2000 Years of Japanese Art


Hitherto, many factors have contributed to prevent the west appreciating the arts of the east purely as art. The majority of westerners still regard eastern cultures as strange and alien. The civilizations of the east, nurtured in a remote part of the world, have remained objects of curiosity rather than subjects worthy of serious study. Seldom have the arts they produced been considered simply as manifestations of the human spirit which could have a universal appeal.

Why was this so? There are certainly many contributory factors. The east, of course, is far removed from the west. In the east, man and nature have produced a different environment with totally different ways of life, religions, customs, languages, literature, and history. The materials and techniques of their arts differ radically from those of the west. It is easy to understand that anybody who bases his ideas of art on those of the west should feel that the products of eastern artists are somewhat unfamiliar. The result has been to create a large body of specialists in the fields of eastern folklore, geography, religion, language, literature, anthropology, and history whose duties have been to interpret the east to the west. Their specialized studies were, without doubt, of the greatest value and interest.

However, eastern art is art as much as any other art. It is equally an intimate expression of the human soul. Its fundamental characteristics spring from the same eternal values which make it appeal to all men. Like truth and goodness, which are also manifestations of our highest aims, so beauty, regardless of its place of origin, must make a universal appeal. This is not to deny the fact that many elements of geography, history and race play a vital part, but fundamentally the values which give an object beauty, life, and reason, are universal. Anybody with a keen perception and an open mind can understand their true character. It has, in a sense, been a misfortune that the great differences of cultural background and historical development have invited only the attention of scholars and that the difficulties of these studies have tended to obscure the fundamental artistic values of eastern art. Indeed, deep research into the background of eastern art requires so much specialist effort that it rarely enables a man to appreciate fully the basic artistic qualities of a work of art; as one would say in English it is difficult for specialists 'to see the wood for the trees'. The result has been that those who concern themselves with oriental art are, for the most part, orientalists, that is to say scholars devoted to research in oriental subjects. They are seldom artists and critics whose main function is to assess art in terms of human values. Thus, the idea is current in the west that eastern art is a recherché subject which demands a great deal of preliminary knowledge. The courage to look at eastern art with one's own eyes, and to respond naturally to it, is still greatly lacking.

The arts of the east have shared in the great strides made in recent years in all branches of oriental studies, but one important step remains to be taken. They must be rescued from the hands of specialists and brought back into the realm of art studies. Having spent many years as a specialist, I should be the last to deny the importance of oriental studies. However, I feel that inquiries into the historical and linguistic backgrounds are only means to an end--which is the true knowledge of art. We must realize that, if we base our appreciation of all art on an assessment of its fundamental quality of beauty, then there should be no difference between east and west.

Additional information

Publisher: Place of publication:
  • London
Publication year:
  • 1958


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