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Posts Tagged ‘canon’

I’ve been interested for quite some time now in the canon, how it is formed, how it evolves and changes, and its impacts upon our world. I think it comes, in large part, from studying Japan, and Okinawa (and, increasingly in the last few months, Hawaii and the Pacific), and developing a sort of anti-Eurocentric perspective, or even agenda – and thus learning to question the Western canon, and the supposedly universal value assessments upon which it is based. There is a widespread popular belief, I think, that the most famous works, the most well-known works, have achieved that status because they deserve it – because they are genuinely, inherently, of superior quality in some way. And that may well be true for many of these pieces, in one way or another. An art historian expert in the Western canon could likely explain in quite some detail just what it is about Michelangelo’s David, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, or Van Gogh’s Sunflowers that make them just so worth elevating. But what the art historian recognizes that I think the average person on the street never questions, is that these works came to be appreciated in this way, for these reasons, at a particular time. Just because something is a classic today does not mean it was always a classic – someone made that decision, that distinction, at a given time, and pushed it forward, pushing it into the canon through exhibition display, critical publication, emulation of style, referencing, or by other means.

In his new book The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature, Michael Emmerich argues that this is what happened with the Tale of Genji. People today, both in Japan and around the world, count the Genji among the greatest works of Japanese literature, and at least insofar as it is oft-claimed as the world’s very first novel (and written by a woman, no less!), has gained a place in the canons of world literature, being often touched upon, if however briefly, in survey courses and survey textbooks of world history, global art history, and world literature. It would be easy to believe that the Genji has always held this status, at least within Japan; I have no doubt that a great many people do believe so. And, the great numbers of paintings, poems, and other visual and literary artworks throughout Japanese history that make reference to the Genji would seem to support this. Emmerich, however, argues that the Genji – though perhaps relatively well-known among elites – was not popularly well-known or well-read among the masses until as late as the early 19th century. Where scholars have been for years and years describing the Nise Murasaki Inaka Genji (“A Fraudulent Murasaki’s Bumpkin Genji”), an illustrated book published in 1829-1842, as a “parody” of the Genji, making humorous references to the Genji and presenting amusing twists on the interpretation of characters and events in the original text, Emmerich suggests that in fact, for the majority of readers, this was not a twist on a well-known classic, but something brand-new, introducing them to an ancient story of which they were previous unaware – in short, Emmerich claims it was the Inaka Genji, and its popularity, that led to the “original” Tale of Genji attaining the canonical position it holds today.

This, of course, is a radical enough claim already, questioning and asserting a new understanding of the most canonical classical text in the Japanese literary canon. But what I find particularly fascinating are the various concepts he introduces in the process of addressing this subject.

An early 17th century painting of a scene from the “Ivy” (Yadorigi) chapter of the Genji. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

He points out the way we all come to experience, understand, relate to, engage with a given literary or theatrical work differently, because our experiences are mediated by – among other things – different versions, translations, or performances of the work. It’s not mentioned explicitly in the interview, but I am pretty sure that no original manuscripts of the Genji survive today – that means that everyone who has read the Genji in any form in the last few hundred years (or, perhaps, even going back as far as seven, eight, or even nine hundred years ago) has only ever read, at best, a later re-copying. Far more likely, they read some kind of translation or adaptation. Even putting aside manga, anime, TV, and movie forms of the story, which we would all immediately recognize as not being the real thing, relative to those, in comparison to those, we tend to think of whatever translation of it we’ve read – by Royall Tyler, or Arthur Waley, or whomever – as having truly read the Genji. Or, if you’re Japanese (or a reader of Japanese literature), maybe you’ve read it in translation into modern Japanese – Emmerich gets into this, as to how this too is a translation – or maybe you’ve even read it in a modern movable-type transcription of the original phrasing. I’ve actually read one chapter – “Yugao” – in the original grammar. Probably the toughest thing I’ve ever read.

The Genji, as represented on the back of the 2000 yen bill.

But, not only are we experiencing the work through different forms, we’re experiencing it in relation to, in connection to, in reflection of, numerous other impressions we have of the work, based on other media, and on things we’ve heard or read or learned about it. The Genji was everywhere in premodern Japanese art – paintings, poetry, woodblock prints – and today, at least, people learn about it in school, and one can practically guarantee that just about every Japanese knows at least something of the story. Now, I don’t know how much the average Japanese person on the street might be familiar with any of this at all, but speaking for myself, as someone who has never really studied literature at all, I know the Genji through paintings, and through woodblock prints, and through “historical” sites I’ve come across in Kyoto, and this most definitely has impacted my impressions of the Genji. So, in a sense, the work is alive, dynamic, existing in countless variant forms, and ever-evolving; if there can be said to be a true, genuine, original version of the Genji, it is not the only one, and all these others are, in their own way, no less real, for these, and not the original, are the many Genjis that readers (and non-readers) know.

