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    Photogravure etchings at https://kamprint.com/ & https://kamprint.com/xpress/

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Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

Lord Darlington, an amiable aristocrat of impeccable honour and goodwill, convenes secret meetings at his palatial estate, Darlington Hall. The task of his butler and the narrator of this novel, Stevens, is to see that the elaborate preparations and support services are rendered smoothly and so discreetly as to be hardly noticeable. Lord Darlington’s mission in life is to use his wealth and connections to deliver peace to Europe during the 1920s and 1930s. He feels sorry that Germany was treated so poorly at Versailles, and wishes to make amends, trusting that German leaders will return his generous goodwill in kind. Cluelessly and tragically, the noble goodwill of Lord Darlington — a fictional character who represents a type prevalent in England then — is exploited by Hitler to neutralize England before attacking it. Unable to imagine that not all statesmen are gentlemen, the hapless Lord Darlington unwittingly becomes a mortal danger to the country he loves and reveres.

The amateur diplomacy at Darlington Hall is only a subplot of the story, which takes place as a series of increasingly melancholy reminiscences by Stevens. The tragic denouement of his employer’s noble efforts has Stevens wondering whether his own service as butler was of any value at all. This is especially disturbing because of the scrupulous attention paid earlier in the story to the high professional standards he aspired to. Ishiguro invents an entire society of English butlers who meet regularly to discuss the niceties of their profession, compare notes on who is at the top of his form and who is not, and publish guides on what constitutes professional butlering. Such is Ishiguro’s genius that the absurdity of such preoccupations is subdued and subsumed in Stevens’ reminiscences.

Stevens’ dedication to his profession is so thorough that his fervently anticipated reunion with his colleague in past service, Miss Kenton, is cast entirely in terms of shoring up the staff at Darlington Hall. Their mutually unrequited relationship is one of the most tragic love stories in literature, brilliantly enacted by Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in the film. By way of apology for an attempt on his professionally imperturbable demeanour, she says ‘Mr Stevens, you musn’t take anything I said earlier to heart. I was simply being foolish.’ ‘I have not taken anything you have said to heart, Miss Kenton‘, he responds, completely unaware of how smitten she is with him. So it goes, right through to the remains of the day at one of those sad seaside resorts that dot the southwest English coast. There, a chance acquaintance advises Stevens ‘you’ve got to keep looking forward; the evening’s the best part of the day‘. So he resolves to practice ‘bantering’, jocular conversation more in keeping with the style of his new employer, an American who acquired Darlington Hall after the war.

For some thirty years after the war, philosophers, historians, and ordinary people pondered how in the world the English aristocracy and many highly educated people could have got it so wrong about Hitler. After all, he didn’t conceal his plans, and his murderous activities were perfectly consistent with them. The leading lights of English society somehow contrived to convince themselves that what they were seeing was not what they were seeing. ‘The Remains of the Day’ is, among many other things, a story of self-deception — Lord Darlington’s blindness to the consequences of his noble goodwill, Mr Stevens’ inexpressible love for Miss Kenton. Their quandry is revealed by half-overheard conversations, interrupted reflections, chance recollections of seemingly insignificant incidents vividly lodged in memory, small gestures, and momentary losses of equanimity.

The novel reminds us we are all mysteries to ourselves. Even as we present seemingly convincing rationales for our behavior to the world at large, we are really no better able to explain our own motivations than those of our families and best friends; and even less can we explain the motivations of complete strangers. Perhaps universal misunderstanding is our fate. We can, however, obtain partial, temporary, contingent knowledge, which is usually enough to get us through the day. In most situations, incomplete knowledge is all we have, whether we admit it or not, and it’s on that faulty basis that we must act. Art is no better than science at forecasting the future, but through art we perceive there are things we cannot perceive — hints, intimations, feelings, the very qualities scrupulously removed from Stevens’ extremely well-disciplined professional practice.

On rare occasions something inexplicable washes over him, as when Miss Kenton leans in close to pry away the book he has been reading in his precious time alone. She is surprised to find it’s a sentimental romance, but Stevens hastens to explain he’s reading it for professional reasons, so that he can follow the conversation of the younger guests at Darlington Hall. Later, when given leave by his employer to explore the country west of Oxfordshire, he chances upon a view of the rolling hills near Salisbury that sends him into a most uncharacteristic reverie:

It was a fine feeling indeed to be standing up there like that, with the sound of summer all around one and a light breeze on one’s face. And I believe it was then, looking on that view, that I began for the first time to adopt a frame of mind appropriate for the journey before me. For it was then that I felt the first healthy flush of anticipation for the many interesting experiences I know these days ahead hold in store for me.

In his room at an inn, Stevens recalls the view, which inspires in him a soliloquy on the splendours of the English landscape:

I find what really remains with me from this first day’s travel… is that marvelous view encountered this morning of the rolling English countryside. Now I am quite prepared to believe that other countries can offer more obviously spectacular scenery. Indeed, I have seen in encyclopedias and the National Geographic Magazine breathtaking photographs of sights from various corners of the globe; magnificent canyons and waterfalls, raggedly beautiful mountains. It has never, of course, been my privilege to have seen such things at first hand, but I will nevertheless hazard this with some confidence: the English landscape at its finest — such as I saw it this morning — possesses a quality that the landscapes of other natioins, however more superficially dramatic, inevitably fail to possess. It is, I believe, a quality that will mark out the English landscape to any objective observer as the most deeply satisfying in the world, and this quality is probably best summed upby the term ‘greatness’. For it is true, when I stood on that high ledge this morning and viewed the land before me, I distinctly felt that rare, yet unmistakable feeling — the feeling that one is in the presence of greatness. We call this land of ours Great Britain, and there may those who believe this a somewhat immodest practice. Yet I would venture that the landscape of our country alone would justify the use of this lofty adjective.

Meditating on this, he asks ‘And yet what precisely is this ‘greatness’? Just where, or in what, does it lie? I am quite aware it would take a far wiser head than mine to answer such a question, but if I were forced to hazard a guess, I would say that it is the very *lack* of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart. What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it. In comparison, the sorts of sights offered in such places as Africa and America, though undoubtedly very exciting, would, I am sure, strike the objective viewer as inferior on account of their unseemly demonstrativeness.

Common Grounds, photogravure etching, Peter Miller

These momentary exhilirations hint at a world beyond that of ordinary perception. Through Stevens’ observations, Ishiguro leads us from the confusion of unexpected human intimacy, to the joyous wonders of nature, to reflections on unconscious beauty. Stevens himself, though but dimly aware of the limitations of his own perspective, recognizes in these moments there is more to life than butlering. Absurdly, he strives to remedy these deficiencies by diligent study, rather than by direct experience.

The philosopher Roger Scruton relates these momentary epiphanies to Kant’s notion of the transcendental, his attempt to see what if anything lies beyond our perception.

Sayings — on the sacred

He said we can transcend our point of view insofar as we can see just how limited it is. But we can’t get beyond those limits. Yet, as he also said, we have intimations of things beyond the limits, intimations of the transcendental in the moral life. For example we know with absolute certainty of necessity that we are free, we know that by the laws of reason that we must treat each other in such a way as to obey a law that all of us could accept. This is a categorical imperative which binds us regardless of any empirical circumstances. That is something we know, a priori. We don’t know how it is that we know it but it brings with it an intimation of a world beyond the one on which the eyes are opened. Likewise in aesthetic experience, the experience of art and the beauty of nature especially, we seem to be granted intimations of a world beyond, of a transcendental realm about which we can’t actually speak, but nevertheless of which we can have a certain kind of knowledge.

So, at the end of the day, it is these hints, intimations, daydreams that we must explore to discover the truth of our lives. We explore them through novels like Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, graphic artworks, music, all of which can serve as transcendental media outlining the scope of what remains.

