From Craft to Kōgei
Masahiro Karasawa, Chief Curator of Kogei, Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art
In 2013, the Nihon Kōgei Kai (Japan Crafts ‘Kōgei’ Association) organized the commemorative 60th exhibition of Japanese traditional crafts exhibition “From Craft to Kōgei” at the Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art Crafts Gallery, sponsored by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and newspapers. Since that exhibition, whenever the word “kōgei” is translated into English, rather than using the word “craft,” the use of word kōgei, written in Romanized letters of the Japanese alphabet, has been established.
The background of this development is that merely replacing the field of Japanese kōgei with the word “craft” did not fully capture the experience of not only the creators, but also that of gallery officials, collectors, and viewers.
It is well known that the field that the word kōgei signifies is truly vast and complex. By limiting it to the creators, the field can be divided into 3 areas. The first are the works produced by a creator who emphasizes the creativity based on personal aesthetics. The second are works and products made by a craftsman (shokunin) using a traditional method. The third are the works and products referred to as crafts (or kurafuto, written in the Japanese katakana alphabet when writing foreign words).
In this context, what is referred to as “kōgei” rather than “craft” are the works made by artists and the works within kurafuto. For the creators involved in the expressive field of crafts, and for the resulting work, the word kōgei is deemed appropriate.
However, in kōgei, it is not uncommon for the same person to produce a piece of work or product then send them out into the world indiscriminately. Also, viewers do not draw clear distinctions between the pieces of work and enjoy incorporating both into their lives. This ambiguity became a factor, and while there was no distinction between fine art and crafts, among contemporary craftsmen (individual artists), some are involved in efforts to dismantle this ambiguity.
Nevertheless, such craftsmen’s activities are still being translated as “craft.” The rationale is, that regardless of how artistic the work is and how much thought is expressed, it is still merely done as a craft. Therefore, to eliminate the ambiguity and draw a clear distinction for those works, rather than “craft,” “kōgei” is deemed appropriate.
For work to qualify as kōgei, a Japanese craft involving highly skilled technique and rich expression is required. There is an additional important element, which is the “texture” and “tangibility” of the work. This is a prime factor in the appreciation of the works of Japanese craftsmen in particular, and it is the creator’s subtle control over this textural element. This element is not merely a matter of texture, but the demonstration of the emergent properties from material and technique in the work that finely expresses the creator’s feeling. Additionally, this element leads to the work’s significance itself. Upon closer observation of these works created by Japanese craftsmen, one can witness the obvious high level of skill, the material that brings forth the form, and the tangibility aspired by the creator brilliantly coming together as one.
These works created by the Japanese craftsmen are not limited to the innovations of forms and their expression, but they are to be savored for their tangibility. By doing so, it will enable one to see the beauty of kōgei that cannot be fully captured simply with the word “craft.”