?

Log in

No account? Create an account
click opera
February 2010
 
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
 
 
 
 
 
 
Fri, Jan. 11th, 2008 05:38 am
What are you wearing, Living National Treasure?

Since we were in the vicinity (getting Hisae's MacBook cable fixed by the master craftsmen at the Gravis Flagship Apple Store), we decided yesterday evening to swing by Yamashina, Berlin's only Japanese bookstore. I wanted to see if it was as bad as I remembered; as damp, as understocked and overpriced.

It was; the shop was cold, the owner gruff, the books (an odd mixture of new and secondhand) absurdly expensive, and most of the magazines were a couple of years out of date. They had the current Zipper, but its styled street looks didn't interest me; instead I got engrossed in a sale-box of copies of Living National Treasure magazine. Here, instead of cheerful young women, were ancient, deeply serious octogenarians in formal costumery bespeaking a fabulous flamboyance. It reminded me of the insight I had in December (and here I flirt with one of the tail-chasing paradoxes I've been criticizing this week) that it isn't just individuals who can be "expressive" -- there can be expressive groups too.

Looking at the wonderful outfits worn by ancient potters, cutters, noh actors and bunraku puppeteers on the cover of Living National Treasure magazine (my new favourite street snaps source!) I remembered how the most bizarre and best outfit I wore in 2006 was the shakuhachi player's outfit a Kyoto flute master had me try on. It involved wearing a whole head-covering wicker basket "hat" more avant -- and yet more retro! -- than anything you're likely to see on the "radically individualistic" Paris and Milan catwalks. Outlandish!

Seeing that its national traditions were dying out, Japan passed in 1950 a Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties, covering mostly buildings and objects (castles, statues, pottery). Later, in 1954, this was extended to cover people. Dubbed "Living National Treasures" (Ningen Kokuhō) by a 1955 newspaper article, these potters, woodblock printers, textile designers, actors, shakuhachi masters and swordsmen -- performing artists and craftsmen -- are more accurately described by their official name: Important Intangible Cultural Properties.

The first individual to be designed an Important Intangible Cultural Property was a woman, Yachiyo IV. Japanese craft masters often use these monarch-like titles (although Yachiyo, a dancer in the ancient Kyoto style, later reverted to her real name, Aiko Inoue). The names underscore something this essay also points out: that these people aren't important for who they really are, but for what they know. Each of them has stocked up valuable knowledge of a tradition which will die with them if they don't find a successor to pass it on to. The moment they're designated Important Intangible Cultural Properties, the search for a pupil-successor begins. It's a kind of relay race against time. The tangible objects can look after themselves in museums, but knowledge wrapped up in human flesh has to pass on its cultural DNA or die. The death of a Living National Treasure isn't just the death of an individual, it's something much more significant: the death of a tradition stretching back millennia.

Japan's Agency for Cultural Affairs gives grants to the Intangibles, helping them to improve their techniques and foster successors. Seeing the success of the Japanese system, Korea and Taiwan soon followed, and UNESCO advocates spreading the system all over the world. The category of Important Intangible Folk-Cultural Properties was later added to cover people like fishermen and festival functionaries who were the bearers of endangered competencies and skills.

This isn't about auteurship -- as in most craft and folk traditions, the collective is more important than the individual. The problem here is that an individual risks becoming a bottleneck, the sole remaining repository of the wisdom, etiquette and habitus of a vanished collective. Rather than existing to boost the egos of a few old people, the Living National Treasures system is designed to route around them -- to rescue ways of knowing and doing from a too-frail individual vessel, to stripmine banks of data from a dodgy, unreliable hard disk before it fails, to take the cultural eggs out of one basket. Death, here, threatens to interrupt the continuous refinement and transition of craft skills.

