‘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.”

The Mingei movement took a similar upwardly mobile route, gathering momentum in the Taisho Era (1912-1926). Its leader, Soetsu Yanagi (1889-1961), created a historical basis for the movement in Japan’s native tea culture and the craft traditions of Japan, Korea, Hokkaido and Okinawa. But this generated the same kinds of internal contradictions as the English movement: Though Yanagi’s founding concept celebrated the “unknown craftsman,” artistic prominence was given to himself and a small circle that included the potters Kanjiro Kawai (1890-1966) and Shoji Hamada (1894-1978), and the printmaker Shiko Munakata (1903-75).

Yanagi’s aim, however, was to assemble and document the choicest crafts of bygone eras, such as the white porcelains of Korea and the peculiar, blue doro-e paintings (whose pigments resemble oil paints), that had been almost entirely neglected during Japan’s rush to Westernization. While Yanagi realized that utilitarian goods should never be separated from their practical everyday applications, he did just that — as a necessary evil — with the establishment of the Japan Folk Art Museum in 1936. That museum stands as a precedent for the current exhibition: crafts estranged from the daily uses for which they were created.

The new focus on crafts resulted in a Mingei boom that reached its height in the 1960s, leaving some rural craftsmen bemused at their suddenly elevated status to artist. One reaction to the surge in popularity was the defection of Chuichi Miyake and a number of supporters in 1953 from Yanagi’s Mingei Association to form the Nihon Mingei Association in Osaka, which required artist-craftsmen to exhibit their works anonymously.

After World War II, Mingei became something of a cliche, standardized in design, poor in quality and ubiquitous in “Mingei corners” in department stores. At the lower end of production, people in country towns came to use the phrase “making Mingei’ as a euphemism meaning souvenirs for tourists. Ultimately, individualist high-end Mingei crafts went the same way as tea- ceremony utensils. While early tea culture cherished rustic simplicity, such as Korean rice bowls by anonymous makers put to service as tea cups, a yearning for meibutsu (renowned wares) as objects to be displayed flourished in later years. The artist status of such pre-eminent potters as Kenkichi Tomimoto confirms as much.

The unintended results of the Mingei movement are well described by a 1977 quote from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: “The human gaze has a power of conferring value on things; but it makes them cost more too.” Still, Yanagi’s sublime achievement — made through his superb eye and aesthetic discrimination — was to raise the general public’s awareness of a whole range of common objects that had been overlooked by a modernizing society and art historians alike.

“Life and Art: Arts and Crafts from Morris to Mingei” is showing till Nov. 9 at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, Enshoji-cho, Okazaki, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto; 5-min. walk from Higashiyama Station on the Tozai Line; admission ¥1,300; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. (closed Mon.). For more information call (075) 761-4111 or visit www.momak.go.jp

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