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This essay by Dan McKee deals with new directions in ukiyo-e research: historical versus aesthetic discriminations.
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In the early 1990s, a provocative book by Katsuhiko Takahashi appeared in Japan. Entitled "Edo no nyu media" (The New Media of Edo). This work challenged the notion that the ukiyo-e print is a form of art, arguing instead that it was akin to modern mass media, whose functions Takahashi specified in the subtitle of his work, "Information, Advertisement and Play".
The assumption that ukiyo-e is fine art, Takahashi contends, limits the products of the school to be taken into serious consideration, while ignoring the functional value of ukiyo-e in its time. If the fine art label is removed and ukiyo-e examined without the acceptance-rejection and ranking structures of aesthetic discrimination implicit in connoisseurship, what emerges is a form with great cultural, rather than just artistic interest.
Under such a schema, Takahashi contends, toy prints and picture calendars would be seen as works with more depth and interest than standard actor and courtesan portraits, however beautifully designed and produced.
Takahashi devotes the majority of his book to giving examples of some of the practical functions ukiyo-e prints had in their day, from games to scandal sheets, commercials to fashion shows, lampoons to talismans, displaying how we can read the ukiyo-e print as an object for social anthropology rather than art history.
Viewed in a broad historical context, on the ground of cross-cultural politics, Takahashi's argument appears as a sophisticated retrenchment of the old divide between Westerners and Japanese on the status of the ukiyo-e print.
From the late nineteenth century on, Westerners persistently judged ukiyo-e to be among the finest of the Japanese arts, while the Japanese marveled in incomprehension at the ignorance of Americans and Europeans for so cherishing these minor scraps of paper.
After all, ukiyo-e prints were truly "media" in their own day, just as Takahashi describes, mass-produced works on earthy and everyday themes, with functional value as entertainment, souvenir and informal decoration, but not to be confused in any sense with a high, spiritual art like brush painting.
The inability of the Japanese to recognize the aesthetic value of ukiyo-e made prints readily and cheaply available to exporters like Hayashi Tadamasa, who marketed them in Europe as art prints, fetching appropriate prices and making large profits.
The emphasis on the print as fine art, moreover, allowed for a strictly formal approach that required no special knowledge of Japanese language or culture, effectively removing the print from its historical context for a purely aesthetic analysis, a position later openly advocated by Jack Hillier, but underlying most early studies as well.
In time, the Japanese themselves came to take the Western view, to see ukiyo-e prints as fine art, study them seriously, and attempt to bring them "back to the village" (home to Japan).
Takahashi's argument, a challenge to the Japanese to see that ukiyo-e prints were not designed as works of art, but are nonetheless valuable, is thus both a return to the old denial of the print as high art, and a recognition of its importance, on new, one might even say "native", terms.
Ultimately however, Takahashi's work, though it serves as a useful challenge to conventional accounts that treat ukiyo-e prints solely as art objects, tends to be rather over-contentious, and suffers from an inability to clearly distinguish historical fact from a historical aesthetics, or simply put, what ukiyo-e were in their day from how ukiyo-e are viewed today.
First, although it is obvious that ukiyo-e did not conform to the structures of fine art in the West, it is impossible to deny that certain pieces in the form (such as kacho-e) were created with aesthetic beauty as their primary object, in reference to a tradition of "high art" in Asia.
Even in those works that have some additional utilitarian purpose, such as Sharaku's kabuki sheets or Utamaro's pictures of Yoshiwara beauties, the aesthetic concern is not unrelated to the function, for if these "posters" were not attractive to the eye, they would not sell.
It is for this reason that treating them as works of art is not entirely out of place with their own definition in their time. But even if the uses for which ukiyo-e were made and the manner in which they are treated today are in serious conflict, this is not necessarily cause to change our judgment and estimation.
A large percentage of "art", especially pre-modern, in museums around the world was never intended to appear in such a context, and had some functional, religious, or communal purpose in its day.
Therefore, all of the trouble that Takahashi takes to show the utilitarian uses of ukiyo-e prints in their time does nothing to bar their treatment as works of art today. The "art" label is one given to works with high aesthetic refinement, regardless of why the work was created in this way.
Most importantly, the distinction between art and artifact need not be an either-or, but rather two possible ways of looking.
We should be aware that ukiyo-e is both an art and a form of mass media, and be able to adjust our focus to see either mode as primary, without, however, neglecting the features and limitations of the other.
As cultural artifacts, all ukiyo-e signify and have importance. Even the shoddiest, mass-produced hackwork taken from worn blocks is meaningful, in demonstrating the practices and standards of ukiyo-e at a given period.