As in most Trad / Anon folk and craft systems, certain values which we tend to think of as the opposite of creativity prevail: seniority, collectivity, impersonality, hierarchy, copying, rote, interpretation rather than creation. The laboratory part, the R&D part, is missing from this system, although a kind of collective problem-solving replaces it. And, just as the Living National Treasure doesn't become a vain prima donna -- she knows it's what she knows, not who she is that's being recognized -- so the Important Intangible Cultural Property dresses in ways which express collective and ancient values, not individual modern ones. Any flamboyance we may see in the old darlings' workwear and "street fashion" is accidental -- and absolute.

32CommentReply

imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jan. 11th, 2008 04:55 am (UTC)

Actually, my contrast between Zipper and Living National Treasure magazine breaks down somewhat when you look at the ultra-trad folk costume on the cover of the current Zipper:


ReplyThread

(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand



(Anonymous)
Fri, Jan. 11th, 2008 09:00 am (UTC)

Surprising. Fresh.


ReplyThread

(Anonymous)
Fri, Jan. 11th, 2008 09:02 am (UTC)

We talked about this heuristocrat thing THREE YEARS AGO.


ReplyThread
imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jan. 11th, 2008 04:12 pm (UTC)

I know you're just a sneery internet echo, but yes, I've been blogging now for four years and one of the things that still excites me most about it is how there can be a kind of dialogue -- not just the way my own themes this week bounced off each other, trying to resolve their contradictions ("Are laboratories important in culture? But what about communal folk tradition and "living treasures?"), and not just the way these thoughts are rooted in specific things I've seen, places I've been, but also how the things I thought this week hit themes I hit in the past (link that, increase the complexity, find more contradictions to resolve!) or hit themes other bloggers thought about at other times. In other words, I'm not only bouncing off my own themes now and my own themes then, but also other bloggers views now and their views then, based on things they did then.

"Heuristocracy" is an idea Whimsy came up with in 2004 after visiting The American Philosophical Society’s exhibit on the visual culture of natural history in early North America.

The process I'm describing here is exciting because it sees abstract ideas vested not just in events, but in personalities. As we accumulate new experiences, we see old ideas from slightly different angles. I know you're Anon, Anon, and just an echo, but you might like to try this vested thing -- writing as yourself for a number of years, seeing the same ideas coming up, finding political contradictions in what you're endorsing (Do I believe in progress, or am I a relativist? Do I believe that individual critical distance is possible, or that we're collective animals determined by culture and can't step outside it?), bouncing off other personae with similar interests and concerns, but crucial differences in perspective. Having a persona, and being vested, is great. It takes blogging -- and the internet -- to a whole new level. It's a hell of a lot more interesting than being a sarky echo. You should try it!


ReplyThread Parent Expand


(Anonymous)
Fri, Jan. 11th, 2008 01:26 pm (UTC)

With no katakana or English on the cover that magazine basically looks Chinese.


ReplyThread

(Anonymous)
Fri, Jan. 11th, 2008 04:17 pm (UTC)
Plaster

Unesco initiative is, at first sight, good scout action, but it hides in its bowels two perils. It throws gasoline in the nationalistic bonfire; and it covers Culture – an organic and ever-changing element – with a plaster of tradition gypsum.


ReplyThread
imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jan. 11th, 2008 09:09 pm (UTC)
Re: Plaster

It's funny, every time I say something about UNESCO, someone enters with a cautionary note about the organisation. I think it's wild exaggeration to say UNESCO "throws gasoline in the nationalistic bonfire". Surely the main threat today is the eradication of difference, not its preservation? Given two bad scenarios, one dominated by national differentiation and the other by standardization, surely standardization is by far the more likely to happen, and to destroy more human languages, crafts, ways of life?

And to say that UNESCO somehow stops culture developing is also a ridiculous exaggeration. Japan, Korea and Taiwan, the nations most keen on this sort of National Living Treasure scheme, are also the nations which innovate most avidly, creating more new futuristic forms and spending more money on R&D in relation to GDP than anyone else. UNESCO -- or government protection of bunraku masters and potters -- is not in the least bit at odds with this, or a threat to it. In fact, they're two sides of the same basic respect for creators and makers and skills.


