Book reviews –

Book reviews — Art, Tea, and Industry: Masuda Takashi and the Mitsui Circle by Christine M. E. Guth

Kramer, Robert W

ART, TEA, AND INDUSTRY: Masuda Takashi and the Mitsui Circle. By Christine M. E. Guth. Princeton (New Jersey): Princeton University Press. 1993. xvi, 231 pp. (Figures, photographs.) US$29.95, cloth. ISBN 0-691-03206-8.

THOSE who contemplate the barriers to trade with Japan need go no further than this book to understand how horizontal relationships of bewildering complexity link the business of culture and the culture of business in modern Japan. In discussions which bear resemblance to “lifestyles of the rich and famous” redolent of the conspicuous consumption of a cosmopolitan “glitzerati,” Guth explores a conservative Japanese connoisseurship little affected by war, restoration, earthquake or financial panic.

The author contests earlier interpretations which congratulated Western interpreters of Japan with sensitizing Japanese to the quality of their cultural heritage and the artistic treasures which represented that heritage. Without indulging in postcolonialist diatribes concerning the presumptuousness of western “experts” such as Fenollosa, Morse, Alcock and Guimet, Guth explicates the role of Masuda Takashi and Inoue Kaoru in preserving those objects which, to them, represented the finest examples of Japanese creativity (chapter 6). Without neglecting the possession–a power relationship highlighted through the keen competition for the finest objects and through ostentatious forms of display practiced by Inoue and Masuda–the author explores the inclusion of Buddhist iconography in the art market; the expansion of interest in pre-Heian objects; and the influence of public commissions, exhibitions and museums on private collecting activities. The description of the modern onari which included even imperial representatives is particularly evocative of the continuity in pattern of connoisseurship (pp. 90-94).

She focuses on Masuda Takashi in his role as steward of the Mitsui conglomerate, as a man whose consuming passion was tea connoisseurship in the fashion of the sixteenth-century parvenu warlords, and in the role of collector where his exploits recall those of the merchant/aristocrats Kamiya Sotan and Suminokura Ryoi who were prominent collectors before the pax Tokugawa effectively halted innovation and experimentation in tea connoisseurship.

What we miss here in this nostalgic look at a generation of cultured aristocratic creators of a national market for art/commodities is an explication of the rupture which is nonetheless apparent in the continuity of their collection efforts with those of the past. Granted that Guimet, Fenollosa, Morse, Freer and Warner were completely dependent upon Japanese dealers and associates for their purchases; granted also that there was a core of influential Japanese keenly aware of the potential for loss of valuable artifacts due to haibutsu kishaku and an excessive emphasis upon imitation of Western cultural norms. Even given these necessary correctives, is the commodification of Japanese art, including what were until the late nineteenth century sacred objects used in Buddhist and Shinto precincts, not indicative of the penetration of a form of state capitalism to the very core of Japanese identity at a time when that identity was the subject of domestic and international political discourse as never before? Is not the self-serving use of a patriotic rationale for amassing great collections as described for Okura Heihachiro and Hara Tomitaro (chapter 6) an example of state-centered economic nationalism and, as such, evidence of rupture in a discourse which, in the actions of earlier eminent collectors, was particularistic, aesthetic and absorbed with personal–clan, not state–corporate identity formation? It is this type of question which is absent in this work which, though admirable in conveying the intersecting nature of art and political economy in pre-Pacific-War Japan, is unwilling to ask pointed questions of these collectors whose competitive drive made them leaders in commerce and politics in addition to the consumption and appropriation of traditional culture. Less nostalgia for a time and opportunity missing today and more attention to the culture/market nexus might have made this handsomely produced book more compelling.

Copyright University of British Columbia Spring 1994

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