It’s for that reason that Emmerich writes, “The global community of Genji’s readership, and of its non-readership, is ultimately linked – translingually, transnationally, transhistorically – by something its members do not hold in common: Genji.” All of these people – people who have read or are otherwise familiar with the Genji – are by the very definition of the category linked by their association with the Genji; but, each is familiar with a different Genji.

A mural in the underground shopping arcade at Kyoto City Hall subway station.

As for the rest, I invite you to read the Interview with Michael Emmerich on Critical Margins, and Emmerich’s actual book, The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature, which itself already has begun to exist in multiple forms – the book itself, as it exists on the page, versus the book as it exists in the minds of those who have some (pre)conception of it based on this blog post, or on the interview linked to.

All photos my own.

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*Yanagi Sôri, pioneer and giant in Japanese design, has passed away at age 96. I’ve read about his father, Yanagi Sôetsu 柳宗悦 (aka Muneyoshi), the founder of the mingei (folk art) movement. Sôetsu is a rather interesting character, his philosophies described by one prominent scholar as “Oriental Orientalism,” as he combatted the growing urbanization, industrialization, mechanization, of his world in the 1890s-1920s or so by turning to rural folk crafts, and to places like Okinawa, Taiwan, Korea, and Ainu lands, where he saw the waves of modernization had not yet reached, or had not yet soaked in as much, where the beauty of “traditional” handicrafts by anonymous craftspeople (i.e. absent the advent of the “modern” concept of the artist) could still be found.

I know less about his son, Yanagi Sôri 柳宗理, and would not mean to presume Sôri’s leanings, Orientalist or otherwise, but it seems beautifully fitting that the son should become such a pioneer in Japanese design, combining what is beautiful and romantic about rural handicrafts with a modern design sensibility. I am sure that his influence extends much farther, and deeper, than I know.

And, yet, there is still no Wikipedia article on him. I wonder if the added/renewed attention from his death will lead to that changing.


*Meanwhile, in other news, io9 and WIRED report on a series of studies (or the same study?) which reveal the power of the canon on our appreciation of art. The mythology of art appreciation in the West tells us that the best art, the true masterpieces, speak to us on some subconscious level, that it’s that stroke of genius that makes them so beautiful, so compelling, so much deeper and more meaningful and more powerful than a nearly identical work by a lesser painter. That there is something hidden in the master’s brushstrokes, or his technique or composition otherwise, that makes the work cross some threshold into masterpiece status.1

Yet, as we might expect, it is not (solely) the beauty or genius of the artwork that speaks to us; the canon, that is, the idea that we know that we are looking at something famous (or by someone famous) and that we ought to recognize it as a cut above, has a powerful impact on our reception of an object as well. Scientists using an fMRI machine to watch people’s brain activity as they were shown images of paintings have now added to the evidence for that phenomenon. Shown pictures by Rembrandt and told they were not by the master and were merely done by his students – or shown works by his students and imitators and told they were by Rembrandt himself – people’s brains lit up less in response to anything intrinsic to the skill or genius of the visuals themselves, responding more to the idea of it being a Rembrandt, or not being a Rembrandt.

Now, the questions and issues surrounding “authenticity” and the concepts of “copies” and “forgeries” are quite popular subjects in the field of art history right now, and I think both of these articles carelessly slip in their word choice here. But, it is my assumption that when they talk about “forgeries” or “copies,” they’re not talking about things produced to deceive, or mechanical or digital reproductions of Rembrandt’s work; they’re talking about genuine, oil-on-canvas, original artworks produced in the Renaissance period by Rembrandt’s students. Not what I would call a “copy” or a “forgery.” … I think it important, and interesting, to note this. But, even so, these findings, if not unexpected, are pretty cool, eh?

It really just helps us call in question all the more so our assumptions about art, about the “genius” of the artist, and about the selection of the canon. We appreciate Rembrandt because we believe we are supposed to, because we have been trained by society, by museums, by art history class, by textbooks, to think that if we don’t see the genius in these works then there is something wrong with us, and not with the artwork. It ties in as well to discourses & social phenomena of cultural capital, and trying to be part of the cultural elite. It may be passé to just stand around and talk about how much you like the Old Masters as if nothing new has come along, and/or as if you don’t have an original thought in your head… it may be “cool” or “hip” to pretend like Michelangelo wasn’t really such a genius after all. But if you tried to argue for that seriously, at a fancy black-tie event in the Metropolitan, with a glass of wine in your hand, well, I don’t know what would happen.

