Friday, 6 June 2008

Can tsuba really be art?

I’m posting this response to a little discussion that’s been rumbling on, on the iron brush forum. I’m putting it here because I don’t want my opinion to be seen as “official policy” there just because I started the thing. I must admit I really do find that sort of discussion, about functionality , to be very much out of place on that forum. The Bladesmiths forum, Sword Forum International and E-budo are all far more appropriate places for such ponderings.

The only aspect of functionality that is relevant to art is what it brings to our interaction with it. I say interaction because it is a process of exploration. Of the work, and of oneself. This is where the fun lies, this process of being changed by what we study, and then, again, seeing what we're learned in a different light...and so the cycle repeats.

Some art is capable of keeping this process of re-evaluation going far longer than others...the greatest art...perhaps, never stops, as long as we don't.

To return to my babies, tsuba, there are in fact a number of practical considerations I am always working from. The plates ability to withstand a sword strike is absolutely not one of them however. I seriously doubt it ever was.

A very common guard at the time when warfare was rife in old Japan, was merely lacquered leather. Hardly bullet proof! ;)
There was also a fashion for guard-less swords. When we do see guards on older, utilitarian, swords they are often very thin, 3 or even 2mm thick. Clearly not too much concern with anything more than the bare minimum.

For me, the "practical" considerations have to do with the feel of the guard against my hand when on the hilt. I don't want a cheese grater rubbing away at my flesh The size and shape is very relevant too, I don't want it impeding my grasp of the hilt when I draw the sword.

The most easily recognised, visual, consideration is the decoration and it's placement in relation to how the sword is worn. This "display" is probably the most significant aspect of a tsuba's function. It signals the taste and sensibilities of the wearer, whether hardened warrior, officious bureaucrat or ostentatious merchant. Once these aspects are fully understood, and become unconscious, the real work of trying to sculpt your art begins.

This sort of work is not quite sculpture and not yet painting, we have far too many restrictions in that regard, but, we can have the best of both worlds...if we learn the medium well. This is what I'm engaged in, it's what excites me.

I won't argue that there are not a lot of "show off", and" parade" type tsuba in existence but just because there are millions of "chocolate box " style painters out there too doesn't mean that a painter can't still achieve something meaningful using that particular art form. So too, there have been many, truly great, artists in the miniature art form of tsuba. The language they developed is still not well known, beyond a few, very refined, connoisseurs.

As for defending myself, what is there to defend? Despite appearances, I am not trying single-handedly to preserve a tradition , I merely offer my experience and what little I do know, that works. I have tried to present my rationale in these matters too. There is not much more I can do. Traditions only survive, in a vital way, if the ground out of which they have grown is well assimilated. Only then can we say that we are working as part of a particular continuum. Anything less is just clip-art.

And by "we", I mean anyone who actually wants to try and make that journey into Classical Japanese metalwork. Not every one is that bothered to, they may have equally valid artistic concerns that lead them elsewhere.

I must confess to a little discomfort though, at the superficial borrowing of the obvious, and most easily applied, aspects of the tradition I value so much. It is a very sophisticated language that the master metal artists of the past have left us, a language I am trying to interpret , as accurately as I am able, so that I can gain something more than merely fashionable gimmicks.

To paraphrase the 18th century Chinese writer, Shen Tsung-ch'ien ( The Art of Painting, 1781 )
Do not slavishly copy the masters of the past, seek instead that which they sought.

Namaste, and keep tappin’

1 comment:

Lorenzo said...

Although I shall really not comment this, I just want to thank you for having put in decent words the concept i tried to express on theironbrush relatively to "there are other forums for that". That sentence unfortunately made some fiends angry, while my meaning was exactly what you wrote here.. seems you added that lines to your text to help me and I am grateful for that.