by Stephen Masty
Students of Western cultural decline may find parallels in the aesthetic decay of Japan starting in the mid-nineteenth century. These four elements seem to have debased the graphic arts especially: technology, political reform and equality, industrialisation and wealth, and reduced popular support for traditional culture among new elites.
In both places these factors overturned venerable aesthetics, and where tradition and taste recovered they have been relegated to minority status. Yet subsequent Japanese experience points to ways in which aesthetic traditionalism was revived imperfectly, alongside a similar Western experiment.
The flowering of Japanese graphic art began to blossom apace in the mid-eighteenth century, due to a combination of socio-economic change and world-beating technology. Three generations earlier, the end of more than a century of civil wars generally united a feudally-fragmented Japan under a single government in Edo (Tokyo). Peace and agricultural prosperity enabled the delicate so-called “Floating World” of poetry and music, fashion and other earthly pleasures that had hitherto been restricted within the private preserves of noble families and their highest retainers, but now had become accessible places offering a glamorous lifestyle to lesser aristocrats and the new rich, chiefly merchants and artisans since significant industry was still unknown there.
Craving novelty, and not wealthy enough to afford the better class of traditionally hand-painted hanging scrolls or folding floor-screens, the new rich and the aspiring bought wood-cut block-prints instead. These had long existed in a primitive and monochromatic form; in China since the 800s, Japan a few centuries later and Europe in the early Renaissance, but the new ukiyo-e (pictures of the Floating World) were vastly different. The mid-eighteenth century audience was much larger than before, when monks commissioned a block-printed illustration for a religious text, so that artists proliferated, printed illustration grew innovative and subject matter became diverse, shifting from traditional aristocratic views to include scenes of Edo luxury and even romanticised depictions of the poor. In this sense, the changes to Japanese graphic art were not too different than in England during the same period, when an emerging middle-class of successful merchants and shop-owners began to buy Hogarth’s prints.
But Japanese printing technology, laborious as it was, surpassed anything available in the West where pictures were mass-produced in monochrome after being scratched onto steel or copper plates. An ukiyo-e artist transferred his painted paper picture onto a cherry-wood block, based on which expert carvers cut separate blocks for each colour to be used, then each block had its appropriate colour applied by a master printer and, one after another, the inked blocks were pressed onto a single sheet of paper. Woodcarvers had to replicate the ever-changing thickness of an artist’s brushstroke and so they, and the printers, underwent ten-year apprenticeships but together a small team could produce high-quality coloured prints by the thousands. These were snapped up off of street stalls and small shops for a pittance and pasted into albums or hung in household niches, while long and narrow prints were made to decorate central pillars in otherwise flimsy homes which were constructed mostly of bamboo and paper.
In the mid-eighteenth century only a few blocks were needed per picture because only a few colours were applied to each print, but fifty years later the colours were more numerous, a dozen or more wood-blocks were required, and master printers began to impress faint three-dimensional patterns upon a single printed colour and make the backgrounds sparkle with applications of powdered mica.
Nowhere on earth could match Japanese printing technology in terms of colour, quality and mass production: in Europe, well into the nineteenth century, monochrome prints were still hand-tinted by individuals using pots of water-colours, so their work was relatively more costly per piece, idiosyncratic at best and often sloppy.
But by only three decades into the nineteenth century, Japanese printers were using up to two dozen colours each on separate blocks. The graphics that they replicated were by then startlingly innovative, sometimes putting the main subject deep into the background as in Hokusai’s “The Great Wave,” where Mount Fuji (in a series of views of Fuji) peeks from behind dramatically stormy seas. In Europe in the last quarter of the nineteenth-century, French Impressionists collected them voraciously and Japan’s ukiyo-e aesthetic influenced the work of artists from Monet to Cassatt to Van Gogh and others. Japanese prints may have been the major influence on what was then the foremost revolution in Western painting since the Renaissance.
But soon after the mid-nineteenth century something began to go awry with Japanese graphic art, the cause of which also begat massive social change and industrialisation leading directly to World War Two – gunboat diplomacy. In 1853 and 1854, two invasions of American battleships steamed into Yokohama Bay and forced Japan’s diplomatic recognition. Within five years European powers followed on US coattails, and altogether forced Japan to sign a one-sided treaty ceding the industrialised and militarised foreigners total control of access, external trade and tariffs.
It was as if China and Russia had invaded America, subdued its military in a brief display of superior non-lethal force, seized control of US foreign policy, immigration and overseas trade, set taxes on imports and exports (to the invaders’ benefit of course), and flooded the country with its technical experts and traders who went about redesigning American industry and even its popular culture.
