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Jacques D.

Sword Art and Appreciation

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Admin: Split from original topic that can be found here: viewtopic.php?f=3&t=3360

 

Hi,

 

Sorry if I sound a bit elitist here but if we're talking about the sword as art then we are talking about very expensive items. Not every sword is a great work of art and unless you have a clear idea of what the top level of quality looks like then you're trying to assess lesser work without any reference point.

 

I fully agree. :D

 

I've heard a very knowledgeable person saying About Nihon-tô: "art begins with jo-saku smiths", i agree with this too.

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Thank you, gentleman.

I thought I'd broken a taboo after seeing no replies for a few days. This is instructive, cheers.

 

Ford - Do not apologise for being 'elitist'. It is the only way traditions, especially of this age and complexity, can survive in my opinion. Once terms and definitions are diluted or changed to suit something the original intent becomes lost.

Please continue to be elitist with your opinion and your work. :clap:

 

Whilst it may have been very obvious to some, I'm not one to go for the 'Emperor's new clothes' and wanted something a little more substantial than the circumstantial.

 

I've been lucky enough for my location to find and be given the opportunity to look first hand at some very impressive swords, namely Tadayoshi and some of the Gassan school, the latest one being an Enomoto Sadayoshi. An awesome piece of work.

I think I'm still at a stage where I can appreciate the difference in quality but my brain doesn't fully absorb the details due to the 'wow' factor and and the fact that I'm concentrating on not drooling on the blades...

'Studying' pieces on the net takes away the 'wow' factor for me and leaves you to concentrate on details and not worrying about 3 feet of someone else's very sharp, very expensive piece of steel.

 

Pointers such as the yasurimei definition at the polish transition and the actual corner sharpness of the nakago jiri...priceless.

 

Thanks.

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Just a comical remeberance before I go pass out after a hectic weekend...

 

When I was in Tokyo, Ichi was kind enough to take me to a major dealer sword sale. Almost as soon as I walked through the door, I was presented with row upon row of top class swords, all shoshin. At least 3 Ichimonji, 2 Rai, 2 Shinkai, 2 Kotetsu etc etc....

Well...they kept thrusting them in my hands, and I was so stunned that the more i tried to concentrate on all the workmanship and characteristics, the more I was getting overwhelmed and worried about what I was saying, how I was acting, and what i should look for.

To cut a long story short....at the end of the day I remember the amazing swords, but can barely remember any individual characteristics at all :(

This is why it takes repeated exposure to these swords, and a steady brain to learn from the best. It is hard to go from seeing almost no good swords to seeing a room full. Sensory overload is very real :D

 

Brian

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I fully agree with Ford and I disagree with "the knowlegeable person", as Jacques says

"We must make the difference between art saber and simple weapon."
, art does not begin with Jo saku smiths, art is art whoever has done it, if a juyo blade can be qualified as an art sword it can be achieved by a chu saku or a chu jo saku smith.

 

Now does a Kanteisho qualify a blade as art object? and if yes at what level? Tokubetsu Hozon, Juyo?

 

In fine, who is going to decide where start art sabers? the market?

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One's view of what is art or a great blade varies with time and experience. How many new collectors think that the suguha hamon is bland and not worth much. In contrast to that many more experienced collectors enjoy and look for the suguha hamon. What, as new collectors, we thing of as great, later on we may think of as showy or gaudy. It takes time to develop taste in art and in swords. So as a beginner what you see as art you may in later years not think so highly of. The point is that our knowledge of swords and feel for swords changes.

When I started collecting in the mid 1970s any sword was art to me. Now I am more picky. As a beginning collector I wanted as many swords as I could buy to study and learn from each. Now I look at many and see only a few I realy want. My view of art has changed.

To learn what you actually have and to learn about your blade I recommend taking the time to draw a full oshigata. With that exercise you will examine every millimeter of the blade and see things for the first time. Once you have done that you will appreciate more what you have in hand. It will help you to see more as well. If the opportunity arrises ask a polisher to look at a blade with you. Ask him to describe what he sees. You wll be amazed at what he saw and you missed. Both of these learning experiences will help. (Thank you again to the polishers who have shared their knowledge with me in the past! :bowdown: )

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Hi Barry,

 

The point you make about one's appreciation of fine swords developing is an important one. I would like to add a further clarification if I may, one I'm sure you are implying anyway, but just to avoid misunderstanding.