Constable, Hampstead Heath

Engakuji and the Winds of War

1. Engakuji. Engakuji, in Kita-Kamakura, unusually among war memorials, honors the fallen of both sides, the vanquished along with the victors, extinguishing rights and wrongs, grievances and triumphs, injuries received and inflicted. The entire temple of Engakuji was dedicated by Regent Hojo Tokimune in 1282 to the memory of the Mongols who had recently invaded Japan, and of the Japanese defenders. I once asked where is the memorial monument, and was told by a gate attendant that it is the entire temple. Engakuji is one of the Five Great Temples of Kamakura, consisting of 28 buildings. The exquisite gardens and ponds were designed by Muso Kokushi, who also designed Zuisenji and Saihoji.

Engakuji Shariden

The Shariden is the oldest building in Engakuji, and the oldest building of Sung-Dynasty architectural style in Japan. It was built in the 15th century after its 13th-century predecessor burned down. It is the only building in Kamakura designated as a National Treasure.

2. Nichiren. From all accounts including his own, Nichiren was a charismatic curmudgeon who insisted on the exclusive rightness of his cause. His cause was the Lotus Sutra, a back-to-basics Buddhism that became increasingly popular in the 13th century in opposition to the Esoteric sects favored and supported by the government of the day, the Hojo regime. In 1260 he submitted a treatise to the Hojo Regent entitled ‘Pacifying the State by Establishing Orthodoxy’, namely the Lotus Sutra. Not surprisingly, the Regent rejected it; Nichiren took his message to the streets of the capital, Kamakura, preaching it to whomever would listen. Quite a few people listened, delighted to learn they could dispense with esoteric sects and Government decrees. Hojo Tokiyori, who had initiated a series of persecutions of Nichiren, died in 1263. The next Regent, Hojo Tokimune, continued them. Nichiren’s popularity only grew. By 1271, Tokimune had had enough; he sentenced Nichiren to be beheaded at the execution grounds of a place later known as Ryukoji, where a graceful five-story pagoda in honor of Nichiren now stands. At the appointed time, as Nichiren awaited his fate, a lightning bolt smashed the executioner’s sword to bits. As it happened, Hojo Tokimune reconsidered his execution order even before receiving word of heaven’s message, and commuted the sentence to exile on remote Sado Island. Nichiren’s health prospered there, but a series of earthquakes, plagues, and severe typhoons swept through Japan in the ensuing years. Soon Nichiren was back to Kamakura preaching on street corners — adding that if the Hojo Government failed to change its ways, further disasters including foreign invasions would follow.


Ryukoji / 竜口寺, photogravure etching, Peter Miller (1995)

The prophecies in Nichiren’s treatise were based on astrological conjunctions similar to those that happened to coincide with prior disasters. An earthquake ‘of unprecedented magnitude’, he writes, occurred in 1257 when Jupiter was near the fourth sign in the Chinese zodiac. Typhoons, famines, and epidemics raged through Japan during the next three years. He then ventured to predict that ‘these are omens indicating that this country of ours will be destroyed by a foreign nation.’

3. The Mongol Invasions. Descendants of Ghengis Khan had amassed an empire ranging from Korea to Hungary. Kublai Khan, a grandson, was busy subduing China’s Sung Dynasty. Nichiren may have put two and two together and figured Japan would be next on Kublai’s wish-list. Six years later, in 1266, Kublai Khan invited Japan to be a vassal state of his empire. His envoys were sent back with no response. The offer or threat was repeated in 1269 and 1271. Impatient of the lack of response, in 1274 Kublai and his Mongol warriors attacked two offshore islands, killing all the defenders, then advanced to Kyushu. Despite their initial success, a Yuan general was severely injured, and their inexperienced seafarers became concerned about an approaching storm, and withdrew with the intention of retreating. But as they did so, a typhoon destroyed many of their boats, the remainder returning across the storm-tossed ocean to Korea. Nearly half the invading force perished.

Kikuchi Yoosai, Mongol Invasion

The Mongols persisted, sending five envoys to Kamakura in 1275. Hojo Tokumine had them all beheaded, at the execution site with a view of Enoshima. Five more Yuan emissaries got only as far as Hakata (present-day Fukuoka) where they landed in 1279, before being dispatched in the same way. Kublai Khan, having finally defeated the Sung Dynasty, in 1280 began assembling a much larger force, using Chinese and Korean shipyards to build a large fleet. By May 1281 all was in readiness. Two fleets, one from China, the other from Korea, crossed the Sea of Japan, and after several naval battles approached Kyushu. There as a violent typhoon approached, they sought shelter in Imari Bay. The typhoon smashed their boats to splinters, leaving tens of thousands clinging to pieces of driftwood, to drown or be slaughtered by the Japanese defenders. Between one-third and one-half of the Korean and Chinese invaders did not return. Again the ‘divine wind’ worked its magic. The Mongols never invaded Japan again.

Hojo Tokimune did not celebrate Japan’s victory. Instead he dedicated Engakuji the following year, 1282, to the repose of all the tens of thousands who had lost their lives, with no distinction between invaders and defenders, Japanese and Mongols. Nichiren died that same year, and Hojo Tokumine followed his old adversary in death in 1284.

4. A shakuhachi concert. Some years ago I attended an outdoor shakuhachi concert. The shakuhachi is a bamboo flute with a warm mellow tone, with great variation of timbre depending on the force and direction breathed into it. Midway through one piece, a gust of wind scattered the pages of sheet music into the air. Gathering them up, the shakuhachi player, somewhat flustered, said ‘I guess the wind is angry’. As it happened, a former Defense Minister was in the audience. He observed ‘No, the wind is jealous’. What a perfectly gracious remark, praising the performance and setting the shakuhachi player at ease. In what other country, I wondered, would a Defense Minister be capable of such sensibility. But then I realized the role of the ‘Divine Wind’ in Japanese history must be famliar to someone charged with defense of the realm. The shakuhachi concert continued without further interruption.

Urbino and the Art of Perspective

At breakfast in the Bonconte Hotel in Urbino, the fellow at the next table saw that I was having trouble making myself understood in Italian. That was hardly surprising, as I don’t speak Italian. What was surprising is that we had met previously at an exhibit opening of mine in Houston, Texas. Neither of us realized it until the next day. My forgetting can be written off to the fact that Houston and Urbino are not exactly sister cities. But in the hierarchy of his memory, my existence made less of an impression than the works, the photogravure etchings. Those he remembered, my self was peripheral. And that is exactly the way I wish to be remembered — to be eclipsed by my images.


Urbino, photogravure etching, Peter Miller (2011)

Cities, like sculptures and people, look better from some directions than others. With cities, this favored viewpoint, where its composition falls into place as a coherent picture, is not always easy to find.

‘It could be argued’ said Kenneth Clark in the 1970s book and BBC TV series “Civilization” (both still available) ‘that life in Urbino was one of the high water marks of western civilization. (As for the Palace), the arcaded courtyard is calm and timeless — the rooms are so perfectly proportioned that it exhilarates one to walk through them: in fact it’s the only palace in the world that I can go round without feeling oppressed and exhausted’.

A thousand years ago, by contrast, our ancestors lived a life of brutality, ignorance and delusions, one that was – in Thomas Hobbes’ famous phrase – ‘nasty, brutish and short.’

It was an era of treachery, depravity, and barbarism. And if you happened to
have been born into it, there wasn’t a thing you could do about it.

Consider, for example, that during the Middle Ages:

– The vast majority of people were peasants who labored hard for a subsistence living.

– There was no social safety net and hunger was often terrible. During famines, people devoured bark, roots, grass, even clay.

– Political freedoms were nonexistent. Despots, confronted by opposition,
could be counted on to strike back with fury. Enemies of the king were
routinely hanged, drawn and quartered.

– Abduction for ransom was an acceptable means of livelihood for skilled but
landless knights.

– It was an era of shocking everyday violence. Murders were twice as frequent
as death by accident. (And English coroners’ records show that only one of
every hundred murderers was ever brought to justice.)