But there is also room for connoisseurship, the selection of the finest works, which have the refinement and ability to expand consciousness that make them worthy of receiving our focus as "fine art".
The key point, however, is that the minor mode should never be forgotten, as Takahashi neglects the artistic side of ukiyo-e in portraying it as "pure media", and as many modern writers have done in promoting ukiyo-e prints as works of art in a Western sense, blindly applying to them standards that simply are not suited to ukiyo-e.
The problem with modern ukiyo-e studies is not, as Takahashi maintains, that ukiyo-e prints have been viewed as a form of high art, but that, unqualified by a historical understanding of what these prints were in their own day, this view introduces an approach that is entirely unsuited to ukiyo-e, obscuring its nature by transforming it into a Western-style art form.
Specifically, the common assumption about art since the Renaissance has been focused on the individual artist as a figure of genius, who, driven by some internal imperative, creates works of a unique character, thereby transforming the definition and possibilities of a form.
Thus the artwork itself is commonly taken as sign of the artist's character, meaning that the existence of inferior, unoriginal, or otherwise flawed works must be somehow explained away, or the artist will be removed from the first rank.
Although this view has been severely critiqued in academic studies of the last quarter century, it remains dominant in popular thought, as well as in the majority of ukiyo-e studies, which treat prints as works purely determined by individual artists, as though these men were creating from an internal drive and completely free as to their style and choice of subject.
In actuality, when the mode of production and the circumstances under which ukiyo-e prints were designed are examined, these modern assumptions about art and the role of the artist are revealed to be absurd.
Despite some attempts at a more balanced view, such as Thomas Volker's "Ukiyo-e Quartet", however, the artist remains the central, organizing figure in most studies of ukiyo-e, as evidenced by the prevalence of monographs on individual print designers.
Even such a recent and enlightened work as Allen Hockley's Koryusai, though well aware of the dangers of connoisseurship in defining the relative value of prints, and rightly emphasizing ukiyo-e as a commercial art form, yet retains the individual artist as its central principle.
Hockley's work is different from the typical ukiyo-e monograph, however, in that he tempers Koryusai's role in the creation of these prints by examining other forces at play, specifically the expectations and demands of the print buying public, or consumer.
Hockley raises the consumer to the fore as the determining factor in how we evaluate ukiyo-e, dismissing the aesthetic criteria previously used by connoisseurs to create the "master artist" paradigms of ukiyo-e history.
In this privileging of historical over aesthetic criteria, he greatly resembles Takahashi, whose assertion that we must view the roles ukiyo-e prints played in their own time and not simply measure them as works of art is paralleled by Hockley's formula that the "significance" of an artist should be measured by his popularity in his day, as revealed by his productivity, not by some aesthetic evaluation.
Ultimately, however, Hockley's criteria for re-evaluation are no more convincing than Takahashi's; they introduce an interesting, alternative way of looking at ukiyo-e that is historically valid, but not sufficient to unseat aesthetic criteria.
Simply put, though by Hockley's standard, the Meiji kabuki hack Kokunimasa may be historically a more "significant" popular artist than Kabukido Enkyo (the producer of just a few, marvelous okubi-e) because he was more productive in his day, I am probably not alone in maintaining that the latter adds far more value and interest to the history of ukiyo-e than the former.
Innovation and aesthetic achievement cannot simply be overlooked. And the way out of the historical-aesthetic conflict is not by setting new standards for rating the significance of artists, but by doing away with this central focus on the artist altogether.
Thus the very qualities of the approach that make Hockley's book such an important breakthrough in ukiyo-e studies mitigate against his attempt to recuperate "significance" for the individual artist, to have Koryusai recognized as an important figure.
In a curious way, the main and subtitle of Hockley's book are reversed, and the title of the properly thought-out work should read: "Floating World Culture and its Consumers: The Prints of Isoda Koryusai [as a Case Study]".
For by attempting to carve out a place for Koryusai in ukiyo-e history, albeit not as a "master" in the traditional sense, Hockley falls into the error of emphasizing the centrality of the artist, leading to inevitable problems.
Koryusai is credited, for example, with playing the deciding role (albeit in reference to consumers) behind the production of his works in series, as well as presumably the choice of themes for his series, the coloring of his designs, their format, and various other aspects of his surviving work.
"Master" status is claimed for him as a commercial artist, for his ability to intuit and meet public demand with his works--as though there were no mediating publisher feeling out the market through sales and telling, or at least suggesting to Koryusai what to produce.
