After savouring the delights of the Terracotta Warriors in the Reading Room at The British Museum I saw that there was a smaller show of craft-work from Japan upstairs.
The show, “Crafting Beauty in Modern Japan,” concentrates on the productions of Japan’s craft artists, many of whom have been designated ‘Living National Treasures’ in recognition of their skills. I love the idea of this accolade, the place that Japanese society apparently gives to the activities the result of which were on display in this exhibition. The small brochure talks about ‘tangible’ and ‘intangible cultural properties’: ‘tangible’ being “historic architecture, sculpture, painting and calligraphy, and craft objects as well as significant sites, scenic places, and particular plants and animals.” ‘Intangible’ includes “performing skills in traditional theatre and music, and craft techniques.” Those quotes from the brochure are not really adequate to explain the differing concepts involved, but there seems to be a distinction between the object and the activity here. I believe UNESCO has a similar designation now, which perhaps stemmed from the Japanese system.
The show has some gorgeous pieces. What comes across very strongly in the presentation is the attention to detail and evident, intense craft involved in the works. This gives the show an almost reverential feeling in its presentation of the various pieces. The value accorded to the pieces is not unique to this show, of course that is the function and result of placing anything in a museum, it will inevitably gain that ‘aura’ from being isolated for our attention. But this particular show taps into an existing tradition and appreciation of craft which massively adds to this aura.
At the same time these appreciations are not the same. Within a museum, the object loses it’s everyday use value, whereas I get the feeling that while the Japanese craftspeople value perfection and quality, in some ways a piece must be used to be completed. I’m generalising here, and working from limited knowledge, but this is the feeling I get from the show.
So, another wonderful show at The British Museum. As my fiancée keeps telling me, we are very privileged in London to have so many cultural institution on our doorstep.
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