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But is it art?

One of the most difficult concepts to explain to those not familiar with Nihon-To is classifying a sword as “art”. Within the complexities of an English vocabulary, constructed as it is from so many others, there are numerous terms describing the same thing. We have art, craft, artists, crafts- people and artisans. All describing the act of creating something, but over time they have come to mean something different. While an observer can happily accept a swordsmith or fittings maker are craftsmen or even artisans the term artist may be a step too far.

What is art? From a very personal and simplistic view point art is a method of communication. At its simplest it conveys an image, at a deeper level it stimulates the mind and generates an emotional response. Art has an ability to transmit ideas and emotions at a level far beyond a simple explanation.

A Japanese sword like those of any other culture is first and foremost a weapon. However in creating a blade a swordsmith does far more than simply making a cutting tool. The effort and skill involved in creating the beautiful hada and hamon seen in blades goes far beyond functionality. Likewise the incredible skill of the polisher does far more than sharpen the blade, it enhances and highlights all of the complex detail of the swordsmiths composition.  The combination of these skills creates an object of incredible complexity and beauty. It embodies the skill, effort and emotional commitment of those involved in its creation.

The makers of sword furniture and armour take their art far beyond pure functionality. They employ skills, imagination and creativity, taking inspiration from nature, folklore myths and legends. They are also inspired by other art forms such as wood block prints, architecture, ceramics and theatre. The degree of creativity they employ in combining different materials and illustrating complex subjects in such restricted space shows a level of compositional skill unsurpassed in any other field.

Much of the content of the educational programme is aimed at illustrating the links between these various creative disciplines and other art forms and to explore where they drew inspiration.

The exhibition running in parallel with the presentations will have examples of the arts described and will illustrate those elements discussed in the lectures. When looking at the exhibit the level of skill employed in their creation will be clear to see. The use of different materials in composition, the craftsmanship and the incredible control in making such work will be obvious. But then the observer has to decide, is it art?

When looking at the exhibition ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is it pleasing to look at?
  2. Is it skillfully made?
  3. Does it generate an emotional response?

That response can be awe, it can be the hair on the back of your neck rising as you look at something staggeringly beautiful, or it can simply make you smile.

If the answer to these questions is yes then it is reasonable to assume that you are looking at art. And it is an art form that includes some of the finest examples of human creativity, craftsmanship and art.

Those giving presentations will be available throughout the event. They will be happy to discuss any of the points raised during the presentations and to answer any questions relating to the exhibition you may have. Japan Art Expo will offer a rare opportunity to see such a diverse range of artifacts together and to see the relationship between the various disciplines employed in creating these unique objects. Enjoy the experience!

Paul Bowman

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