– Outlaws were seldom pursued. Anyone intrepid enough to travel between
towns alone was on their own. Thieves, kidnappers, and killers simply hid in
the forest and waited. In ‘A World Lit Only By Fire,’ historian William
Manchester writes that, ‘honest travelers carried well-honed daggers,
knowing they might have to kill and hoping they would have the stomach
for it.’

– Villagers were insular, staying close to home and marrying their neighbors.
Local dialects were often incomprehensible to those living only a few miles

– The vast majority of men and women were illiterate and believed in magic,
sorcery and all manner of myths, routinely killing those whose superstitions
were different from and, therefore, an affront to, their own.

– Witch-hunting was a popular sport. When a witch – often someone with a
mental illness – was discovered, he or she was generally put to the stake.

– Sanitation was primitive; plumbing was unknown. Excrement, urine and
offal were simply flung out windows. This created rat and flea infestations.
These, in turn, bred deadly pandemics.

– The Black Death is estimated to have killed up to 60% of Europe’s population in the mid-1300s. At night, carts creaked through town streets, with gravediggers crying out, “Bring Out Your Dead!”

– The Church — often doubling as the government — taxed workers without
their consent, made war on its enemies and offered to erase transgressions
by selling indulgences.

– The threat of capital punishment was often used in religious conversions —
and medieval threats were seldom idle.

– Death was also the prescribed penalty for hundreds of other offenses,
particularly those against property.

– Courts required little evidence and were frequently merciless. A slanderer
might have his tongue ripped out. A thief could have his hand cut off. (And
the medieval age was not a good time to be an adulterer.)

– Females were often married when they reached the age of twelve. Needless
to say, they seldom chose their mates. Parents usually arranged their
children’s marriages by their seventh birthdays.

– The toll at childbirth was appalling. A young girl’s life expectancy was

– Men rarely reached their late forties. If they did, their hair was as white and their backs as bent as an octogenarian’s today.

– People marked time by the sun, the stars and the changing of the seasons.
There was no such thing as a clock or – apart from the Easter tables at the
local church – anything resembling a calendar.

– To the average person, the earth was flat, the population beset by demons
and the lands beyond the horizon a total mystery.

Today we have a great bias, a widely accepted belief in the steady nature of
human progress. But for most of history there simply was none. There are,
for example, enormous differences between everyday life in 1810 and 2010.
But between 810 and 1010 there were virtually none.

Five Pillars of Wisdom

Five Pillars of Wisdom: A Common-Sense Guide

As readers of these Views know, art and culture provide useful ways of looking at the so-called real world. Here are my Five Pillars of Wisdom — things to watch for — and how to apply them:

  1. Authenticity.
  2. Coherence.
  3. Experience.
  4. Style.
  5. Design.

1. Authenticity. We ask of artwork, Does it carry conviction? Does the author ‘really mean it’? Is it an honest, heart-felt expression? Or on the contrary, is it contrived to elicit a pre-fabricated response? Is the author merely ‘faking it’, not really feeling the emotion claimed? Or worse, is it manipulative, an attempt to promote some agenda? This contrast reveals one of the essential qualities of authenticity — its open-endedness. Authentic art opens up new, even unexpected, possibilities. It trusts viewers to respond according to their own best instincts, and respects their freedom to do so. In science, business, and government as well, with authenticity in mind one can distinguish views reached by independent thought, free of ideology or pre-set conclusions, from those determined by sponsorship or partisan interest.

2. Coherence. Aesthetic coherence helps people make sense of their surroundings and how they fit into them. Of an artistic or cultural object, one may ask ‘Does it hang together?’ Or is it a hodge-podge of items thrown together on the fly? Even Jackson Pollock’s abstractions have aesthetic coherence if viewed as a creative experience (rather than as a picture of something). Inundated with data as we are now, the need for aesthetic coherence is stronger than ever. To create what can be seen at a glance, or enacted in drama or experienced in music, an appreciation of what’s going on in the present moment, which yet survives this moment to epitomize it, is required. Copying the prevalent chaos merely adds to the noise. The artistic task is to transcend the noise and the chaos, or use them as raw materials to produce a new coherent vision.

Science, business, and politics all have their own principles of action, each its own way of resolving the natural incoherence of these endeavors into something that ‘hangs together’, that makes sense. Scientific research may be random (‘let’s try this and see if it works’) — incoherent — until an inspired hunch or serendipitous discovery brings coherence to years of effort. Business firms that cannot explain to their customers, their employees, or themselves why they are in business — lacking a coherent vision of their mission — will probably be out of business sooner rather than later. Likewise a nation’s failure to pursue national goals more encompassing than that of keeping a governing elite in power is likely to degenerate into incoherence and division. The aesthetic quality of coherence / incoherence thus applies broadly to institutions of knowledge, wealth, and governance.

3. Experience. We want art and culture to ‘ring true’ to actual experience, however they may transform it. Originality brings us directly to the source of experience, which re-creates that

As If

        As If, photogravure etching, Peter Miller (2014)

experience in imagination. It conveys the ‘immersive’ feeling of actually ‘being there’, enabling viewers to put themselves into the picture (or the drama or music) as if they were themselves living that experience now. Neural mapping has shown that thinking of an activity fires the same synapses as the activity itself. From exhibits I have produced around the world, I know from viewers’ comments that pictures can transport them to places they’ve never in fact visited. Drama and music can also draw people into imaginary worlds, as if part of their own life-experiences.

In science, business, and government as well, first-hand experience tells us more about the way things work than do hearsay, supposition, or models.

4. Style. Style in art reflects an individual sense of fitness, a way of selecting various elements for

Rembrandt, The Windmill

Rembrandt, The Windmill

aesthetic coherence. An individual style becomes recognizable not only in the entire finished work, but in each part of it — in every line of a Rembrandt etching, in every note of a composition by Mozart or Beethoven. Style in this sense is fractal — it provides the self-generative dynamic that spins the entire work out of any fragment. Or, to use a biological metaphor, style is a kind of DNA whose basic code sets the terms for organic development to follow. Without it, the object is merely mechanical (like the ostentatiously named giclée) or artificial.

Even the famously ‘no-style’ products of Muji have a distinctive style, their no-nonsense minimalism instantly recognizable. Corporate style is often confused with branding, but the style of a commercial endeavor emerges from thorough integration of product design, customer-identification, education, and visible public presence. Science may seem an odd place for style, but actually it takes individual imagination to pierce the randomness of possible theories and experiments. Those hunches are of the essence of scientific style. Even the multifarious operations of government are essentially reducible to two styles: open, town-meeting-like citizen involvement, or opaque, secretive, officious procedures that concentrate power in a few. An arbitrary or absurd style of art or governance demeans those subjected to it.

5. Design. Effective execution of a design requires knowledge of materials and anticipation of structure and composition to achieve overall aesthetic coherence. To conceive and execute a


    Renewal, photogravure etching, Peter Miller (2019)

design, one must know or anticipate how the various elements inter-relate to create a workable composition. Beyond mastery of technique, one must know how to make it serve an artistic vision. In the graphic arts, it is a matter of applying ink or paint to a surface; in music, counterpoint and harmony, theme and variations, timing; in drama, story, character, and voice. Design is where the practical work of assembly is planned and then carried out. It is also where the materials or notes or characters take on a life of their own, with unexpected results. Whether to reject these as mistakes or incorporate seemingly chance elements into the work is an inescapably recurring design question.

Science and engineering refer to this as the error-feedback loop, the constant adjustment of complex structures to changes in their environment. A thermostat is the most familiar example. Business practitioners as well constantly adapt to circumstances, to enable their firms to survive and prosper. Products, services, and organizations are constantly updated in response to market-driven information. Governments typically operate with obsolete designs, with little or no method of error correction, relying on exclusive control of their domains to stay in power. Faulty governance designs persist despite widespread recognition of their flaws, opting for patchwork ‘solutions’ until some vital part fails or an obviously superior design emerges from the melee (an historically rare occurrence).


