- Kingdom of Beauty: Mingei and the Politics of Folk Art in Imperial Japan
Folk art has been big business around the world for half a century. This trade appears to have been fueled by both consumers' hunger for products that provided a sense of authenticity and makers' desire to differentiate their work from nineteenth-century notions of high art. In the United States, in addition to a handful of magazines and dozens of specialist galleries, museums such as the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe (founded 1953), the American Folk Art Museum in New York (founded 1961), the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles (founded 1973), and the Mingei International Museum in San Diego (founded 1978) display, and in many cases sell, work described as "folk art." Similar institutions thrive in locales ranging from Mexico to France.
Though varyingly and vaguely defined, the term "folk art" has been accepted into the standard international lexicon of the art market. This is true despite the close connection between the origins of the folk art movement in the interwar period and the early twentieth-century European and American obsession with "primitive" art from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. The art world's early myopia regarding the colonial context for the collection of such "primitive" art as well as its longstanding refusal to acknowledge the enormous influence that such works had on modern Western painting and sculpture inspired an entire genre of scholarship, including seminal works of museum studies such as James Clifford's The Predicament of Culture and Sally Price's Primitive Art in Civilized Places.1 These [End Page 113] and other publications helped to educate artists and museum curators, and even some collectors, about the profoundly unequal exchanges that permitted both the conceptualization and constitution of "primitive art" and "primitivism" in our shared global history.
Folk art, though similarly entangled with the history of art, modernity, and colonialism, has received less critical attention. In the case of Japan, the folk art movement (mingei undō, also translated as the "folk craft movement") became a major force in the shaping of pre- and postwar discourses about art and the nation. Central figures such as Yanagi Muneyoshi (a.k.a. Sōetsu) and the British Orientalist Bernard Leach acquired international fame as theorists and authors, with writings that have been translated into many languages and continue to sell well today. Early Japanese folk artists such as Hamada Shōji, Kawai Kanjirō, Munakata Shikō, and Serizawa Keisuke became similarly famous, though detractors have been vocal in their critique of the gap between the ostensible humility of the folk artist and the celebrity, wealth, and power of these iconic men. Most English-language writing about Japanese folk art has emerged from inside the movement, offering little social context or political analysis. The anthropologist Brian Moeran moved beyond folk art ideology in his 1984 book Lost Innocence,2 but the relationship between mingei and Japanese colonialism continued to exist as the elephant in the room of English-language analyses of Japanese art.
This gap began to be filled in the late 1990s and the opening years of the twenty-first century. Briefly recounting this chronology of publications in English will help to situate the work under review. First, Kim Brandt completed a Ph.D. dissertation on the mingei movement in 1996, but the work was not made public. Next, in late 1997, the British potter and author Edmund de Waal published an unusually cutting biography of Bernard Leach, one of the key players in folk ceramics in Japan and England.3 In 1999, the art historian Yūko Kikuchi completed a Ph.D. thesis on the topic of nationalism and Orientalism in the mingei movement. In 2000, Brandt published her first work on folk art, an article titled "Objects of Desire."4 Then in 2004, Kikuchi published the revised version of her thesis as a monograph, titled Japanese Modernisation and Mingei Theory.5 The volume under review here...