A Review of “The Beauty of Everyday Things” by Soetsu Yanagi
“The Beauty of Everyday Things,” is a compilation of writings by Soetsu Yanagi (1889 – 1961), an art historian and philosopher of religion, who founded the Mingei (民芸) movement of Japanese folk art, inspired by the beautifully hand-crafted objects created by ordinary and often unknown artisans for everyday use.1 Influenced by John Ruskin and William Morris, his writings on Mingei integrate aesthetics, metaphysics, nationalism and material production. Alongside supporting the efforts of artisans to preserve traditional techniques, Yanagi also founded the Japan Folk Crafts Museum in 1936, which is still open and active today.
Yanagi conceived of Mingei as a collective endeavor channeling nature and natural processes, free from ego and individualism, and characterized by the virtues of humility and simplicity. In practice, the arts would make best use of natural materials from their immediate environment, “seek, in addition to having aesthetic value, to be functional and useful objects to fulfill genuine needs,” and be robust enough to survive repeated use over many years. Objects created might also grow beloved to their owner through repeated use.
It is worth exploring Mingei’s key aspects, including its metaphysical and religious underpinnings, and practical examples and key principles to look for when considering what makes an art form “Mingei.” Further, there exists the possibility of the Mingei approach being applied to traditional Islamicate arts and crafts — in the hope of yielding deeper appreciation and insights. While a Japanese art movement may seem to be an unusual avenue to pursue when considering crafts of very different cultural and religious traditions, I hope to elaborate below on why I think this is viable and worthwhile.
One develops an appreciation for the highly developed aesthetic terminology of Japan, inseparable from Zen and other forms of Buddhism, when reading this book. Indeed, spiritual concerns are highlighted throughout this entire work, with Yanagi espousing a quasi-religious view of art and the use of an intuitive faculty to directly perceive higher truths within forms of art (such a faculty might be translated, in Islamic terminology, as the Eye of the Heart). He has little time for many modern critics who he deems unable to perceive beauty directly, seeking to explain beauty through over-intellectualizing and abstract thought. Some will conflate the beautiful and the ugly and are only misguided in their efforts; others may favor properties such as expense and rarity, which have nothing to do with whether an item of art is beautiful or not.
For the Japanese, beauty and utility are not considered separate, and the creation of art is itself a moral act, with Beauty being the objective. Yanagi uses the terms “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Kingdom of Beauty” interchangeably, quite possibly as metonyms for each other, with a world of Beauty being inherently a world of value and discrimination. As such, current mechanical and automated modes of production are immoral in his eyes, creating objects of short lifespan, with an excess either of aesthetic or utility not balanced by the other.
There is much here that overlaps with Islamic spirituality and Sufism, and as a result, is easily understood. There exists a view of intellection, incorporating direct intuitive perception of higher truths, linking beauty to objective reality and moral discrimination. Yanagi even makes mention of the mind as a mirror, seeking to reflect the true essence of what is perceived, similar to Islamic conceptions of a pure and untainted Heart as being a mirror reflecting higher truths within all aspects of the human self, thus purifying and enlightening a person’s entire being.
A notable observation is made as to how the participation of a multitude in art and the creation of beauty, even in mundane objects, is akin to that of religion, which requires the practice of ordinary adherents, and not just of masters of doctrine or practice such as priests or saints. Perhaps, a yardstick for the decline of any traditional religious civilization is the loss of its supposedly mundane arts and crafts.
The powerful influence of Zen Buddhism on Japanese aesthetics is exemplified through the medium of the tea ceremony (leading to the phrase “Zen and tea are one”). Absence of attachment, escaping duality and an emphasis on simplicity were made manifest in the tangible elements required for the tea ceremony such as the garden, the teahouse and the necessary utensils. These elements might appear rustic, rough, or imperfect to the untrained eye, but in their creation, a true imitation of nature and its rhythms was expressed through the acceptance of an unforced asymmetry or deformity — an artistic freedom untethered from the ego.
Mention must also be made of the Japanese concept of the “Void,” which can be understood as existing as a pluripotent hypostasis from whence all creation issues. Yanagi defines this using Buddhist terminology, with the Void (Mu) containing limitless existence (Yu) and all things being empty of any intrinsic existence of their own (Ku). The latter itself is strikingly similar to Ibn Arabi’s concept of Wahdat Al-Wujud (Oneness of Existence), where the only reality that really exists is God.
Mu has had a profound influence on the arts, from Noh drama to Kabuki as well as multiple aesthetic concepts such as Wabi, Sabi, Muji and Shibumi. Muji (no ground) gave rise to unglazed ceramics left unadorned with deliberately rough textures and subtle imperfections, seeking to embody virtues of humility and simplicity whilst also pointing to the Transcendent.