Living With the Unexpected. If the year 2020 has confirmed one thing, it is the unexpectedness of our lives. For some, it has brought that final outcome that none of us is prepared for, the end of our existence. For others, an illness whether mild or severe has brought home the fragility of that existence, and the contingent nature of all our plans, hopes, and expectations for the future.

Governments the world over are among the least adaptable of human groups. In response to the plague of 2020, they have cycled through denial, censorship, panic, model-mania, lockdown, money-printing, miracle-mongering, and theatrical displays of frenetic activity, before finally taking the measure of the disease and educating the public about what everyone can do to minimize it. With a few exceptions — mainly countries in Asia where front-line experience is quickly put into practice — governments have ‘pulled rank’ rather than listen to those most familiar with ‘facts on the ground’. Around the world, only with the most heroic efforts of front-line health workers has it been possible to learn the truth and apply the knowledge gained through hard experience. Doctors and nurses have had to fight not only the plague, but also censorship, threats, and expulsions administered by health bureaucrats. The plague has exposed the hollowness of these bureaucracies, pointing the way toward new structures of work and livelihood.

A world-altering cataclysm like this plague forces us to imagine the unexpected, to enlarge our sense of the future beyond that of previous custom. It teaches us to accept that our assumptions and models of the future have no basis in fact, that we really know very little about what will happen. We proceed with our best guesses, realizing they are full of uncertainty, relying on our instincts and common-sense. Common-sense belongs to everyone, and is held regardless of rank. Unless suppressed, everyone can exercise it.


So, to return to our five pillars of wisdom, here are some common-sense questions suggested by each, originating in art and applicable to science, business, and government:

  1. Authenticity: Is it truly heart-felt?
  2. Coherence: Does it hang together?
  3. Experience: Is it based on first-hand knowledge?
  4. Style: Open and transparent?
  5. Design: Adaptable to error-correction?

These are of course the beginning and not the end of inquiry.



Nothing conjures up Asia more evocatively than rice-paddies. In flatlands, or mountain-contoured terraces channeling water from one level to the next, wet-rice agriculture feeds more than four billion people, more than any other grain. Asia produces more than 700 million tons of rice per year on 150 million hectares, more than 90 percent of the rice in the world. Rice provides more than one-fifth of the calories consumed by humankind, more than any other agricultural product. Originating in the Yangtze Valley and introduced into Japan in the fourth century BC, wet-rice agriculture transformed the Japanese from the nomadic hunter-gatherers of the Jomon period — which had lasted 15,000 years — into settled villagers and eventually city-dwellers. A glance at a Jomon-era ceramic will show these were very different people from those who followed.

Jomon ceramic, ca 2500 BC

A grain fundamental to family and clan survival, rice naturally acquired a supernatural aura. From the necessity of cooperating for the labor-intensive tasks of irrigation, planting and harvesting, to the daily experience of the landscape that made life possible, rice set the tone and style of all activities in its domain. Rice-harvest festivals feature dances that are stylized versions of these activities. In every way, rice taps into the deepest wellsprings of human life, materially and spiritually as one.

Japanese legend portrays the sun as Amaterasu the sun-goddess who founded Japan, and the ripening golden grain of rice as her descendant. From that grain arose the legendary first Emperor Jimmu, from whom all subsequent Emperors are said to descend, in an unbroken line of succession that is the longest of any monarchy in the world. The rice-grain itself is thus both deity and nourishment, rejuvenating both both body and soul, uniting people, land, and history. Despite or perhaps because of its sacred status, rice has also served as a commodity and medium of exchange in Japan. During the Tokugawa Era (1603 – 1868), large landholdings of rice-fields in the Kanto region helped Ieyasu Tokugawa consolidate political power as the chief warlord, or Shogun.

Japan’s Self-image

The self-image of Japan, cultivated by the Japanese themselves and taken up by overseas observers, is that of an isolated country lacking natural resources seeking food self-sufficiency as a matter of survival. Yet Japan today is the world’s largest consumer of foreign agricultural products, importing $30 billion of food annually. ‘More land in the United States is devoted to growing food and fiber for Japan than is cultivated in Japan itself’. (Reich, Michael R., Yasuo Endo, and C. Peter Timmer 1986 Agriculture: The Political Economy of Structural Change. In America versus Japan, Thomas K. McCraw, ed., 151-192, 417-420. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.)

Textbooks (and self-image) portray Japan as an agrarian society with a few industries like consumer electronics and cars that have somehow found favor in America and other markets. In fact, Japan is one of the most highly urbanized countries in the world, and an industrial colossus with a diversified economy larger than that of Britain, France, and Italy combined. Even in agrarian communities where people overwhelmingly identify themselves as farmers, as far back as 1840 more than half their income derived from nonagrarian activities. Industry, transport, fishing, wage remittance, and central government expenditures supplied most of their income.

Ohno Bakufu, Planting Rice

Another perception — and self-perception — is that rice has always been the staple food of Japan, consumed by everyone. But the Japanese people lived as hunter-gatherers for 15,000 years during the Jomon period before taking up wet-rice agriculture. And while rice-growing for subsistence prevailed in its early days, large landholdings coming under the control of warlords made it hard for rice-growers to keep enough rice from the tax-collectors to consume it. Of what was left, much was sold to buy other grains such as millet. It was only in the Meiji era, late 19th-century, when yields improved, that rice-growers began to have enough rice to eat, as indicated by records of tax collection and peasant rebellions.

Rice planting, 19th century

After rice became abundant, ordinary folks could easily consume three bowls of it at a sitting, while the affluent chose to have less, making up the nutritional difference with a variety of side dishes. This custom grew into the famous kaiseki cuisine which features 20 or 30 different dishes during the course of a meal. NOT having a main course became a mark of culinary distinction. Upscale ryokans still maintain networks of nearby farmers, fishermen, vegetable, condiment, and sake suppliers. Serving something from all of them acts as both a display of wealth and as a service to guests. The meal is never complete, however, without rice, no matter how little of it is actually consumed. And at the best ryokans and in the best homes, it must be from Tohoku, preferably Yamagata or Akita, now known to produce the highest-quality, tastiest rice with an unmatched luster and consistency.

Rice sheaves drying in Iwate Prefecture

All the while, rice remained a sacrament and even a deity itself according to legend, by whom soul as well as body are renewed. The evocative power of rice rests in its simultaneous role as collective food and as metaphor for Japanese land. Rice paddies formed the classic Japanese landscape, just as Gothic churches created the French landscape. This multi-layered linkage of body, soul, and land gives rice its enduringly sacred status. Regardless of the actual quantity consumed, domestic Japanese rice remains a sacrament. While the Japanese consumed 88 kilograms of rice per capita per year in 1961, by 2011 it was only 43 kilograms per capita per year. Every grain of this reduced amount remained sacrosanct.

As a food item becomes more of a commodity, where selection is based primarily on price, the less desirable it becomes for those who have discretionary income or wealth. Domestic Japanese rice being more expensive than imported rice thus makes it more, not less desirable — provided there is a qualitative difference. Japanese consumers report in repeated surveys that they prefer the taste, appearance, and texture of domestic rice. Paying seven times the average world price, they have become connoisseur-type buyers rather than commodity-type buyers.

Rice cutting

After contentious trade disputes during the 1980s, the Japanese Government, still concerned about westernization, redirected its efforts into a successful campaign to establish 和食 (washoku, traditional Japanese cuisine) as an intangible element of World Heritage. In 2013, UNESCO registered washoku as an intangible cultural heritage. Lest there be any confusion about the practical consequences of this registration, the Japanese Government issued the following statement:

‘As lifestyles have been westernized, young Japanese have increasingly tended to move away from washoku, with the result that it is now in a critical state in Japan. Registration of an intangible cultural heritage requires that continued measures be taken to preserve it. We are truly happy’, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at the time, ‘as Japan’s food self-sufficiency ratio is only 40 percent in terms of calories, with the spread of Western eating habits. We would like to continue passing on Japanese food culture to the generations to come.’

