A Slow Moving Wheel, an essay for AIT/ Camden Arts Center Residency Project, 2017


A certain understanding of the history of modern art was beautifully captured in the title of Robert Hughes’s 1980 television documentary and subsequent book: ‘The Shock of the New’. Jettisoning cliche, mass culture and ‘fake emotion’ in favor of provocative expressions of living in the Now, the modern avant-garde effectively forged a path through the first decades of the twentieth century. At the cusp of the twentieth century though, there were other lines of inquiry pursued by artists and writers. One of these was the debates which coalesced around art and craft, which echoed particularly strongly in Britain, Scandinavia and Japan. Led in Britain by John Ruskin and William Morris, this inquiry was an attempt to think and practice different approaches to modernity, art, design and living. Crucially in contrast to the more explosive protests of Futurists, Dadaists and Surrealists, Ruskin, Morris and the wider Arts and Crafts movement reflect a call to arms for another kind of humanism in the face of overwhelming industrial progress. It is safe to say that the pages of modern art history are etched largely in the image of the avant-garde, with little attention paid to the deliberations of Ruskin and others. One hundred years later though, we may sense a far broader global art situation in which some of these ‘lost’ histories are being meaningfully re-assessed. The AIT, Camden Arts Center residency partnership focusing on artists and clay is one small reflection of these deeper historical debates.

The residency holds particular resonance because of a particularly strong historical link between Britain and Japan through the important writings and works of Bernard Leach and Yanagi Soetsu. Beginning with the translation and publication of works by Ruskin and Morris into Japanese in the 1880s and its connections with socialist thought in Japan, by 1910 a group of artists and writers including Yanagi Soetsu began a monthly magazine called ‘Shirakaba’ (White Birch). In many respects similar to European journals such as The Blue Rider, this magazine took a broad, mystically tinged perspective, mixing Western art and literature, frescoes by Giotto, Cezanne, poems by William Blake and Japanese folk crafts. This kind of approach to history is today once again common, an attitude of looking for ‘patterns that connect’ as the American anthropologist Gregory Bateson would say. Returning to think deeply again about Leach and Yanagi seems like a rewarding undertaking. Across the chasm of the twentieth century they ask us about the values of what it is to be human, about community, attention and care in making and about the deepest inclinations that have sustained art, what Richard Maurice Bucke in 1900 called ‘cosmic consciousness’. Armed with the critical vocabulary of recent scholarship, how may we once again begin to orbit around these perennial themes? In his introduction to Yanagi’s ‘The Unknown Craftsman’ Bernard Leach writes: “Every artist knows that he is engaged in an encounter with infinity, and that the work done with heart and hand is ultimately worship of Life Itself…a work of art is not an expression of the maker alone, but of a degree of enlightenment wherein infinity, however briefly, obliterates the minor self.” It is surely the task of all those with a sincere interest in art to read these words with an attentive mind and ponder how it can echo with meaning in our own time.