ReplyThread Parent
timelyreference
timelyreference
Fri, Jan. 11th, 2008 07:26 pm (UTC)
This

Things have matched up quite nicely this week, momus, -my compliments- particularly this article when paired with the previous of that sulky architect.


ReplyThread
imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jan. 11th, 2008 08:41 pm (UTC)
Re: This

Yes, I think I've caught myself red-handed in an act of "asymmetrical multiculturalism" -- the idea that it's fine for people from another culture to be conservatives, but not fine for someone from my own to do the same.

This, plus the emphasis on progress in all the lab features I ran, makes me a fairly typical liberal.


ReplyThread Parent Expand

Re: This - (Anonymous) Expand






(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand



Re: This - (Anonymous) Expand


(no subject) - (Anonymous)
imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jan. 11th, 2008 08:53 pm (UTC)

What's so remarkable about that (great!) performance is how it combines the "timeless" with the "timely". Nomi finds a vocabulary of coldness and freezing in Purcell's aria which relates very much to the Cold Wave / New Wave idiom he was working in, and emphasizes it with robotic arm and glazed eyed gestures familiar from the Cold Wave repertoire (everyone from Howard Devoto to Gary Numan was doing variants on them at the time). But he performs this self-requiem fur ewig -- and the gestural coldness will shortly be all too real for him -- with a full orchestra and a room full of 17th century ghosts. In tune, in time and -- soon enough -- out of it.


ReplyThread Parent Expand

(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
Fri, Jan. 11th, 2008 08:49 pm (UTC)

What Japanese authors are you into Momus? I myself have an eye for Haruki Murakami, Ryu Murakami, Osamu Dazai and Kenzaburo Oe (Though I haven't read anything by the two latter, yet).


ReplyThread
imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jan. 11th, 2008 08:55 pm (UTC)

Mishima is the one who's marked me the most, I think. Then Soseki. But also Dazai and Ryu Murakami. I've read some Haruki Murakami, but not really followed up; there's just too much of a clamour about him in the West, and I'd rather stay out of it for now. Snobbism, no doubt.


ReplyThread Parent Expand




(Anonymous)
Fri, Jan. 11th, 2008 10:55 pm (UTC)

A vain prima donna -- he knows it\'s who he is that\'s being recognized, not what he knows.


ReplyThread
destron0
destron0
Destron
Sat, Jan. 12th, 2008 01:05 am (UTC)

I was first introduced to the concept of a living national treasure a few years ago while visiting a high-end pottery shop near Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto. The shop owner was very friendly and took me to a back room where I saw some wood-craft boxes made by a living national treasure before they were to be sent to a museum in Tokyo.

All in all, I must say that the system seems to be working fairly well. General knowledge of traditional arts and crafts in Japan is much higher than it is here in the U.S. Perusing the bookshops I see many in-depth guides for on the process of traditional arts and crafts. I would love to see the same thing in the U.S. but we are too focused on constantly being on the move forward. Change is good; if it isn't new it is to be forgotten.

How does the system account for accidental death of one of these treasures? Each should realistically have multiple students to ensure a blood line. You know how difficult it was for the Caesars to find successors...


ReplyThread

(Anonymous)
Sun, Jan. 13th, 2008 08:18 am (UTC)
Shozo Sato

I got to meet Shozo Sato in Chicago (a Japanese Living National Treasure) and watch a)A play that he directed - "Kabuki Lady Macbeth"! b)A flower arranging demonstration that he put on and c)a live ink printing ceremony that felt very spiritual. Looking back, I am wondering if he was a living national RENAISSANCE treasure?? Is this possible? Was he a living national treasure of Kabuki, flower arranging, calligraphy, or a 3? Afterwards, I got into a huge conversation with my boyfriend about what would happen if one was to kidnap a Living National Treasure? Does anyone know the official repercussions?

s


ReplyThread