Mingei Art Examples
Yanagi also provides some concrete examples of what he means by Mingei, from Okinawan Bashofu cloth and Washi paper to traditional indigo Katsuri patterns. He draws out certain unifying principles to determine which art forms should and should not be considered Mingei.
One of these, and perhaps the most profound, is a philosophical exposition on the concept of patterns in art. Yanagi sees patterns as the embodiment of a nature-derived inner essence and reality, to the extent that realism in art is considered to be a form of degeneration and excessive individualism. In indigo Katsuri patterns, the borders are blurry owing to the inherent limitations of precision when traditional methods are used, with a more natural appearance in comparison to modern techniques which obscure the fullest expression of natural processes in art.
Yanagi’s philosophy of patterns has an interesting parallel in Cezanne’s portraits of the landscapes of Provence in southern France (such as Sainte Victoire Mountain), using a demanding system of parallel brushstrokes, which suggests an inner unity in keeping with Cezanne’s aim of painting being “harmony in parallel with nature.”
The Political Aspect
Many nations and cultures were forced to grapple with defining self and nation in the 19th and 20th centuries, reacting to Western dominance in a variety of ways. Japan’s victory over Russia was celebrated in many parts of the world that similarly endeavored to throw off the yolk of the imperial empire, only to be followed by Japan’s crafting of its own empire (seeking to emulate the Western model extant at the time, as befits nations who would regard themselves as “great”).
Yanagi rejected this and sought to draw on art as a source of pride and self-definition, and its being rooted in Japan’s unique spiritual traditions (such as Mahayana Buddhism). He also considers Japanese art as existing within a wider Asian artistic and cultural sphere including China and Korea, though he does indicate that there is a distinctly Japanese perspective. This parallels the views of Kakuzo Okakura outlined in “The Book of Tea,” where Japan’s militarism and “Manchurian killing fields” are disparaged as being worthy of pride or basing national identity on.2
The difference in the Japanese aesthetic perspective from that of the West is also strongly emphasized, with Yanagi “pointing out what was lacking and indicating how one could augment the other.” A sort of epistemological colonization of the intellectual sphere is posited, not based on definite winning arguments but on the lazy assumption that dominance in materialist terms automatically translates to possession of the truth or the correct approach in the intellectual sciences.
Yanagi’s approach to the arts might also be undertaken within the Islamic context, with a focus on its various arts and crafts on similar aesthetic and practical lines having the potential to yield profound insights.
To illustrate, I would be particularly interested in seeing the Mingei approach applied to textile production from my ancestral city of Hama in Syria. Hama’s once-thriving industry of weavers of silk and cotton rivaled that of Damascus, exporting both within the Ottoman empire and also to Europe via the coast.3 The city itself has always had a symbiotic relationship with the pastoralists, nomads and villagers who would sell raw materials to the city and purchase textiles and other manufactured goods in return. Most industries in the Ottoman empire were regulated by craft corporations, which were, in turn, based on the older futuwwa orders pre-dating the Ottomans and based on Sufi tariqas.
A Mingei-inspired study might focus on the natural materials used for weaving and dyeing, the tools and looms, the relevant sociocultural context and an intuitive aesthetic appreciation of the works themselves seeking to draw out the Transcendent. Sadly, such a study may be very difficult to undertake given the ongoing Syrian tragedy.
This is but one example, and the vast array of Islamic arts and crafts that exist would provide ample basis for a series of spiritually-based aesthetic studies that might point the reader toward the Transcendent whilst also safeguarding such traditions from obscurity and oblivion. Yanagi mentions that he dreams of one day creating a museum in the West that is based on Japanese aesthetic principles, yet I wonder if a more sympathetic audience compromised of adherents to the “Middle Way” might be more appropriate, given a shared belief in the Eternal seeking to appreciate its manifest Signs in this life and existence. Through the medium of art, an exploration and appreciation of mutually intelligible metaphysical principles from different traditions could be undertaken, in the spirit of the Qur’anic dictum in Surah Al-Hujurat elucidating the purpose of diversity in His creation of Man: to come to know one another.4
Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.
- Soetsu Yanagi, The Beauty of Everyday Things
- Kakuzo Okakura, The Book of Tea
- James A Reilly, A Small Town in Syria: Ottoman Hama in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
- Qur’an 49:13
Yunus Al-Rifai is a physician residing in the far North of England. His interests include history, philosophy, theology, Japanese art and the Syrian crisis.