For if Koryusai is an artist, as he is taken to be, then the artist, as an individual creating a particular vision of the world, must necessarily be invested in and responsible for all qualities of his finished work. But is Koryusai an artist, in that celebrated sense of the term, simply because we take his work as art?
In the language of the Tokugawa Era, he is an e-shi, a craftsman of pictures, and though his signature appears on the work, as an identifying mark and commercial label, so for that matter does the publisher's (and in later prints, the block carver's).
In fact, Koryusai's status as "artist" is called into question from the very first page of Hockley's finely detailed book, in which we discover that Koryusai averaged approximately four designs a week throughout his working career.
Immediately, this fact suggests that Koryusai's relationship to his work was far looser than that of the idealized modern artist, who pours all of his angst and energy into shaping and reshaping the perfect work, not satisfied until the expression of his inner world is perfected.
Hockley is of course keenly aware that Koryusai was a commercial artist, who fulfilled commissions, borrowed ideas and designs from others, and created works aimed at satisfying various public demands, not some internal imperative.
He knows that Koryusai did not create out of some burning need to draw courtesans, erotic scenes, and birds and flowers, but that his skills in each of these areas met with public interest and satisfaction, making him a success, as well as defining him in particular ways as a designer.
Yet Hockley continues to assume Koryusai's determining powers over his finished work, to posit Koryusai's interests and vigor through them, to credit Koryusai alone for his commercial success.
Given the relationship of the ukiyo-e designer to his work, and the roles played by publisher, block carver and printer in producing these works to satisfy the buying populace, is it still really possible to concentrate on Koryusai as the be-all and do-all, the mover and shaper of the work bearing his name?
Hockley's work, with its emphasis on consumers and the commercial nature of ukiyo-e, is on the verge of answering this question, but retreats, instead positing the consumer in place of the connoisseur as the means to establishing the importance of the individual artist. And thus the old structure of celebrating the artist is re-built, simply on new ground.
But in fact, rather than stabilizing the importance of the artist, the focus on the consumer and the commercial nature of ukiyo-e actually undoes all of our assumptions about artists, asserting in their place the centrality of the work.
The simple fact is that we cannot say with any certainty just how much of a surviving ukiyo-e print was the creation and responsibility of the designer whose name appears on it as signature.
Considering the use of studio pupils in the creation of designs, the other members of the ukiyo-e quartet, and the all-important fifth player, the purchasing public, it is in fact hard to say anything with certainty about the signing designer, his interests, aesthetics and nature.
But what remains firm bedrock is the work itself, which tells us in composite about this performing orchestra, in which the "artist" perhaps plays first fiddle, leading and defining the tempo, yet is still but one voice among several in the performance.
One might further note in this analogy that it is the conductor (the equivalent of the Tokugawa publisher, who controls but does not perform) who today receives the lion's share of "maestros" and "bravos". Not so the ukiyo-e publisher, Tsutaya Juzaburo aside.
On the other hand, one might argue, it is no difficult task for one versed in their styles to distinguish an unsigned shunga by Harunobu from one by Koryusai, and this fact would seem to indicate intrinsic differences between the personalities, aesthetics and approaches of these artists.
To some extent, this is certainly the case, the artist's "signature" being in the stylistic approach to the subject matter, as well as sometimes even in the subject matter itself.
Yet, while the intrinsic idiosyncrasy of each individual designer cannot be fully denied, it is also important to see how the "designer" function operated within Tokugawa commercial practices, how the designer was at times as much a product of the works appearing under his name as the works products of the designer.
The name of the designer, along with the nature of the work, was a key selling point in Tokugawa Japan, as evidenced by the famous scene from Ukiyoburo in which women argue the relative merits of Kunisada and Toyokuni.
Like a famous label on a product, the known designer's signature stood for a certain level of quality, as well as certain qualities of the work. These were doubtless in part a reflection of the artist in relation to the buying public, but also a product of the creation of that artist's image in relation to the buying public, more than likely consciously produced by using different coloring, format, subject matter and even carving techniques.
No more than we should attribute the design of certain name brands directly to the people associated with them should we assume the pure reflection of Koryusai the man in prints bearing his signature. Such an equation is simply not tenable in a commercial art form like ukiyo-e.
Now, to be fair to Hockley and those like him who would challenge the status quo in our understanding of ukiyo-e, it is necessary to acknowledge how the designer or artist function still operates in the publishing market today, and the necessity of working within these expectations in order to have a work with radical implications reach the public eye.