 

Your point about suguha hamon is well made but the fact is there are many such hamon that really are dull and boring. The trick is to see the ones that are special. With the simple suguha hamon the attraction lies in the sorts of subtle details, the strength and brightness etc of the nie or nioi and so on. Appreciation these less obvious qualities in a very simple straight line is far more difficult than for instance enjoying a wild and exuberant Shinto Osaka hamon, or a saka-choji hamon that looks as though it's on fire.

 

I think this discernment is crucial. If we look at the area of tsuba collecting, early iron guards specifically, I see a very similar trap.

 

We are told by reliable authorities, Sasano, Torigoe et al, about the mysterious and wonderful aesthetic qualities to be appreciated in these specimens. The subtle textures, the depth of colour and tone of the wabi/sabi-esque patinae, the, almost ineffable, qualities of the steel etc etc.

 

Now I happen to be great lover of these guards (though I claim no great scholarly authority ) and their beauty has been a source of inspiration for me for more than 25 years but here too not all old iron guards are equal. The problem arises when we are told that if we can't appreciate the true value of a particular rusty old guard then clearly we still have a long way to go in out appreciation of iron, this despite the glaringly obvious fact that it may actually really be just * a rusty old guard".

 

There are, without question, some truly beautiful old guards in existence but I feel very strongly that much of what is pushed by both certain dealers, and collectors, as being representative of the finest examples of this aesthetic is actually quite a bit lower on the aesthetic scale than they would have you believe. This then forms an inaccurate impression of what constitutes real quality and it can be very hard for the novice to get past this.

 

I think there is a reasonable scepticism from many people when presented wit some of these lesser versions, the work itself often doesn't move you, or convince you by it's presence. We're left wondering if there really is anything to this "old iron thing". This difference, when presented with the genuine article, the sort of tsuba that Akiyama might have had close to him at the end of his life, is striking. These pieces really do have a quite dignity and strength, you can almost feel their presence, they have gravitas. Once you've seen enough of that sort of quality the "also rans" don't seem so lovely anymore...

 

I don't feel comfortable using the word "taste" in this discussion about quality,( although if we're honest, it's ultimately all opinion, albeit very experienced and informed opinion ) because I believe we should strive towards an appreciation of art, whatever the format, painting, sculpture swords etc, that goes beyond taste. Taste is far too easily dictated by fashion and personal preference, and easily become the first refuge of the ignorant.

 

You don't have to like a fine suguha hamon, or a well aged, Muromachi Owari guard...but I'd like to think we can all learn to appreciate and understand what it is that makes them great.

 

The discussion is veering away from the original ebay sword but I think these ideas need to be explored. I have no doubt there could be a lot more discussion too.

 

Respectfully,

 

Ford

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Thanks for the addition! I agree that one has to see a good suguha to appreciate what can be done with "the simple" hamon. I also agree with your thoughts on "good tsuba". At the last show in Chicago Fred Geyer had a wonderful tsuba display. It could give a person cause to reevaluate what a "good tusba" is.

My final point about learning and study could use your view with reference to tsuba. How can one improve one's knowledge, taste etc.?

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Hi Barry,

 

to be honest, I don't think there has been any really significant discussion of swords or tsuba as art. If you compare the study of western painting, over the last 1000 years, for instance, we can see that in the area of swords and fittings aesthetic debate and study hasn't really even begun.

 

We are told what is good, but not often given any more to go on. Part of the reason for this, I believe, has to do with the way these things were taught in the past, in Japan. The impression I get is that if you don't understand it it can't be explained to you. The purely technical aspects can be learned of course but aesthetic judgement is, according to this old idea, innate. You were either born with it or you're a peasant :dunno: .

 

This debate continues in the West too, for that matter. Can someone study to become a connoisseur? There are still many who will say no. To some extent they have a point, just as anyone can learn to paint, or even learn to make a Japanese sword ( literally 100's of 1000's did ) not everyone will be fantastic. That being said I still believe we need to begin the discussion of what actually makes the great works great.

 

There have been some inspiring bits and pieces here and there, Kanzan Sato's book has some good descriptions that spark the imagination. The essays in the Compton Collection catalogue similarly paint a more expressive and poetic picture.