Hamaya, rice planting in Toyama Prefecture

Japanese Emperors as Rice-Shamans

Emperor Naruhito acceded to the Chrysanthemum Throne in Japan on May 1, 2019, following the abdication of his father Emperor Akihito a day earlier. Both ceremonies were low-key, as if seeking to fit the rituals and the monarchy into modern life. Honoring ancestors and contemporary norms, Emperor Naruhito’s first speech evoked the blessings of peace, to pacify those who remember his grandfather Emperor Hirohito’s wartime role. It was said that Hirohito had ‘renounced his divinity’, but this misconstrues the Japanese notion of divinity, in which rocks and trees as well as Emperors take part. An Emperor could no more renounce divinity than Mt Fuji could. Japan is inhabited by thousands of kami-sama living in rocks, trees, rivers, waterfalls, mountains, Shinto shrines, and wherever nature inspires affection.

The most important of these deities is rice. In legend and history, rice is intimately bound up with the Imperial family, at once a gift of Amaterasu the Sun Goddess, and the progenitor of the legendary first Emperor Jimmu from whom all subsequent Emperors are descended. They all inherit the sacred responsibility of cultivating these seeds, uniting the practical and spiritual duties of leadership. Producing food to sustain life is at once a sacrament and a ritual of daily renewal. The early Emperors were, as Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney writes in Rice as Self (I am grateful to Leanne Martin for recommending this book), rice-shamans, endowed with quasi-magical powers to ensure the peoples’ survival. These rituals have continued to the present day Imperial investiture ceremony, which is adapted from ancient folk rice-harvest festivals.

Such rituals were needed not only to invoke the gods of the rice-harvest, but also to mark this rice as distinctively Japanese. As rice-paddies coalesced into large landholdings, wet-rice agriculture formed the foundation of the emerging Yamato state, and of the Emperor/Shogun system. By officiating at rice-planting and rice-harvest ceremonies, Emperors enact the life-renewing properties of rice, and what it means to be Japanese. As Ohnuki-Tierney puts it, ‘Humans and their communities must rejuvenate themselves… by performing a ritual, or by eating rice. Through the consumption of rice, the Japanese internalize the divine power which then becomes part of the human body and its growth…. Whether a food represents an individual self, a social group, or a people as a whole, this symbolic process renders foods powerful symbols not only conceptually but also, we might say, at the gut level.’ Here then in 2019, in one of his first official acts, is Emperor Naruhito planting rice, in fulfillment of his ancient rice-shaman responsibility.

Emperor Naruhito planting rice

The worship of rice as a deity is akin to Shinto practices honoring elements of the natural world. There being no essential difference over the long course of time between animate and inanimate elements, rocks and trees can be worshiped as ancestors in the same way as people. Your great-great-grandfather could be that owl hooting in the trees, and you could turn into a fossil. Shinto, 神道 (the way of the gods) focuses on our relation to nature, as beings whose existence is entirely subsumed by nature. Buddhism is about humankind in society, based on the teachings of individuals who attained great wisdom, like Buddha and his followers, giving practical guidance for relief of suffering. Japanese people worship their ancestors to get along with each other in daily life, to reinforce their sense of Japanese identity, and to be at peace with their natural surroundings.

Ancestor-worship Around the World

Ancestor-worship is not unique to Japan. Ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Magyars, Celts, Hindus, Chinese, African tribes, and many others practiced it. All of them placed food, weapons, clothes, anything the deceased might need, in their tombs. Ancestor-worship wasn’t simply blind loyalty. This belief in the persistence of life after death — for otherwise why worship ancestors, if they would not be gratified by it? — survived unscathed for millennia across a wide swath of the globe. Descendants thought of the departed soul as living underground and really in need of sustenance. It was up to them to provide these offerings, in precise accordance with prescribed rituals. If they failed in this worship, bad things would happen. Thus generals who left their soldiers’ dead bodies on the field of battle (because of the danger of retrieving them) were legally assassinated even though they won the battle.

Why? Neglected spirits would arise and demand their due. These ghosts would haunt the living until they were properly appeased. Fear, more than filial devotion, kept it going. Few wished to risk the consequences of failing to appease or worship their ancestors. For the ancients, the risks and benefits were personal. You could only be helped or haunted by your own ancestors, not by anyone else’s. How much more fateful for a warlord, tribal elder, clan leader, Caesar or Emperor to worship or not worship his ancestors. He could hardly choose not to do so, because the fate of his whole tribe, clan, or nation hung in the balance. All the people in his extended family would suffer defeat in war, awful pestilence, crop failure and starvation, or some other horrible means of extermination if he failed to worship his ancestors in accordance with exactly prescribed rituals. His position and his very life depended on it.

This arrangement gave great power to the priests who prescribed the rituals. They could in effect de-throne or elevate a king or an Emperor by manipulating the arcane formulae that were their specialty. It didn’t take the priesthood long to discover this. Every Imperial Court — in Greece, Rome, India, China, Japan, Indochina, the Vatican, the Holy Roman Empire, Great Britain, you name it — became a hotbed of intrigue among competing ministers and priests. This discord among priesthoods was their undoing. Savvy monarchs learned the art of divida et impera (divide and conquer), to turn contending factions against each other, and thus discredit them all. This was the beginning of the end of religious belief in Europe, which incidentally propelled the founding of colonies in the New World, and their eventual independence. De-sacralization and de-mystification left little room for the machinations of priesthood.

Japanese rulers since at least early Tokugawa days adroitly played off the various Western religions against each other, the better to keep their own native Shinto and imported Buddhist practices. Never in its history occupied except for the postwar 1945 – 52 period, Japan kept its own practices sacrosanct by unconsciously incorporating them into daily life. Rituals such as saying itadakimasu before meals, though not usually considered religious, acknowledge receiving sustenance as a gift. Ringing bells and clapping to summon the gods is done routinely when visiting Shinto shrines, which are always placed in scenic locales of natural sanctuary. So, while Western religious institutions founded on faith-based belief systems crumbled before the onslaught of reductionist science, the Japanese way of life survived because, except for extreme versions such as occurred between occurred 1930 and 1945, beliefs are subservient to its way of life rather than the other way around.

Waking the Gods, 13 x 19 cm photogravure etching, Peter Miller (2004)

For millennia the Imperial family had lived in almost total seclusion, a tradition that postwar Emperor Hirohito determined not to pass on to his son Akihito. To accomplish this transformation, he brought in Mrs Elizabeth Vining, a young woman from an old Pennsylvania Quaker family, to teach English to Crown Prince Akihito. Mrs Vining writes of her four years (1946 – 1950) as the young prince’s tutor in Windows for the Crown Prince (Tuttle, 1950; I am grateful to Dianne Marshall of the Grass Valley (California) Friends Meeting for the gift of this book). Initially Mrs Vining had little or no idea what she was in for. Asked only to teach English, her responsibilities grew to imparting the freedom of association she had grown up with, mediating among contending factions regarding the prince’s education, and (with Imperial permission) briefing General MacArthur on her charge’s progress. Amid opposition from official traditionalists, Mrs Vining insisted on the Crown Prince’s having what by her lights was a normal boyhood, with school friends, sports, parties, excursions, and as much freedom as was possible within the confines of the Imperial Palace. Crown Prince Akihito took Mrs Vining’s instruction to heart, enjoyed the company of a wide range of people, married a commoner, Michiko, whom he’d met on the tennis court at Karuizawa, and performed his duties as Emperor in a way that won domestic affection and international respect. Their son, and now Emperor, Naruhito, has clearly inherited this new tradition of imperial accessibility, and looks set to extend it during his reign.

