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      Ukiyo-e (浮世絵), the art form that simultaneously defined and documented the cultural fluorescence and rising plebeian wealth of the Tokugawa-era merchant class, is among the most influential and widely studied Japanese contributions to the art world, even to the point of having directly influenced Western artists like Monet and Van Gogh.  Despite this, many believe that the block prints of Ukiyo-e are better categorized as design or pop art than high art.  In this paper, I intend to analyze the artistic integrity of Ukiyo-e.

     The merchant class in late 17th century Japan had become wealthy from the increase in trade that followed the earlier development of castle towns and rapid urbanization of the population during the relative peace of the Tokugawa period.  Unable to use its money for social gain or politics, looked down upon by the samurai and other classes regardless of their financial means or conduct, and unbound by the social restrictions and strict formalities of the upper classes, this newly affluent merchant class began cultivating its taste for flesh, wine, and other more sensual amusements.  They called the pursuit of these and other basic pleasures Ukiyo.

     The term Ukiyo, first used by Buddhists to mean something like this fleeting world of misery,  was originally derived from a mix of the two Japanese homonyms 憂き世 (sad world) and 浮世 (transitory world)[1].  Although the traditional Buddhist usage certainly lent legitimacy to the new Ukiyo lifestyle there is no point to anything in this life of impermanence, so one may as well enjoy it! the term seems to have a closer relation to the second and less oft-quoted meaning of the character : gay, cheerful, frivolous.[2]

Novelettes of the day describing adventures and romances needed illustrations and businesses catering to the Ukiyo world needed advertisements; these both began to be produced by popular illustrators using the efficient carved wood block method that was already being utilized in the printing of books.  These wood blocks were, in the words of Japan scholar John Whitney Hall, produced for utilitarian and mass consumption purposes, as illustrations for books, as handbills for theatres or geisha houses, or as mementoes of famous spots.[3]

Subsequently, as this culture grew, so did its interest in its own activities, and demand grew for wood block prints depicting the vibrancy of the Ukiyo life itself: the cities, the pleasure quarters, the countenances of popular actors, natural scenes of Mount Fuji and the like.  Edwin Reischauer called these prints the worlds first true mass art and the forerunners of the picture postcard.[4]  And for the more than 200 years that followed, as the merchant class pursued this new lifestyle with ever more wealth and vigor, the wood block printing style that came to be known as Ukiyo-e flourished.

     It is apparent from its history that Ukiyo-e came about as a response to popular demand, but that neither diminishes its validity nor dismisses its artfulness; after all, Rembrandt and Velasquez both painted in a style that was first popularized in the Catholic Church, and the entire genre of architecture is unarguably utilitarian.  Perhaps a works artistic integrity has more to do with the intent and vision the heart of the author when he creates the work than it does to which purpose the work ends up serving.

One measure of how much heart and soul an artist puts into his work is, naturally, how much of the work he actually does himself, and usually, an Ukiyo-e print was not the work of just one artisan.  Most often, an illustrator would draw a picture and give it to his publisher, who hired or kept on staff block carvers, printers, and shop assistants who produced the work from the artists drawing.  Artists may have been consulted during the process, but exactly how much [they] contributed to the final appearance of the print, beyond the submission of the drawing, is unknown.[5]  Sherman Lee adds that complex, large-scale works... were almost certainly turned out by workshops whose employees specialized among the elements of the composition trees, embossed gold, architecture, figures...  these workshop productions seldom reach the excellence of smaller and simpler paintings that were most likely the work of a single master.[6]

Since these authors were in fact acting more like craftsmen or tradesmen than artists, does that make the finished works merely decorative and not high art?  There are two Western examples albeit rather controversial ones who must be mentioned in comparison: Andy Warhol, who incidentally began (and some would say ended) his career as a commercial illustrator, and Salvador Dali both employed others in the creation of at least some of their works.  It is quite fascinating to note that Warhol and Dali were also the two most publicity-savvy artists of the twentieth century, and that the artistic integrity of both mens bodies of work is still hotly debated.

In Japan, as in Europe, there had existed for some time a sense of artistic purity or incorruptibility in disassociating oneself from society, yet the Ukiyo-e artists were far from hermits; they were active participants in what Christine Guth called a self-conscious counterculture:

...one of the basic facts of artistic survival in the urban milieu was finding and keeping an audience.  Competition contributed to the stylistic eclecticism and pursuit of novelty characteristic of the arts of the Edo period.  It underlay artists attentiveness to the packaging and merchandizing of both their art and their personae. That art took on the aspect of a commodity also helps to explain why great importance was attached to the issue of amateur versus professional artistic status.  Like the ninteenth-century aesthetic in the West that sought to place the work of art in an ideal world outside the socio-economic realm, the amateur ideal professed to represent an alternative to the materialism pervasive in the artistic world of the Edo period in spite of the fact that it too was party to that very materialism.[7]

 

