Thursday, July 25, 2019

Art reader's digest

From How to Disappear, by Akiko Busch:

"Soetsu Yanagi was a Japanese potter who advocated for anonymity in folk art. In his 1972 book, The Unknown Craftsman, he includes the absence of the artist's signature in his list of what confers beauty on an object.  Along with use, the imprint of the human hand, simplicity, low cost, and regional tradition, the anonymity that comes in deflecting attention from maker to user is part of what infuses physical artifacts with value and meaning.  Certainly those criteria apply to all those handcrafted household artifacts made of wood, clay, textiles, metal; all those utilitarian plates and spoons; all those touchstones of domestic life, tables, chairs, knives, tools, hinges, and quilts, all shaped, carved, molded, and sewn at a time when such things are largely forgotten, but this archive of objects carries its own collective effervescence over the centuries.  In an odd way, it might even be the very absence of the signature that confirms the humanity of the work."


Thought-provoking, but I'm not sure I agree.

Perhaps it's true that functional objects are more about the user than the maker, but over the centuries the master makers have always commanded more value than the anonymous journeyman.  Think silver made by Paul Revere, fabrics by Jack Lenor Larsen.

I am one of many quilt lovers who are sorry that so many of the old quilts lack a signature.  When the owners of these quilts bring them in for appraisal or display, the ones with ID seem to be more prized; how many family quilts are tagged with a precious slip of paper, perhaps safety-pinned to the binding, noting that great-grandma started this quilt in 1917 and Aunt Minnie finished it in 1940.  Many of my own family "heirlooms" were lovingly wrapped and labeled by my mother.

I'll happily use an anonymous doily in my fabric collage, but I'd never cut into one made by my grandmother.  At some point I'll have to add a second label to this roll, explaining that it was my mother who wrote "my mother."  And just to make things clear, I'll add her name -- Ida Wilhelmina Fahselt Burtzlaff.  Because I think it's good to know who made something special.

What do you think?


  1. Oh yes, I so agree. I was given a hand-painted dish by a newly found cousin (once removed) because she knew it was painted by a paternal great grandmother of mine and that I had very little in the way of items from and knowledge about that branch of the family. I was so grateful and fully expected to see some sort of maker's mark on the back of the plate, but no. China painting was very popular as a hobby during her time and not something one would sign I suppose. I only have this cousin's word that it was done by her, recorded on an index card. I think there is a greater link to the past and increased understanding of a life when there is a detailed story to go along with the item.

  2. Gosh, what a big subject. Here I think is the divide between art and craft - although of course it is not as simply clear cut as that.

    Personal history gives added value to objects made by relatives and ancestors. Quilts for instance with known makers can also appeal to a wider audience who are interested in the history of women's work, whether in particular or in general. But it does not make the work better, simply more fully described. As I say, this is different if it is one's own family members who have made the objects, no matter the quality of the workmanship.

    Such crafts are often made to existing patterns, and I think that it is in cases where the originality of design and/or approach is involved that we add value by knowing the identity of the maker, the originator, because this is the art in the craft, so to speak.