Crown Prince Akihito reading with Elizabeth Gray Vining

Ancestor-worship, trees and rocks and rice as deities, and arcane rituals of Imperial succession strike some critics as atavistic irrational beliefs. But the rituals of daily life don’t depend on scientific theory. And the record of supposedly rational models of economy, investment, climate, governance, consumer behavior, etc. against actual consequences is nothing to boast about. That hasn’t deterred the algorithm-purveyors from claiming omniscience, which in their case amounts to yet another faith-based belief system rigged from dubious or absurd premises. Perhaps a little humility in the face of the unknowable would be more realistic.

Our Gift, photogravure etching, Peter Miller (2014) The Kamakura Print Collection ・ kamprint.com/ & kamprint.com/xpress/

Steven Marcus, 1928 – 2018, Professor of English at Columbia College, In Memoriam

Steven Marcus

In retrospect there seems to have been an elegiac cast to Steven Marcus’ teaching, an awareness that the unimpeded literary and cultural endeavour could not last forever. Already in 1963 the Vietnam War threatened to displace peaceful pursuits not only in the far-off theater of war, but in the halls of learning as well. In that year an entire semester devoted to ‘Hamlet’ might have been seen by some as idle, but Steven Marcus conveyed by manner and tone, by his extraordinarily charismatic presence, and by his wide-ranging and never-pedantic erudition, that this was the most important thing we students could be doing.

The play ‘Hamlet’, and Steven Marcus’ class, begin with ‘Who’s there?’ He pauses, then asks ‘Isn’t that the key question of the play, and of your life?’. Immediately the inquiry gets personal, as we wonder how our own, and Hamlet’s, identity will unfold.

The course ranged over all of English literature and drama, before and since, a line from Hamlet like the tea-soaked madeleine bringing forth a world of free association. Steven Marcus inhabited a Victorian world with high seriousness and wry humor, the ultimate litterateur. He was one of the last ‘men of letters’ for whom the vast range of reference in, say, the poetry of T S Eliot and Ezra Pound was as natural as conversation. His scholarship was entirely unforced, rather it grew from the keenest pleasure that curiosity could provide. And this pleasure he conveyed to students, artlessly and by example, so that we eagerly sought to develop our own learning. Marcus was at his best as a teacher, a particular sort of teacher — not an instructor or a retailer of lessons, but as a source of inspiration, someone who expanded the boundaries of cultural pleasure far beyond the limited boundaries of ordinary reality. His response to the impending crisis was to immerse himself, and us, even more deeply in the Western literary and cultural tradition while the chance still existed.

Steven Marcus’ intellectual heritage came by way of his own studies with Lionel Trilling at Columbia, in the Partisan Review milieu of mid-century New York. Trilling led the way, as the first Jew at Columbia, his acceptance eased by his donnish-English demeanor. Ironically Trilling was the great champion of authenticity, who pioneered the use of Freudian psychoanalysis to ferret out hidden meanings in literature. Marcus took up where Trilling left off, adapting the anglophilac style for dramatic effect in the classroom. It helped him, and us, to enter more fully into the spirit of English literature, as participant observers. He wisely chose not to use psychoanalysis as many later critics did, to decode or reduce literature to formulaic drives. Instead he used it as a method to reveal the irrational sources of the power of stories to move us. This is about as close as literary criticism can get to sympathetic companionship with literature.

The great value of literature for Marcus was not merely the enjoyment of entertaining stories — though that was not to be scorned, as he made clear in an essay on Dashiell Hammett. These stories reflect and at the same time re-make society. They supply insights unavailable elsewhere into what concerns us most, and even character-roles that readers adopt as models for their own places in the world. Social themes, to be sure, appear in literature, but themes invented by novelists also escape from the pages of books and inhabit society. Society itself is to a great extent a set of shared understandings of the meanings of public and private events. ‘Culture wars’ such as those currently raging represent competing visions of society that threaten others’ place in it. The interaction of literature and society that Steven Marcus wrote and thought about thus has real and fateful consequence.


1. Relatedness by geography and subject

Why do some selections of art, people, or surroundings feel right, while other options seem jarring or simply irrelevant? The hundreds of decisions we make every day are influenced by a wide range of experience, preference, and observation. On-line merchants use ‘big-data’ algorithms to peer into our likes and dislikes, but these algorithms typically miss the quirky, serendipitous, unpredictable nature of personal choice. With art, as with any intuitive response, relatedness transcends conventional reasoning, and cuts across the standard categories of selection. In this way it expands our vision beyond customary bounds, into unexpected realms of discovery. What follows is a look at the components of relatedness, and how they affect our preferences.

Where we live, our daily geography, is a pervasive source of connectedness. Pictures drawn from one locale possess an inherent similarity, appealing to those familiar with it. But even the most inveterate travelers consider someplace ‘home’. Globalization has not abolished local tastes, preferences, connections; it has merely made them more accessible. The Japanese furusato, meaning hometown, has acquired a renown well beyond its borders. Shirakawa, for example, with its hand-thatched roofing in gassho-zukuri (prayer-shape) style, is known world-wide as a typical Japanese rural village. An overview of the village, together with a closeup of the communal re-thatching (Roofwork), celebrates the harmony-fantasy of traditional village life.

Shirakawa-mura ・ 白川村

Shirakawa-mura ・ 白川村, 47 x 38 cm photogravure etching, Peter Miller (2006)
The Kamakura Print Collection ・ kamprint.com kamprint.com/xpress/

It’s the Japanese version of the pastoral fantasy in Western art, which appears in Arcadian scenes of rural peasantry, grazing cattle, a Roman or Greek ruin, and a majestic mountain in the distance. Such scenes became models for landscape gardens, depictions of Alpine wilderness, and for explorations of exotic foreign destinations — including Japan, where the Western pastoral fantasy comes full circle.


Geography and nationality also mold artistic style. National academies teach and preserve certain traditions central to their own histories and identities. When these styles become passé, an ‘avant-garde’ rises up to develop a radically different style more attuned to the future they foresee. Such was the Impressionist rejection of history-painting in favor of enjoyment of the present moment, the radical simplification of Baroque ornamentation by the Bauhaus aesthetic, the discovery of multiple perspectives, and the liberation of art from subject-matter. These innovations then became the new foundations of national style everywhere, their influence reaching countries far beyond their origins. In addition to French Impressionism, we have British, Dutch, American, Russian, Japanese, and other variants of Impressionism.

Subject-matter is another key element of relatedness, particularly with media that seek documentary realism. A documentary photo might show how Gare St-Lazare looked at 12:10 pm on a certain day in, say, 2005. Yet the same subject by Monet shows the grand obscurity of travel, the transformation of self in the course of passage to distant lands. Bridges and roads can be seen as works of civil engineering designed to facilitate traffic flow. At the same time, as pathways they enable, as Braudel put it, ‘the conquest of distance’. As such they symbolize the personal transformations people undergo in their passages from place to place. My Pathways Series taps into this experience.

Gare St-Lazare

Monet, Gare St-Lazare

A common subject might mean different things to different people. In Japan and China, bamboo is a symbol of longevity, its cathedral-like groves evoking reverence for Nature. For Westerners, bamboo symbolizes the ‘exotic orient’ where a species of grass towers over people and yet has the benign presence of a shelter. Three Friends refers to the Chinese grouping of bamboo, plum, and pine, green or flowering in winter, promising re-growth in spring. In Hokokuji, sunlight appears to be emanating from the ground under a deeply shaded bamboo canopy. The snow-covered roof in Bamboo Story suggests the deckled edge of washi used for printing these etchings.