 

For the non-Japanese approaching this vast subject ( swords and fittings ) there are so many non-art related aspects that form part of the appeal that a purely aesthetic study becomes almost impossible. I say this because I do believe that in general the native Japanese are far more easily able to leave the associations aside and concentrate on the bare object when contemplating it as art.

 

I may have opened a huge can of worms here and talking about quality and aesthetics is always a minefield so I look forward to hearing other views.

 

Regards, Ford

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I thought I'd add these 2 quotes as I think they're germane to the discussion in hand...

 

"Anyone who conducts an argument by appealing to authority is not using his intelligence, he is just using his memory" L. Da Vinci.

 

" Knowledge is a process of piling up facts, wisdom lies in their simplification " Martin Fischer"

 

cheers, Ford

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"Anyone who conducts an argument by appealing to authority is not using his intelligence, he is just using his memory"

 

Fully agreed

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Hi,

 

 

Discussing art about weapons is not a single matter, but, some Japanese weapons became artworks. There were some millions swords which were forged during nihonto history. Mostly are purchased by low-average samourai class; some are by daimyo. Are they same blades, made by the same smiths? had they the same purpose? I don't think so. Many are used on battlefield, others became treasures.

As well, When Napoleon wanted a portrait, who made it? Delacroix or "Tartempion Duchnock" (well known for his bad-painting).

 

Swordsmith are classified in accordance with their savoir-faire and their skill. There are smiths who made weapons and their are who made artworks.

 

In every times, the best are the more desired and few can afford their work. that is true for all artistic crafts.

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I have seen two Soshu Norishige blades with evidence of actual use in battle (kiri kome, hakobori). Certainly artful pieces by a famous smith but also true weapons. I do not think that most koto smiths went about making art but they did make weapons that happen to be artful.

(Non-sword related - congratulations to the Spanish among us for a good final win - well deserved!)

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Hi,

 

I have seen two Soshu Norishige blades with evidence of actual use in battle (kiri kome, hakobori). Certainly artful pieces by a famous smith but also true weapons. I do not think that most koto smiths went about making art but they did make weapons that happen to be artful.

 

That's right (they are weapons before every thing), but the opposite is not valuable.

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Guest reinhard
I don't think there has been any really significant discussion of swords or tsuba as art. If you compare the study of western painting, over the last 1000 years, for instance, we can see that in the area of swords and fittings aesthetic debate and study hasn't really even begun.

 

You are wrong. Swords and sword-fittings of the highest quality have been accepted and discussed as objects of art for many centuries in Japan and this kind of appreciation has reached the West some decades ago. The discussion about it is still going on, but it also starts anew with every new generation of collectors.

It is funny to see, how every new generation of (western) enthusiasts considers themself to be the first one to discover a neglected field. The reason for this, I think, is the extremely limited access to reliable informations. There are many non-Japanese books for beginners, but many of them are repeating the same mistakes over and over again; basically because of plagiarizing from each other. New and highly specific research is hardly ever translated for obvious reasons (mainly commercial ones).

I'd appreciate a discussion about NihonTo and its fittings being true objects of art, but I'm sure, the same discussion will take place in 10, 20, 50 years again and start from the very beginning.

 

reinhard

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Using the word 'art' in the context of Nihonto is perhaps indicative of the ineffectiveness of the English language. Art is subjective and so ill-defined a word that it is unfair to use it for Nihonto. The smith is attempting to create an utilitarian object using techniques learned and passed down for centuries, that is a sword. Its prime 'raison d'etre' being a weapon. I got into this passion because of my interest in edged weapons which lead me to Nihonto since they were one of the pinnacles of these weapons. The process by which they come into being is to me the most interesting feature. Trying to understand why such and such was done to make them effective at what they are intended to do is the riddle that keeps me captivated. When certain techniques compromise the swords integrity for appearances sake I consider this devolution for the sake of ephemeral tastes and commerce and the basis for the sword being made heretical. Now, I'm no Phillistine: I know good artwork when I see it and I realise the skill needed to produce it. Fittings are the province of art and where tastes change at a whim. Fine, keep that word for those and lets use something more useful for sword, weapons in general. Ummm, how about..bloody marvelous? I am a weapons collector that focuses on Nihonto not an art collector. John

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Reinhard,

 

I'm aware of the sort of discussion you are referring to but what I meant was more along the lines of looking at the stylistic developments of different groups, the cross fertilization. The artistic traits of individual makers ( the big names ) , then some discussion about what they were actually expressing, how successful were they in their aims ( a pretty standard approach to art appreciation really) and then using this understanding to evaluate the work of so called "lesser artists".

