'Utility" is conventionally held up as what separates crafts from art. But what practical purpose is served by the stained-glass panel by Christopher Whall, "Saint Agnes" (1901-10) in "Life and Art: Arts and Crafts from Morris to Mingei" at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto? In truth, the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was less about the revival of the common wares of folks from earlier times than about dragging the lowly status of crafts and craftsmen up into the echelons of high art.

The various manifestations of the movement took root in countries resurgent with nationalism, as local craftsmanship became emblematic of the nation. British designer William Morris (1834-1896) supplied the throne for the coronation of George V in 1911, and Mingei (people's crafts), the Japanese version of the folk art and craft movement, followed suit. Though an exquisite example of domestic finery, the reproduction of the traditional wooden house "Mikuni-so" in the exhibition (which runs till Nov. 9) must be seen within the context of nationalism — originally shown in Tokyo in 1928, the structure was built to commemorate the enthronement of Emperor Hirohito.

Folk arts were seen as a remedy for the ills of contemporary society. The onslaught of mass-produced goods in the 1800s had resulted in a decline in the quality of home wares, and this became Morris' initial stimulus to begin design work. Coupled to this was the perception that capitalism had alienated the laborer from his work and circumscribed his creative proclivities. A return to craft was the answer; Morris — no doubt nourished by childhood experiences of spending days in the forest in a little suit of armor made especially for him — imagined that there was simplicity and moral purity to be found in Medieval times, and sought to rekindle the spirit of the past. Joined in Christian brotherhood, he wanted to bring leading artists of the day, such as the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, into the fold to create high-end home goods for an upper-middle-class clientele. A socialist at heart, Morris' business, Morris and Co., necessarily followed the capitalist model, though he later complained of having to attend to the "swinish luxury of the rich."