Three Friends, Hokokuji, Bamboo Story

Three Friends, Hokokuji, Bamboo Story

Gardens in Kyoto are related by both subject matter and place, yet numerous variations among them occur. In Further Reflection, from Saihoji, trees shimmer in the breeze, reflected in a pond, darkly spanned by a bridge leading to a sinuous path. Whether the dream-vision takes place in the mind or in nature becomes immaterial, as the designer Muso Soseki may have intended. If this is a night-dream, then Here and There, from Daikakuji, is a day-dream, of drifting aimlessly on a pond. Interlude, from Tofukuji, portrays a noir version of lotus blossoms. In the same Series is Vanished Stars, which though it looks Japanese, actually comes from Finland.

Here and There ・ 移り行

Here and There ・ 移り行, 20 x 14 cm photogravure etching, Peter Miller (2014)
The Kamakura Print Collection ・ kamprint.com/ & kamprint.com/xpress

Oceans and lakes can suggest a wide variety of emotions, from energy and turbulence as in Furiously Yours, to the tranquility of Bygones, and the Zen conundrums of Pentagram and Mind the Gap. The Seascapes Series encompasses scenes from Europe, Russia, North America, and Japan, related only by immersion, to create a global panorama of mood.

Mind the Gap

Mind the Gap

2. Relatedness by mood

We are all familiar with how dark clouds blocking sunlight, leaves blowing in the wind, or mist affect our moods. For viewers seeking a certain style of expression related to their own experience, a point of entry into a mood or a feeling that they recognize, some link between graphics and mood is required. As difficult as it may be to approach visual experiences verbally, the Xpress site offers a rough set of keywords corresponding to nine moods or feelings evoked by visual experiences:

Dynamic — Exciting, energetic compositions with diagonals seemingly extending beyond the frame.

Reflective — Multiple depths suggesting simultaneous immersion in both the present moment and memory.

Mysterious — Imaginary, other-worldly, beyond ordinary experience, details obscured by mist, unknown presences hinted at, awaiting revelation to the curious observer.

Sensual — Heightened sensitivity stimulated by intense pleasurable engagement.

Spontaneous — Instantaneous response, with an immediacy that bypasses rational deliberation.

Expansive — Visionary grandeur.

Elegiac — Quiet appreciation of the impermanence and fragility of life.

Intimate — Glimpses of inner life, unspoken affection, hidden graces.

Luminous — Glowing, brilliant, pulsing with self-generated energy.

With these keywords it is possible to search and group works at the Xpress site by emotional-plus-graphic characteristics. These can only hint at what one might be looking for, but may be closer to the mark than searches based only on subject or place.

It seems that relatedness for Web-browsing is different from relatedness for placement of actual original prints in interior settings. Aside from the big difference between images that are pixel-perfect on a screen, and those with rough tactile ink-on-paper, the singular engraved image or ensemble concentrates a variety of forms, subjects, places, and ideas in one setting so that they can be absorbed at a glance. This instantaneous awareness may then become the seed of further reflection and inquiry. While Web-browsing provides an overview or quick survey, interior settings — ‘art you can live with’ — demand more concentrated focus on a few images, which may be related in multiple ways.

3. Relating ensembles in interior settings

To put prints together in interior settings, I sought a more organic relation than might be found by keyword-searches. Two or three prints viewed together form a different experience as the eye, and the mind, and the mind’s eye, take in the combined scene. The stronger and more varied the sense of relatedness, the more intense the experience, sustaining notice and enhancing significance with every observation. (Prints encompassing two or more moods are beyond the scope of this primitive classification scheme.)

I wanted the compositions themselves to relate to each other on many levels, beyond subject or place or other external attribute. With Cote Sauvage and Monte Penna, for example, ocean waves breaking over rocks curving in one direction ‘reflect’ a path through the woods curving in the opposite direction. Sea and land merge into an expansive sweep of the wide range of natural experience. And, the two forming a hyperbola, they expand outward infinitely as well as into the far distance traced by each path.

Cote Sauvage with Monte Penna

Cote Sauvage with Monte Penna

The pairing of Winged Fuji with As If creates an imaginary path between Mt Fuji and a misty trail at Ozegahara. The two are also graphically related by their compositional dynamic of triangles in V-shapes. Both perspectives, separately and together, convey an expansive, unlimited feeling. Perhaps for that reason, Japanese and non-Japanese visitors alike hold these places in reverence.

As If with Winged Fuji

As If with Winged Fuji

Our Gift together with Ryukoji places a rice-field-reflected pagoda, upside-down, next to a more solemn pagoda known to legend as the site of a near-execution of a dissident priest. Rice being the gift of the gods, a pagoda representing the five elements emerging from the earth and ascending toward the heavens ties these realms together.

Our Gift with Ryukoji

Our Gift with Ryukoji

4. Relatedness in Museum and gallery exhibits

Museum and gallery exhibits bring together even more kinds of relatedness — among the 20 to 30 prints in an exhibit, within the venue, and with the locale. For an exhibit at the Ino-cho Washi Museum (いの町紙博物館) in Japan, composed of photogravure etchings on hand-made washi from the region, I selected images that show the texture and semi-translucent quality of washi. These were arranged to flow through the space, and to enable viewers to re-visit an earlier scene in light of a later one.

An exhibit at the Tenri Cultural Institute of New York, entitled Reach For the Sky, explored mountains, skies, and their mutual reflections, in a venue with high ceilings that gave ample scope to viewers’ impressions. The exhibit included a print of New York’s Fifth Avenue from above, Only U, an urban canyon shadowed by skyscrapers.

In Transit, at the St Petersburg Museum of Urban Electric Transport, finds in the everyday experience of riding trams and subways a source of civilization. The earlier development of inter-continental trade routes enabled their fractal replication in cities, tying them to international common culture. Being always in transit, then, is a natural condition. The prints in the exhibit, drawn from several modes of transport in five countries, are variations on this theme.

Junichiro Tanizaki’s 1933 essay In Praise of Shadows (‘In’ei Reisan’) recalls the very different nature of visual experience in an age before electric lights were widespread. Japanese dwellings, alcoves, ink-drawings, interior spaces framed by tatami mats and shoji panels, the dark luster of lacquerware and yokan (a Japanese confection) looming out of a dark background create an appealing presence and warmth. My In Praise of Shadows exhibit in Tokyo emphasized the noir quality of photogravure etching, with its deep blacks, darkly illuminated textures, and shadows within shadows. The darkness of interior spaces, as in Meigetsuin, is brought outdoors in Beyond the Sunset, Pentagram, Vanished Stars, and other works.

5. De-toxifying the mind

Among friends, superficial identities like race, class, nationality, sex, religion, political party, brands, and so forth become less salient. In art, these distractions disappear altogether. Or if they exist at all, they are only peripheral. Relations of form, tone, depth, and composition created by the artwork itself are central. In that light, the fractious categories of ersatz affiliation fade into nothingness.

It takes some effort to remove distractions from our mindspace. One way to detoxify the mind is do as Stanley William Hayter, the founder of Atelier 17, suggests:

I attempt to empty my mind of nonsense and superficial matters: in fact to make it a ‘perfect blank’,… [free] of obvious associations, [with] the emphasis on things present of themselves rather than the symbols of things elsewhere.

It may also help to recognize the pre-existence of forms, tones, compositional arrangements, and spatial depths realized in graphic art. Imagine the world ‘out there’ as it might appear in a picture, and you will see a landscape by Corot or Constable or Monet, for these (and other) artists are the sources of our visual ideas. They have created not only artwork, but the very world we see before us. This is The Life of Forms, as Henri Focillon reminds us:

‘The life of forms gives definition to what may be termed ‘psychological landscapes’, without which the essential genius of the environments would be opaque and elusive for all those who share in them. Greece, for instance, exists as a geographical basis for certain ideas about man, but the landscape of Doric art, or rather Doric art as a landscape, created a Greece without which the real Greece is merely a great, luminous desert.’

Here is one of the greatest rewards of artistic experience: the ability to see through time and space the relatedness of the present moment to the deep past and the approaching future. With every glance, the artwork in one’s surroundings becomes a point of departure for a different journey, relating the world outside to the inner world of one’s own thoughts.


