented calligraphers find it difficult to detach themselves from strict student-master hierarchies. But by far the most difficult feat, he says, is convincing the calligraphers themselves. “They say they create calligraphy not for money, but for spiritual reasons,” he said. “Western artists are surprised.” They ask me, “How can calligraphers make a living if they can’t sell their work?”

Changing this mind-set is included on Kitai’s laundry list of goals to revamp what he calls an antiquated system. “It’s like the mafia,” he said, lamenting that the calligraphy elite’s tight control over the practice of the art has stunted both its innovation and expansion into the mainstream.

His strategy is to first expose contemporary calligraphy to the West by banking on its purely aesthetic appeal and eventually Westerners will become savvier to the craft and dig deeper into more traditional and complicated forms.

The Japanese will then take notice of its international following and the craft will enjoy a surge in popularity and its rich tradition will thrive. According to traditional calligraphers, who are accustomed to a level of esoteric appreciation beyond the grasp of most Japanese, this is a problematic approach. It would take a native speaker several years of training to be able to read one ancient Chinese style of cursive calligraphy, for example, like an uninitiated Westerner attempting to read Latin. So some artists find it difficult to accept that the art form can be adequately appreciated among those who haven’t studied the art extensively, let alone those who can’t even read it. As cultural preservationists, it is understandable that they may not be comfortable letting amateurs take over.

Perhaps then the question is: Although calligraphy master can judge whether the craftsmanship is substandard, who decides what makes great art?

“Japanese really have a hard time thinking of calligraphy as art,” said Alex Kerr, an American author and dealer in Japanese art who has sold his own works of calligraphy. “Calligraphy in Japan has got itself organized into hierarchical societies. The person who wrote the calligraphy is more important than the calligraphy itself. They’re organized into ranks and titles. [Westerners are] more willing to accept calligraphy as a line, as a force.”

Kitai said he is determined to ensure that calligraphy be judged the same way any other art is judged, and that by doing so he is aiding the survival of both contemporary and traditional forms. With shaggy hair and a black leather jacket, the 36-year-old Kitai seems an unlikely ancient-art enthusiast. Yet his explanations of the complex world of calligraphy are confident and impassioned. He darts to his bookshelves between responses; shuffling through pages of calligraphy tomes to point out examples of particularly strong work. He calls himself a “pioneer” as he is one of the very few, if not the only, Japanese dealer working to bring contemporary calligraphy to the West.

Contemporary artists use traditional brushes and sumi ink, but canvas replaces paper and frenzied, violent strokes replace ancient poems. The images often bear no resemblance to the ancient Chinese characters that inspired them. Save for the small red hanko stamps in the corner, some could be easily mistaken for works by Western painters.

Hiroyuki Katsumada is one of Kitai’s success stories. After four years displaying at art shows in Belgium, Katsumada is now famous among European collectors and his pieces have sold for prices as high as a million yen. Among his most popular work is of a series called “Hana Fufumu (Flower Buds).” Amid the thick, furious black strokes, a small red dot is barely visible. While the work bears little resemblance to traditional calligraphy, Katsumada says he was inspired by the ancient anthology of poems of the same name. Unlike most of Kitai’s artists, Katsumada has never been formally trained outside of mandatory grade-school writing lessons and he is careful to note that he is a painter, not a calligrapher.

“Artists who are just painting shapes shouldn’t call it calligraphy. It’s not calligraphy,” said Hirokuni Kitagawa, a renowned master and professor of calligraphy history at Kokugakuin University. “Modern trends will cause true calligraphy to become something else. Even if someone’s been studying for 20 or 30 years, they’re just studying technique, not the history, usage, or meaning of the ancient characters. That’s not the right kind of studying.” True calligraphy is an expression of the soul, he said. He worries the art form is being reduced to “interior design.”

It’s a valid point, as anyone can splash ink on paper. But the best art, calligraphy or otherwise, is able to transcend the eye of the expert. Kerr says that lay people, even children, are able to spot a talented calligrapher. “They have an amazing sense of which are the good ones,” he said. “They have an instinctive understanding and appreciation of shape and balance. The dynamic power of calligraphy is accessible to all. That’s what makes a work of art universal.”

Traditionally trained Reiko Tsunashima left her master of 10 years because she said she was frustrated by a student-master system where students would try to win favor by buying the master’s work, or by suppressing skills that may make the master jealous. “It had nothing to do with calligraphy,” she said. “At first I copied the master. But then I wanted to express myself. I wanted to do something original. My work is my own way. It’s not their place to decide if I am correct or not.”

With the help of Kitai, she has sold three paintings since last year and her work has been featured in his gallery in Ningyocho. Hoping her unique style would revive an enrollment slump in its traditional calligraphy class, the Omori Cultural Center asked Tsunashima to take over the teaching position. She insists her students treat her as an adviser, not a master. Her mantra in class is “Be original.”

“I asked my students to paint a line however they wanted to,” she said. “They were confused because they are so accustomed to being told how calligraphy is supposed to be done. They kept asking me ‘How?’ ”

Kitai is looking forward to a return of the days of the “honeymoon period” of calligraphy in the West when calligraphy enjoyed a brief surge in popularity following World War II and during the height of Abstract Expressionism. It was during this time that modern manifestations of calligraphy were most apparent in Western art, such as in paintings by Joan Miro and Franz Kline.

Shokoh, a book Kitai publishes on the state of calligraphy today, is now in its fifth edition and covers a range of topics including explanations of different calligraphy styles, examples of calligraphy by celebrities and aspects of a good calligraphy brush — all translated into English. The notion that business can complement the craft is a predominant theme in the Shokoh books. In one edition, he writes: “The Silk Road was a passage of various cultures, but it was originally channeled for trade. Without economic effects, we can’t achieve exchanges, [the] transfer, preservation or improvement of culture.”

Kitai also organizes exhibitions of Japanese fine art in Europe and displays his artists at the annual ArtExpo in New York. He is currently preparing pieces to display at the next ArtExpo in March. Last month he moved into a larger office to make room for new business and possible additions to his current staff of eight.

While Kitai’s business is growing, calligraphy still takes up only a tiny portion of the contemporary-art market in Japan. Kerr calls it the “lost stepchild” of Japanese art, as it hasn’t been taken nearly as seriously among collectors as Japanese pottery, for example. All it takes, he said, is just a few good calligraphy dealers to change all that.

“Dealers are what will drive a contemporary calligraphy market,” said Kerr. “People who know how to make it sexy and fun, show it creatively and choose the best calligraphers. Calligraphy is a daunting idea for some because they can’t read it. Conceptual art always involves some education and explaining and it’s the dealers who unlock the secret of that knowledge.”

Kerr said he’s confident Japanese people’s interest in the art form will always survive, even if the business side is slow to develop. But Kitai isn’t so sure. Interest will wane as calligraphy is buried in ever-shrinking circles of the elite, he said. It is a view that makes his work that much more important.

“Young Japanese are not interested in calligraphy; they are interested in Western things,” he said. “If no one does what I do, maybe nobody will be interested in calligraphy in 50 years or even five years.”