 

I know that some of this has been done but in my opinion it has not really gone beyond a historical discussion, the evolution of aesthetics ( the art ) hasn't really been delved into.

 

The debate in the west is barely 100 years old and I don't see much evidence of it having moved very far at all. Your comment regarding the re-hashing of the same old material is spot on. I think there is scope for a much broader analysis.

 

John,

 

I absolutely agree with you about the sword being firstly a tool and that in general it ought to be seen as such. The Japanese sword is, without question, one of the old worlds great technological achievements ( but we're all biased :D ).and it is admired as much for it's functionality as it's beauty.

 

Notice I said beauty, this isn't the same as art. The art swords I refer to are those that are functional yes, by virtue of the makers having completely mastered the mundane aspects of their craft but it is clear that they are then very consciously working out an individual aesthetic expression in their work. The actual craftsmanship is in a way merely a feature of their mastery of technique. The sensitive and personal application of that highly developed skill and technique is what allows the better smiths to produce something much more than a merely functional, good and well made blade. Speaking with contemporary smiths this "art expressive" approach becomes very evident but I very much doubt that this is a new phenomena. I suspect that at the highest levels of any craft a makers understanding is inevitably drawn towards an appreciation and aesthetic expression within the context of their work.

 

I note your last comment seems extremely resistant to the idea that a fine sword could be both art ( and I don't mean just beautiful but individually expressive art made with that intent ) and a functional weapon. I'd suggest that this has more to do with your own degree of appreciation and may not accurately reflect that of every connoisseur.

 

I know good artwork when I see it ... Fittings are the province of art and where tastes change at a whim. Fine, keep that word for those and lets use something more useful for sword, weapons in general.

 

 

Here you seem to be prepared to accept fittings as art, well they are pretty and have pictures on them ;) but swords must be called something else. I think your view is a bit too simplistic and basic...if I'm honest. I don't think you can actually claim to know good artwork when you see it...not after that statement. Your comment; "the province of art and where tastes change at a whim" reveals your real bias and mistrust of art, possibly because you don't in fact understand it as well as you think. Artists rarely just change things on a whim.

 

The claim to know good artwork when you see it is strikingly similar to that old chestnut; " I don't know much about art but I know what I like". The problem with both is that they both simply tell us that your basis for evaluation is your own personal taste. Anyone, without the slightest effort, can say they like what they like because they like it but it isn't really much use in terms of art appreciation. But to be fair, you did say you are essentially a weapons collector This naturally has nothing to do with art so that particular possibility is clearly of no concern to you.

 

You have already drawn up your parameters and in that sort of predetermined mindset there is no possibility to develop a more nuanced appreciation. That is of course you prerogative but I don't think you should then try to suggest that every one be similarly limited.

 

Respectfully, Ford

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Hi mates,

 

That is really a topic I am going to print and think over.

 

 

From a brief survey, it seems that for swords there are 2 trends :

 

1 - Swords can be art

 

vs

 

2 - Do not mistake superior craftmanship for art

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Do not mistake superior craftmanship for art

 

excellent point, Jean

 

I'd add also; don't mistake beautiful things with art, either.

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I'll remind folks that a lot of this is opinion and personal tastes, just in case this gets ugly 8)

Different people, different cultures, different eras, all have their own opinions on the art vs weapon vs quality aspect.

Art itself is very personal. While one person may consider something art, another may regard it as junk. One only has to look around you to verify this. Dogs being staved to death = performance art :steamed: and paper crumpled up = bolder origami :lol: A doodle done by Picasso on a napkin while he was eating = expensive art :?

Anyways, my point is that we all have our own definition of art. The Japanese have to regard Nihonto as art, or it will be impossible for them to continue owning and studying it. Weapons are banned, art is appreciated. And yet if the sword is no longer functional, then it is no longer a sword. If it is purely the working of the metal that is appreciated, then modern smiths may as well turn out a long rectangle of forged metal, no need for a point or handle if you are not still considering it an Art Sword.