The great masters, and the great masterpieces of history are considered as such because of some superior quality intrinsic to them, absolutely. At the core of every myth, there is a kernel of truth. But, we build up and build up the legends of painters, and of their artworks, appreciating them more for their fame than for their actual content, and being aware of that is a most important step towards revising our individual personal engagement with artworks, if not the entire system.


*Finally, for today, a brief article describing one of the leading book/paper conservation labs in Europe. The Institute of the Pathology of the Book in Rome has handled countless super-famous objects, including pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and objects involved in dramatic historical events – such as a book riddled with bulletholes from a World War II battle, and does very interesting, exciting, and extremely important work.

I’ve commented before on art conservation; I’m just fascinated by it. I think it’s really amazing what these people do.

The article refers vaguely to “a special paper used to ‘reconstruct’ damaged pages” made by a special firm in Japan, making it sound as if this is some super special material developed by this expert firm, when in fact, I suspect, the “special paper” they refer to has less to do with modern technology, and a lot more to do with Japanese craft tradition. Kôzo paper, made not from typical trees as typical paper is, but from a plant known as the “paper mulberry,” or kôzo, has been used in Japan since at least the 17th century, and was quite standard for Edo period prints and books. While I think it might be more absorbent in terms of not repelling the natural oils and sweat from your fingertips, it’s more flexible than today’s white printer paper, less crisp, meaning it doesn’t get creased or crinkled as badly, and it doesn’t tear as easily. Based on my admittedly limited experience visiting two paper conservation labs on opposite sides of the United States, I gather that even outside of conservation labs specializing in Asian materials (e.g. Japanese woodblock prints), the use of kôzo, or other types of traditional Japanese paper (washi 和紙, lit. “Japanese paper”), is really quite standard. So I find it amusing the rather vague way it’s referred to in this article.

What’s not so standard, on the other hand, is the use of “a special ultra-thin plastic film developed in Rome” to affix the Japanese paper. I guess it makes sense, as the right kind of plastic film would be acid-free, totally non-reactive (i.e. so it won’t chemically damage the paper as it ages), and, depending on what they’re actually doing here (the article isn’t clear), if they’re not using any liquid adhesive at all, then even more easily reversible than most techniques. The art & science of museum conservation today stands strongly on the use of reversible techniques, so that conservators in the future, with more advanced insights into material sciences and better conservation technology can undo what we do today, and re-conserve things in a better way. So much damage has been done over the years to artworks by conservators or restorers who, in doing what was cutting-edge at the time, were doing something today seen as destructive or otherwise outdated and not a good idea. Anyway, it’s just interesting that they use some kind of plastic film when the conservators I have spoken to use wheat paste, traditional Japanese methods, or other types of adhesives – generally leaning towards the organic/natural and traditional – to conserve objects. I’m not going to say that one method makes more sense than the other – what do I know, I’m not a materials scientist nor a conservator – but, it’s interesting to learn about a rather different approach.

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(1) Totally incidentally, I recently learned that the word “masterpiece” actually originates from the late medieval guild system, in which the piece one produced in order to graduate from journeyman to “master” was called one’s “masterpiece.” I guess the term is still used sometimes today, when we talk about an artist’s personal growth and development, and how after many years, he produced such-and-such work, his “masterpiece.” But, most of the time, we use this term not to refer to a work in terms of where it fits in an artist’s development, and certainly not in terms of any practical, mundane aspect of guild certification, though I guess we do still have the “Master’s” of Fine Arts, and one’s Master’s Thesis piece, which linguistically doesn’t sound all that far removed from “masterpiece.” Hmm… But still, we do generally use the term “masterpiece” to refer to anything and everything of a certain caliber, regardless of where it fits in a narrative of the artist’s development, right? Interesting, no?, the evolution of terms.

-“Butterfly Stool” designed by Yanagi Sôri, photo by Flickr user Tomislav Medak. Thanks for licensing your photo Creative Commons.
-Self-Portrait age 23, by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1629. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (Boston MA). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
-A Smithsonian paper conservator working on pages from the Jefferson Bible, 17 November 2011. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The collection of Bible excerpts compiled by Thomas Jefferson himself, painstakingly restored/conserved, is on display now at the National Museum of American History in Washington DC, until May 28 2012.

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