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  • Reading "Calligraphy Is Not Art" (1882)
  • Okakura Kakuzō
    Translated by Timothy Unverzagt Goddard (bio)

Perusing the Eastern Journal of Arts and Sciences, I came upon an article by Mr. Koyama Shotaro entitled "Calligraphy Is Not Art."1 In general, few people have investigated the truth of art, even in ancient Europe. In the East especially, where ancient poets imagined that art could not be inferred by logic, there exists a practice to judge art through convention or intuition:

I call to mind heavenly inspiration and my pen becomes divine,I follow my playful spirit and attain a carefree state,Laughing at those who speak gravely of refinement,In my military garb and court cap, I face the beauty.2

Now, Mr. Koyama alone, breaking with convention and abandoning intuition, asserts that calligraphy is not art. Although he declares that he has grandly shattered the world's delusions, unfortunately the evidence that he offers is not sound. For this reason, it is impossible to prove his contention that calligraphy is not art. This is my chief complaint, and here I present some reasons for my refutation of his argument.

Although Mr. Koyama's theory is presented over three journal issues, numbers eight, nine, and ten, I have reduced the gist of his argument to the following four points:

  1. 1. The various theories that calligraphy is art cannot be believed.

  2. 2. Calligraphy lacks the necessary characteristics of art.

  3. 3. Calligraphy does not fulfill the function of art.

  4. 4. Calligraphy cannot be promoted as art.

Allow me to address the validity of each of these four points in succession. First, Mr. Koyama has the temerity to refute the various commonly accepted theories that calligraphy [End Page 168] is art. Although it is of course not my wish to assume the responsibility of speaking in defense of commonly held fallacies, I have found a number of unjustified points in his refutation. Allow me to posit one or two examples.

Mr. Koyama refutes the argument that calligraphy in this country should be called art because it differs from Western horizontal writing. He claims:

Calligraphy is just a linguistic sign, and can have no other function...its main purpose is merely to convey meaning. If calligraphy conveys meaning without fail, then it has fulfilled its function. Nothing more can be asked of it. There is absolutely no difference in the main purpose and function of horizontal writing and Chinese characters.

He concludes by stating simply that because writing is not regarded as art in the West and our calligraphy has no characteristics to distinguish it from Western writing, there is no special reason to regard it as art. Yet, if one could put forth evidence to distinguish our calligraphy from Western writing, then the faulty logic of his argument should become clear in turn.

"Fine art" is defined in distinction from the "useful arts," and they differ greatly in their main purpose.3 Within the useful arts, however, there are still those objects that fall within the domain of fine art. "Architecture," for example, cannot simply be called "fine art" from the outset.4 A savage can build a hut that fulfills the function of protecting him from the elements, yet this structure does not enter the domain of art. In the general conception of the arts, architecture is an art that seeks both inner substantiality and external beauty. It seeks something more than just protection from the elements. If someone considered all built structures to be fine art, who would deem this theory sound? Writing is just a linguistic sign. Composing characters is a useful art. If the characters are even the least bit intelligible, they will fulfill their function. It is just like building a hut for protection from the elements. Yet our calligraphy does not seek merely the composition of intelligible characters. In striving as much as possible to consider contextual balance, by taking into account the construction of each character, and pursuing cultivation, our calligraphy reaches the domain of art. It differs greatly from the writing of the Europeans, for whom it is enough merely to convey meaning. In medieval Europe, monks specialized in learning, and the common people did not consider...