There were no words for garth or gfine artsh in Japan until Western awareness and values were introduced after the country opened to the outside world in the middle of the 19th century. Until then, Japanese people did not have a concept of fine arts. Things now defined as works of art were furnishings or ornaments of daily life. For example, items ranging from paintings on gorgeous folding screens of lords to ukiyoe woodblock prints that commoners enjoyed looking at were not different in terms of values. The difference was only in creators and users. Formerly, people did not have any special conscious intention to create artworks.
Antique goods that we appreciate now were just utility articles diligent Japanese people made. As I wrote before, Japan had a culture to distinguish things among those for everyday use and others for special occasions. Depending on the purpose, people simply chose and used utensils or gifts whose class and quality were most fitted for that purpose. The quality was attributed to the cost, skills of creators and craft workers, and energy involved in the making.
Many ukiyoe, or woodblock prints, which were made during the Edo period are owned by many museums overseas and are highly praised. However, they were prints for commoners who could not buy precious original paintings, and even now many of them are printed repeatedly. As you may know, Japanese ukiyoe had a big impact on Western painters, including Renoir and Van Gogh, from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century, with their unique composition and expression. But they were only entertainment prints for ordinary people in Japan. Monochrome prints of picture books were torn out and used for air cushioning when ceramics were shipped during the Meiji era when paper ran short. An Ukiyoe was, after all, only a cheap print and a consumable and disposable item.
Japan has produced uncountable original paintings during some 2,000 years of history. Even only during the Edo period from 1603 to 1867, painters of several schools, such as the Tosa school, Kano school and Rin school, fostered expert painters and met demand from nobles, lords and merchants who began to have economic power. Ito Jakuchu, a painter who recently has been highly re-evaluated following the Price Collection of Edo Era Paintings exhibition in Tokyo, and Shibata Zeshin whose works are now on display at Mitsui Memorial Museum, are just two of the outstanding and unique painters of those days. In Japan, however, works by these famous painters were not usually sold at commercial shops in town, unlike ukiyoe. Most of them were custom-made and were rarely displayed to the public or distributed for sale through usual channels.
Many Western-style systems were introduced to Japan from the time of the Meiji era. Among them, the system that had the largest influence on Japan was European-style market economy. In this economy, the value of all things including food and labor are measured by money. Certainly, this system was rational and useful. Japanese artworks and artifacts were soon involved in this system, and antiques as well. To establish their market values and put them on the market as financial products, fair evaluation and publication of the evaluation were needed. Thus, public viewing opportunities such as exhibitions or expos, public organizations, and criticfs evaluation came to be necessary.
In Western countries, newly wealthy capitalists who flourished after the Industry Revolution in the 18th century had already started to appreciate and put a value on artworks and artifacts - which had in former times been only furnishings and ornaments as they were in Japan - from a monetary standpoint. Salons and auctions judged values and prices of art works, and evaluation and value judgment by authorities including researchers and critics underlay such values and prices. In this way, art works and antiques have come to be treated as financial products.
Do you know the reason why works of Van Gogh have a value of hundreds of millions of dollars? Perhaps, I believe, we think the high prices make sense because our minds are imprinted with the notion that Van Goghfs works are high priced. This is not only limited to Van Gogh. I often wonder who decides prices of artworks and antiques in the world, and how? Are there any standards? There are many creators in the world and most create their works seriously, except for some artists who create only for performance and for self-conceit. If creatorfs works are not praised by critics and the mass media, or if their works do not have value on the market, does it mean such works do not have any value?
The folding screen of gGenpei gassen warh (see the picture accompanying this article) was an interior decoration of a lord, which was painted around 1750 in the middle of the Edo period. Its price is one tenth of that of a Van Gogh work. What makes the difference of the prices? This is a problem not only for art works, so I would like to conclude by raising a question; What is our standard of judgment to decide values and prices of things, and, most fundamental of all, what is valuable for human beings? I believe that in the current chaotic times we can find hints to survive in the new era through reexamining our awareness and value systems, including a rethinking of the true meaning of art appreciation and collection.
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