Basically any item that takes incredible skill and talent to manufacture by hand can be seen as having an art aspect.

Myself? I regard Nihonto as art. But also as a functional weapon. The art comes in because it was refined to the point that it is unique and the individual talent can be discerned in each blade.

Yes, not all swords are skillfully made. But not all paintings are well done either, and the ones on the wall in your house may be low class art in some cases. Same with Nihonto. You get not very talented works, and then you get top class mind numbing items made by uniquely skilled artists.

No real point debating if he was making a sword at the time or a work of art. As long as it is appreciated and studied..then I feel you are welcome to find your own attraction to it.

It is impossible to say where art starts and stops. Much easier to declare a certain field art, and then categorise it as either low class work or better class. Without a book that says "this is art, this is junk" we have to draw a line somewhere. Some may choose origami or old Japanese books to tell them what is art/collectible and what isn't. Others see simple beauty in utilitarian blades that were made for a purpose. Everyone is entitled to enjoy what they like and can afford.

I know this is mostly rambling, and i am not even sure where I am going with this, I just want to give yet another opinion to the debate.

We don't get to decide what is and what isn't art unless we know what the artist was thinking at the time.

Some of it is junk and not worth studying maybe, but not everything fits into neat little boxes imho.

 

Brian

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Here's an excerpt from an article on collecting Nihontô I wrote; it triggered the same kind of response like some comments in this thread when it was published in the JSS/US Newsletter:

But what is art, and what kind of Nihontô qualify as Bijutsu Tôken? Beauty, of course, lies in the eye of the beholder, and even "the experts" are not always in agreement. However, borderline cases are few and far between since certain standards and "laws" have been established and are universally acknowledged.

 

The artistic features of the Japanese art sword can be recognized and studied since they can be shown and explained. This knowledge has nothing to do with spiritual studies, Zen-Buddhism, Iaidô training or sentiment; it is a question of mere study. The same methods applied to recognize architecture, paintings, sculptures and music according to their style can be used for swords, which can be dated and allotted in a school, province etc.

 

The ultimate preparation available to the collector who would like to find art swords is at once the most elementary and the most sophisticated preparation of all. It is to learn the subject. No one knows instinctively what a good Nihontô looks like, nor does anyone know intuitively the elements that constitutes it. The collector must absorb the basics in a gradual accretion of understanding. Likewise, good taste in Nihontô is not an instantaneous revelation. It's usually a gradual development. Most collectors readily concede the improvement of their tastes over previous years. Good taste requires careful nurturing and tending for a mature blossoming. A natural good eye means a head start, an enviable beginning, but it is not enough. Just as a good voice without musical training will not enable one to sing like Pavarotti, so also a good eye will not assure a fine collection without some application and study.

 

In order to appreciate the different types of beauty one should be equipped with as much knowledge as possible and a seeing eye regarding a good blade. Therefore it is useful to memorize the characteristics of the different "roads", schools and masters, so that when looking at a Nihontô one knows where, when and by whom it might have been made. This is the only basis on which to achieve judgement about the differences in quality.

 

The collector who boasts "I don't know anything about Nihontô; I just buy what I like" makes a statement that is not very profound. Of course he buys what he likes. If he doesn't buy what he likes, what does he buy? If he doesn't buy what he likes, he had better not collect. The collector who doesn't know anything about Nihontô will benefit by learning. If he should be blessed with innate good taste, he may develop expertness by listening and looking, like gifted students who earn degrees without cracking a book. For most of us, however, reading, discussing, examining, and studying are an essential though happy regimen for graduation to connoisseurship. The emotional response to a superb Nihontô may be as intense for the collector who never learned any "technical" information as for the expert, just as the emotional response to music may be as great for the listener who can't hum a tune as for the trained musician. But the intellectual pleasure, if not the emotional response, of the musician is profoundly enhanced by his understanding of theme, harmony, and counterpoint. So also is the intellectual pleasure greater for the collector who understands Sugata, Hada, Hamon, Hataraki, school, smith.

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In fact, in French idioma, there is a tendency to assimilate very good craftmanship to Art :

 

When you need a plummer or an electrician (a specialist) to do something, he is called "l'homme de l'art" or if something has been done/achieved correctly following the procedures, we say that the work has been achieved following "les règles de l'Art"

 

Probably referring to Cathedral Time and "compagnons"

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Hi,

 

Do not mistake superior craftmanship for art

 

I fully disagree, these two criterions can't be separated. an excellent workmanship is required to obtain art. What is a "chef-d'oeuvre"? It is the result of great workmanship. What is skill? it is the capability to accomplish the summit of workmanship.