In other words, Hockley is laboring under some of the same limitations as his subject in having to satisfy a body of consumers, with certain desires for the familiar and comfortable - that is to say, the artist at center.
Changes in the expectations of this market, as Hockley described with Koryusai, come incrementally, through a combination of convention and innovation, and investment-concerned publishers are not likely to risk alienating their customer base with completely unfamiliar ideas.
Thus, making Koryusai the focus of his book may have been a necessary compromise for Hockley, in order to present a number of new ideas about the importance of consumers in evaluating ukiyo-e . The reviewer, to the contrary, is in the easy position of being able to imagine ideals, without wrestling with real world limitations.
Let me be unequivocal then, in asserting the importance of Hockley's work in ukiyo-e studies, while also theorizing further along the lines it takes us. We can only hope that works like Hockley's lead us to yet more radical reformations of our assumptions about ukiyo-e printmaking.
Moreover, on the ground that there is some internal cohesiveness in the work appearing under the name of a given designer (usually, though extreme cases of "multiple personality disorder" are apparent in ukiyo-e as well) it is as viable to produce a scholarly work focused on an individual name as on a particular style or movement, so long as what is being studied is the "artist effect" and not the individual as the ultimate source of all aspects of his print work.
Such a work must be very cautious not to cross the line between the analysis of related works and biography, to assume that the reasons for transformations in an artist's style are necessarily due to some growth of his character and abilities or development in his personal life, or to assign the artist credit or blame for every aspect of the work bearing his name.
The most pernicious case of this latter tendency in past ukiyo-e studies is the treatment of Toyokuni I by Michener, Hillier and others, who crucify Toyokuni against the cross of the individualistic Western artist, finding him wanting in originality, and blaming a defect in his character for all the faults associated with the mass-production of ukiyo-e in the nineteenth century.
The many biographies of Hokusai and Hiroshige that focus on the artists' personal lives as a means to understanding their art are no less flawed, invariably assuming that these designers had complete control over their subject matter and the final products of their designs for prints.
If we took these monographs at their word, we would have to assume that the rise of the landscape print was the result of the intimate relationship of these artists with nature, rather than of profound social changes.
Understanding ukiyo-e printmaking as a commercial form, in which aesthetic interest was an important, though not always primary concern, forces us to examine the products and makers of this form in a different light.
Ukiyo-e designers were not artists in the modern sense of the term, and did not always strive to create 'art' as we would define it. Therefore, to hold them up to the standards of creativity and quality expected of artists in a European context is to misunderstand their role and the expectations of them in their own time.
Likewise, to "read" ukiyo-e printmakers through their work, to credit or discredit them for all aspects of that work, or to explain that work solely through relation to some event or development in the printmaker's personal life is largely a fruitless activity.
Rather, a better way to understand prints meaningfully is as a communal activity, in relation to the larger movements, standards and interests of their time, which go far beyond the designers as individuals. This is not to say that the designer and his life experiences are of no relation to the work produced, but rather that these are not usually factors of primary concern.
The reasons for a work's existence lie elsewhere, and the work at best represents a meeting of the designer's private world with the broad, public demand that allowed it to take form. To stress the central role of the designer in such a schema, therefore, does not make sense.
Ultimately, the attempts to redefine the ukiyo-e print in the works of Takahashi and Hockley are historically valid and add much to our understanding of this form. Where each of these authors falls short, however, is in attempting to replace an aesthetic approach with a strictly historical one, and not seeing that these criteria are both valid and not necessarily exclusive.
The dual views of ukiyo-e prints as media/popular culture and as works of art are not incompatible if we retain a bifocal vision, allowing us to see them as pieces with both practical uses and aesthetic ideals.
But we should guard against allowing ourselves to slip into common assumptions about the nature of art and the artist when we view ukiyo-e as art, remembering always that these prints are part of an artistic tradition and mode of production very different from those familiar to most of us.
If we look at ukiyo-e only for its formal, artistic qualities, as Hillier preached, we will miss the often profound social, political and cultural implications of the work. But if we see ukiyo-e only as media, then the aesthetic qualities of lines, colors and forms will be lost to us as well.
Likewise, we should foreground the historical facts of ukiyo-e, the nature of the print as commercial art and the many deep ramifications of this structure, but not thereby dismiss the aesthetic evaluation of the products of this practice for an non-interpretative acceptance of history as a given in determining "significance".
If ukiyo-e prints can be taken as works of art, we should not therefore assume that they were intended to be so, and keep our eyes open to the qualities that make them unique among the world's historical artifacts.
(June 2004, updated by Dieter Wanczura in September 2009)
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