The artists themselves seem to have cared more about their prints sales than about their personal and artistic integrity.  It was common for Ukiyo-e artists of the period to impersonate each others styles, and even to sign the names of their more famous contemporaries to their own illustrations.[8]  In addition to wood block prints, many of the artists of the day also decorate[d] ceramics, furnish[ed] designs for lacquer, and even hand-paint[ed] garments.[9] 

John Whitney Hall writes that the Ukiyo-e prints were considered ephemeral and vulgar, and their recognition as art worthy of appreciation did not come until the close of the Tokugawa period.  Ironically it was in Europe that the ukiyo-e first attracted serious attention.[10]  In Europe at that time, Japan was regarded as an erotic and mysterious place.  In Paris, in particular, there existed a craze among the well-to-do for any item of Japanese origin, and the ladies of high-society collected fans, paper lanterns and other traditional Japanese goods.  Perhaps the wood block prints of Ukiyo-e were not high art at all, but just found themselves in the right place at the right time.

The long-term artistic value of the cumulative works of art produced during economic boom times rarely outshine those of less wealth and opulence.  The reasons for this are simple: during a good economy, many talented people who would otherwise be making art are busy making money, and many of those who continue making art end up catering more to market forces because they desire some of the riches they see others accumulating around them.  There is certainly much to learn from Ukiyo-e prints; by and large, they expertly document the rise of Japans first commoner culture.  But as an art form, The dominant Ukiyo-e artists were not free enough from market demands and critique to truly innovate, so they instead pandered to the vulgar tastes of the masses.  Although the cultural movement of Ukiyo was revolutionary in its spiritedness and gaiety, its accompanying art form was more reactionary than revolutionary, and though there are doubtless glimmers of truth among the golden panels of some of the genres earliest works, much of the depth, heart and technical ingenuity one looks for in the defining works of such a large oeuvre are conspicuously absent.
Bibliography

 

Asahi Shinbun Japan Almanac. Tokyo: Asahi Shinbun, 1997.

 

Davis, Julie Nelson.  Artistic Identity and Ukiyo-e Prints.  The Artist As Professional In Japan.  Ed. Melinda Takeuchi.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004.

 

Gerstle, C. Andrew.  18th Century Japan.  Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1989.

 

Gibaldi, Joseph.  MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers.  5th ed.  New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1999.

 

Guth, Christine.  Japanese Art of The Edo Period.  London: Calmann and King, 1996.

 

Hall, John Whitney.  Japan, From Prehistory to Modern Times.  Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, 1991.

 

Hanley, Susan B.  Everyday Things in Pre-modern Japan: The Hidden Legacy of Material Culture.  Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2002.

 

Hughes, Robert.  The Shock of the New.  2nd ed.  New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991.

 

Kojien. 5th ed. Tokyo: Iwatani Shoten, 1998.

 

Lee, Sherman E. Reflections of Reality in Japanese Art.  Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1983.

 

Maas, Harro.  Pacifying the Workman: Ruskin and Jevons on Labor and Popular Culture.  Economic Engagements with Art.  Ed. Neil De Marchi and Craufurd D. W. Goodwin.  Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.

 

Matsumoto, Shiro and Tadao Yamada.  Genroku, Kyohoki no Seiji to Shakai.  Tokyo: Yuhiraku, 1980.

 

Narazaki, Muneshige.  The Japanese Print: Its Evolution and Essence.  Tokyo: Kodansha, 1966.

 

The New Nelson. Rutland: Tuttle, 1998.

 

Pyle, Kenneth B.  The Making of Modern Japan.  2nd ed.  Lexington: D. C. Heath, 1996.

 

Reischauer, Edwin O.  The Japanese.  Tokyo: Tuttle, 1978.

 

Saikaku, Ihara.  Five women Who Loved Love. Rutland: Tuttle, 1998.

 

Yoshida, Susugu, et al.  Ukiyo-e, 250 Years of Japanese Art.  New York: Windward, 1978.



[1] Kojien. 5th ed. Tokyo: Iwatani Shoten, 1998. p 226.

[2] The New Nelson. Rutland: Tuttle, 1998. p 658.

[3] Hall, John Whitney.  Japan, From Prehistory to Modern Times.  Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, 1991.  p 230.

[4] Reischauer, Edwin O.  The Japanese.  Tokyo: Tuttle, 1978. p 76.

[5] Davis, Julie Nelson.  Artistic Identity and Ukiyo-e Prints.  The Artist As Professional In Japan.  Ed. Melinda Takeuchi.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004. p 117.

[6] Lee, Sherman E. Reflections of Reality in Japanese Art.  Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1983. p 182.

[7] Guth, Christine.  Japanese Art of The Edo Period.  London: Calmann and King, 1996. p 11-12.

[8] Yoshida, Susugu, et al.  Ukiyo-e, 250 Years of Japanese Art.  New York: Windward, 1978.  p 112-113

[9] Guth 39.

[10] Hall, John Whitney.  Japan, From Prehistory to Modern Times.  Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, 1991.  p 230.










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