Japan’s leaders had struggled long to keep the outer world at bay, in order to preserve their unique culture and ancient order. In 1637 a rebellion of 30,000 Japanese Christians (initially converted by foreign missionaries), and a few others, was suppressed ruthlessly by 100,000 samurai warriors sent from Edo. After that, foreign contact was managed carefully but not eliminated, with trade restricted chiefly to the Dutch and Chinese, primarily on a man-made island off Nagasaki. Thereafter eighty percent of the Japanese workforce remained rice-farmers, but a reduction in civil strife contributed to relative prosperity, rice-merchants developed systems of credit and money-transfer, and a large artisan class began to emerge even through a strictly-applied (but slowly loosening) system of class distinctions and privileges. Japanese culture was uprooted substantially within scarcely more than a decade, by Admiral Perry and his so-called Black Ships.
Japan enjoyed an ethnically homogenous population with cultural roots back to 14,000 BC. It is probably safe to say that her people, proud and accustomed to their traditions and hierarchies, were at first emotionally crushed and humiliated by the invasion of otherwise barbaric aliens possessing devastating new technology. Yet despite what must have resembled some twentieth-century science-fiction nightmare, they rapidly applied their remarkable diligence to “catching up,” partly in order to restore self-esteem.
By 1868 the last Edo ruler was toppled, the samurai lost their final battle, and a restored emperor led the Meiji Era (or Enlightened Rule Reforms) which sought to mix “Western advances with Eastern values.” Samurai were disarmed, feudal lands were seized and redistributed, and a modern army was formed to protect the new order internally as Japan began to copy her invaders. She introduced a constitution inspired by the newly-unified Imperial Germany, and a stronger central government began industrialisation on a scale that could have made Bismarck jealous. By the death of the Meiji emperor in 1912 (forty-odd years on), raw silk exports had surged by around fifteen-fold, coal production had increased by thirty-five times, their merchant fleet grew nearly sixty times over, and railway track extended from eighteen miles to more than seven thousand. Japan had become an industrial power.
The Meiji Era soon exceeded any dream of “Western advances” but their “Eastern values” changed as well. Copying their invaders Japan militarised, won a war against Russia and began to establish “buffer zones” in Korea and further afield. Industrialisation fed their need for raw materials and fuel, while burgeoning nationalism and understandable pride also contributed to them establishing colonies in China and other parts of East Asia, just as the Westerners had done elsewhere. Japan had learnt her foreign lessons well, but in a more economically crowded world it led to Pearl Harbor.
Over the Meiji period, Japan’s forced contact with the West made major changes in their graphic arts. Late Edo prints that depicted Western barbarians with hair growing out of their ears and noses, mere artistic curiosities, shifted to Meiji views of fashionable Japanese damsels dressed in Paris fashions; a minor aesthetic point but indicating the persuasive power wielded by more than 3,000 imported foreign technical advisors and many more Japanese students commuting abroad to the West and returning home again. Overcoming their humiliation required joining the new contest imposed by Western invasion, and Japanese art began to reflect changing popular aspirations. The traditional Japanese graphic aesthetic that had been largely indigenous since the vast influence of China’s Song Dynasty (960-1279) was suddenly, like its economy, changed, internationalised and (in its graphic art at least) debased forever after.
As striking as the highly untraditional foreign couture were the colours of the Japanese dresses, ”picture hats” and parasols; vivid heliotropes and scarlets, sea-sick greens and canary-yellows as garish as anything on the streets of late Victorian London or New York. In real life and in art, the difference came from popular new foreign dyes.
While Japan’s eighteenth-century prints suffered from fugitive colours that faded with time, the more resilient but still gently-tinted later Edo prints relied upon many plant-based hues that were cast aside when the brash new Western chemical-based inks and dyestuffs were elbowed onto the market. Due to colour even on its own, the dreamy floating aesthetic of the ukiyo-e suffered a fatal blow. The American novelist James Michener, who began his legendary collection of classic ukiyo-e as a soldier in Occupied Japan and who wrote a splendid book on this subject, was scathing on post-Edo prints in terms of their aesthetics and value to collectors.
The subject matter changed as well, reflecting a century-long but gentle trend towards popular topics, but Meiji’s industrial middle-class propelled a surge in outright vulgarity.
Actor’s portraits and scenes from classical dramas, which had been a topical mainstay since the 1790s or earlier, often morphed into views of sickening violence culled from myth and popular fiction. Just as traditionally kimono-clad maidens, cultured geishas and high-class courtesans were redressed in European crinolines and bombazine, dainty Edo picnics with traditional musicians became depictions of the Meiji arrivistes at play in their crass and showier gatherings. By the early 1900s with Japan’s new industrialisation, militarism and increasingly-strident nationalism, prints of high-tech warfare grew popular, replacing Edo samurai in armour with caricature battleships and howitzers, valiant Japanese soldiers in modern uniforms and bleeding Russians in retreat. Where artistic subjects did remain generally similar to before, the treatment was not.