 

there are numerous violinists on earth how many Yehudi Menuhin or Fritz Kreisler?

 

don't mistake beautiful things with art

 

True, El Capitan in Yosemite park is beautiful but it is not art.

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Guido has written :

 

"Just as a good voice without musical training will not enable one to sing like Pavarotti"

 

That's what tells me my wife each time I sing under the shower :lol: :lol: :lol:

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these two criterions can't be separated. an excellent workmanship is required to obtain art

 

They can, Cesar's compressions for example, I even remember paintings achieved through a horse tail, which, before the trick was discovered, were considered as Art.

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All good points, and I hope we can develop this discussion further, as there is just so much encompassed that it would take many pages to even start expressing some of it.

I had a long chat with Ford, and even 45 minutes wasn't enough to even come to terms with the basics of this, there is so much involved. Guido points out the logic of study and the fact that good work is just that...good work. It can be seen and identified according to what we learn are the finest attributes. Superior craftmanship will indeed be art if we are talking about top level swords, and consider Nihonto art. But a master craftsman can make a wooden duck that might always just be a wooden duck, and never art. It is different for various fields imho.

I would hate for this to be about whether Nihonto are purely either weapons or art. They can be both. Weapons that were refined to such a high level that they are now art itself. But the function is an inherent part of their character and desirability. We aren't studying pretty forged lumps of metal, we are studying art swords :)

The main point is to study what we look for in this art field, and learn to appreciate those aspects and who are the artists that were good at their field, and not try and study the low end of the market and look for aspects that just aren't present.

In other words, don't study low class stuff and then identify the good items by how much better they are to what you know and are familiar with... Rather study the best and know the low class stuff from how inferior it is to the masterpieces you have seen.

 

Brian

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Do not mistake superior craftmanship for art

 

Jean

 

I fully disagree, these two criterion can't be separated.
Jacques

 

I think I understand what you're getting at here Jacques but I think that what Jean was suggesting is that while great art may, of course, take great craft the opposite, that great craft automatically becomes great art is not also true. You seem to be disagreeing with something no-one said ;)

 

I don't fully agree that these two criterion can't be separated, at least to a useful degree, so as to help define more clearly what we might mean by "art."

 

Jean, I also think references to the rear end of a horse ( un cul chevaux ) may be a bit risky for all of us :glee:

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Reading the above comments makes me think we all are in the similar frame of mind but being able to express how mastery of craftmanship can surpass the mundane and how to describe it is where language fails. Given how the word 'art' can be bandied about diminishes how truly great swords can be described. Social factors can influence tastes in art over time (maybe not whimsically :) ) but true expression of form can never be doubted. It is hard to express these sentiments without using 'art' or 'artistic'. Oh, and as always, no offense to anyone is intended. John

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Does the answer lays here? (coming from jacques links)

 

"Until now, African pottery, wooden carvings and textiles had been viewed essentially as handicraft because ... they had not been created as art, to be appriciated for their own sake. Even after 'primitive' African art inspired Picasso, Brancusi, Braque, Modigliani and Henri Moore earlier this century, it was its magical and mystical quality that counted most. But at the Royal Academy, objects made by African hands are seperated from their cultural context and can be judged simply as art." 16

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I had better start buying all the African "art" I can find at the flea markets here :lol:

 

Seriously though, I think John is correct in that there aren't easy words to describe this thing. "Art" is a simplified word we use for convenience much like many of the names we use in this field. One of Jacques' links categorizes art and says that by definition, for something to be art, it has to have been created as art by the artist as his original intention.

By that definition, we aren't even collecting art. But of course we are. Art Swords of 1000 years of tradition.

However once again it is all just semantics and it is easy to get lost in the words without being able to get to a point.

It doesn't matter if we describe them as art, or masterpieces, or brilliant craftsmanship, or wonders of metal fabrication or whatever. We know what they are, what makes them special, and what we need to do to study and appreciate them. Sounds like we are in danger of becoming a committee discussing how we are going to discuss the discussion of Nihonto :)

 

Brian

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