But tradition mattered ever less to the multitudes of Meiji Japanese, well-trained for new jobs in industry but not educated in their culture, happily buying up printed tat with the salaries that came with industrialisation; no more than it mattered to similar recently-prosperous American families who flocked to the new and garishly-coloured (machine printed) chromolithographs that were mocked by Mark Twain. In either case, but a generation earlier in Japan, the lucrative lure of uneducated mass markets resulted in artistic decline.
Economically, socially and artistically, Japan’s gossamer Floating World sank beneath the waves of so-called Progress – now as dead as any, once often-depicted, Western Georgian coffee-house, Frederick the Great-era banquet, or fin de siècle Parisian cafe. Their world was gone, the supporting economic system was gone, Japanese appreciation for the nuances of their cultural traditions had been struck a mortal blow, and the ukiyo-e aesthetic became forgotten.
Indeed, some of West’s foremost collections of classic Japanese prints were culled initially from masterpieces thrown away by the Japanese and used to wrap export pottery. Some examples are worth up to hundreds of thousands of dollars today.
Ukiyo-e had an attempted revival in the early-to-mid twentieth-century Shin-Hanga, or New Prints School, that kept alive the technology of Japanese wood-block printing. Period examples can be costly now, even rivalling late Edo masterpieces, but for heterodox tastes alone. The ukiyo-e aesthetic had influenced the Impressionists and, partly on the back of the internationalised textile trade, those new European artistic traditions bounced back to Japan and ping-ponged to the West again: Shin-Hanga prints resemble the 1930s cartoons of Tintin whose creator they inspired. The even more modern movement of Sosaku-Hanga, or the Creative Prints Movement, emulates modern Western (often abstract) art but is block-printed in the traditional manner: rather like using Jacobean chain-stitch embroidery to decorate a polyester track-suit.
From the obituary of Japan’s Floating World the Western lessons are many. In both cases, art decayed as audiences expanded, and industrialisation’s spread of “ready money” led to declining social interest in traditional aesthetics. This is not to say that there remains in Japan no knowledge of their traditional arts, no more than it implies that there are no longer Britons interested in Georgian portrait miniatures or Americans in Colonial Period pewter, silverware or quality furniture. But they are fewer with every passing year. The highest quality ukiyo-e commands astronomical prices from elite collectors in Japan and abroad, and quality restrikes of classic prints are reproduced periodically. But it has become a decidedly minority taste as the crowd demands new art in new media.
But not only does modern technology hasten the metastasis of bad-but-popular art, as it did in Meiji Japan; its intrinsic nature discourages contemplative pieces in favour of the brash, fast-moving, noisy and vulgar.
Combating this phenomenon may be a rear-guard action at best. Reversing Shin-Hanga’s attempts to affix new subjects onto traditional formats, T.S Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, Robert Frost and others tried to revivify old Western values by adapting them to modernist forms, while a few graphic traditionalists (such as the Wyeth family) also come to mind. Their admittedly great art, now distinctly a minority taste, continues to inspire an ever-shrinking audience.
Aesthetic decadence was not caused by declining religious faith, neither in Meiji Japan nor in the modern West where the spread of vulgar religious art has kept pace with the taste-deficient religious public’s ability to buy it. A shortage of great religious art can be attributed as much to tasteless modern elites as to irreligious ones. So is cultural education the cure for aesthetic decay?
Even at its cultural height Japanese aesthetes were few, and even had the multitudes been educated in art (which they were not), they would probably still have preferred the lurid to the gently-coloured, the vulgar to the restrained, then as now. One suspects that, similarly today, the average Western youth, even if thrashed half to death with Haydn, would prefer listening to rap. One look at (few surviving examples of) European medieval church wall-painting shows that the average person preferred the garish carnival to the graphically sublime. Ever was it so, but now the hay-swains have credit cards and they outnumber and overpower the aesthetes. Soon even the West’s few remaining traditional artists may, along with their cultivated clients, disappear.
The strength of culture, anywhere, is inversely related to the economic empowerment of the multitudes and their base appetites – and only the most tone-deaf, colour-blind and otherwise deficient Utilitarian would think otherwise. Only when art markets were small, and driven by a cultured elite and its aspirants, could quality be maintained by educated tastes that changed slowly with time. Most of today’s Western elites, and wannabes, prefer a costly piece of mass-produced pop-art (the artist’s celebrity signature determining the value) to a one-off Victorian water-colour even by such masters as Chinnery or Cotman, as auction prices confirm.
If cultural decadence is the price of widespread prosperity, what is an aesthetic conservative to do? Perhaps only to study great art, to educate one’s children as best one can, and to seek out a shrinking remnant of kindred spirits in universities and galleries, museums and online fora, recalling that nothing lasts forever. Even a temporary stay of execution means a few more moments of life.
Stephen Masty is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative and has been a journalist, a development expert, and a speechwriter for three US presidents, British royalty and heads of government in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. He has spent most of his adulthood working in South Asia including Afghanistan, and he is presently a writer, poet and artist in Kathmandu.