One day in 1998 with friends in Washington DC, a call came in. ‘Would you like to go on a Silk Road trip’, to Pakistan, Hunza, Gilgit, Xinjiang China, Kyrgyzstan, Almaty Kazakhstan? It took me about two seconds to decide yes. Ten of us — seven Americans, one each Canadian, Filipina, and French — met up in Pakistan for the journey northward. Islamabad with its vast avenues of Saudi-financed buildings was government territory. Neighboring Rawalpindi with its incredibly lively street life was its market-appendage. Amid the rubble-strewn sidewalks and buildings leaning at odd angles, the hustle and bustle of daily life radiated irrepressible energy. To experience this enthusiasm is to understand the overwhelmingly young demographics of Pakistan.

We stopped in Mingaora, a village on our way north. There I noticed an old man sitting on a pile of bricks. He seemed to be passing the time of day, thinking. In fact, he was guarding the bricks. In a country where cow dung is rationed for use either as fertilizer or construction material, bricks are a scarce resource valuable enough to steal if no one is looking. Somewhere in the back-country around there, a goat-herd played the flute. Our guide explained after the serenade that this was a payable event, which we didn’t mind much, the music was lovely.



The gateway to the Swat Valley was marked with vast jacaranda trees filling the sky, flowering with a luxuriant perfume that could have inspired the Shangri-la of Asian mystique. The fertile and prosperous valley teemed with the life of a people peacefully tilling the fields and living in harmony with the world around them.

In the more arid foothills approaching Peshawar, we noticed a long line of trekkers on a far-off rocky trail. They were so far away they looked like a procession of ants. Binoculars revealed them to be people carrying refrigerators, ovens, and electronic goods strapped to their backs. These goods had been smuggled into the port of Karachi and were carried by human mules for sale in the remote back-country. Though electricity was scarce there, one road had power lines that stopped abruptly at a huge compound. Alone in the dry rocky landscape stood this oasis of greenery and electricity. It was, we learned, the home of the ‘King of the Smugglers’, the employer of the trekkers we had seen earlier. The wealth of the country belonged to him and to people like him who controlled whatever commerce was allowed to exist.

Peshawar, near the legendary Khyber Pass, was defended in ancient times as it is now by fierce tribes anxious to keep intruders out of their sovereign territory. No invader, from Alexander the Great to the British and Russian players in the 19th-century ‘Great Game’ to the latter-day Americans, has ever been able to impose its rule on this region. In cities and villages like Peshawar, I walk around early, right after sunup, to watch vendors setting up their street-stands, children going to school, office workers, teachers, women shopping. There were no other tourists besides me. The unmistakable look on everyone’s face wordlessly expressed: ‘Why are you here?’ It was not an unfriendly inquiry, merely one of curiousity, similar to my own curiosity. I found that if I stayed still for ten minutes, I blended into the background and could frame some spontaneous scenes in the camera without being noticed.


Tea stand, Peshawar

For some, the question ‘Why would you want to come to this hellhole?’ appeared in the form of incredulous stares. Did my presence mock their aspiration to get the hell out of there? A few took the opportunity to practice the English they had learned at school, leading to lively and mutually interested conversations. Our entire group was invited to an Afghan wedding, a warm celebration that extended well into the night. The couple and their families and friends were among the three million Afghan refugees living in and around Peshawar.

An expedition to the Afghan border above Jalalabad took us to a town populated, so far as was visible on the street, entirely by Kalashnikov-carrying teen-age boys. Women were not to be seen anywhere except a very few in the dark interiors of shops. Even in the 40 (C)-degree heat, they wore head-to-toe black robes, which must have been stiflingly hot. In several shops open for business, you could buy a Kalashnikov for about $14.

The mountain roads zigzagged across numerous stream beds toward Hunza. The roads and bridges had all been built by the Chinese. These transportation routes would be of use to both the Chinese and Pakistani armies in case of military conflict with India. The Chinese, as is their custom, had placed lion-sculptures for good luck at both ends of the bridges. Local people had systematically lopped off all the lion-faces, as graphic depiction of animals or humans was incompatible with their beliefs. With such fervent beliefs, why didn’t they build their own bridges? They could have chosen motifs from their own rich graphic tradition more to their liking.

Hunza was a lovely mountain outpost with terraced rice-fields, views of mountains in every direction, and rough-hewn architecture of a style with echoes of Tibet and Mongolia. The surrounding area was a hotbed of 19th-century ‘Great Game’ intrigue as local tribes played the British, Russians, and Chinese off against each other to maintain their own jealously guarded control. Feats of incredible fortitude were played out in these unexplored and practically impenetrable mountains. I was determined to come back and explore further.


Hunza Terraces

Our entry into China was guarded by young soldiers recruited from far-off coastal regions to enhance the Han-Chinese presence in Xinjiang, with its 20 million Uighurs. Noting the variety of nationalities in our group, the passport-control officer asked suspiciously ‘Why are you traveling together?’ This was so totally outside his limited experience that the question seemed perfectly natural to him. None of us knew what to say, so we asked him to stamp the passports and get on with it.

The road to Kashgar was lined with graceful poplars, as all cities of any consequence in central Asia are. Kashgar was then a wild-West town with a chaotic market in all kinds of livestock including women. Kidnapping of girls to sell as brides was not uncommon. The price might be as high as 20 camels or more, and camels were more valuable than Chevrolets in the trackless wastes of the neighboring Taklamakan Desert. ‘Taklamakan’ means ‘You go in, you don’t come out’. Kashgar had a thriving Uiguhr community, largely self-governing and not subservient to the Chinese authorities. The Uiguhrs lived in cave-like structures honeycombed throughout one large district of Kashgar. Since then, I have read that the Chinese government bulldozed these out of existence to make way for ‘urban renewal’ that no one wanted. Kashgar then was a polyglot mix of Uiguhr, central-Asian, and Chinese nationalities, ethnicities, and eccentricities, all of whom appeared to be co-existing peacefully. Each had its own particular foods, colorful textiles, and other products, in which a lively trade occurred in the central market.


Inside a Uighur house in Kashgar

The crossing into Kyrgyzstan was like flipping a switch from Orient to Occident. Suddenly the houses looked European, picket fences sprang up around yards, Western foods appeared in the markets. Peter the Great had seen to it long ago that the furthest outposts of the Russian Empire had a European feeling to them. Forested mountains and abundantly flowing streams made it clear why Kyrgyzstan is called the Switzerland of central Asia. At one stopping-point, a Kyrgyz tribesman allowed me to wear his tribal hat and ride his horse. I was hooked — I wanted to join the tribe, or at least come back for a longer experience of the country than possible with this brief journey.

Almaty, then the graceful capital of Kazakhstan, lived up to its old name of Alma-Ata, ‘Old Apple’, with its broad tree-lined avenues and abundant markets. Wandering into a Russian-Orthodox cathedral, the purest, clearest a-capella singing I have ever heard kept us entranced for an hour or more. As Almaty was the last stop on this trip, a visit to the market scored a kilo of fresh caviar, which, wrapped in old newspaper, made a much-appreciated present to friends in Geneva only a few hours away by air.

Back home in Japan, I mapped out several excursions to the Central and South Asian areas I wanted to see more of. A vast territory, it would need several trips, some by car, others with more foot- or camel-trekking. It took me a couple of years to get various obligations out of the way before I could schedule the proper amount of time. The arrival of the new millennium proved epochal in unexpected ways. The much-publicized Y2K problem turned out to be a non-event, but the pervasive anxiety around it foreshadowed in a skewed way a more ominous turn of events. Like the panic induced by the 1938 ‘War of the Worlds’ broadcast, portents of widespread system failures caused by a computer glitch reflected seemingly unrelated real-world conflict.

In March 2001, people motivated by religious sentiments, similar to those that caused the lion-faces on Chinese-built bridges to be lopped off, blew up the monumental Buddhas at Bamiyan. This required considerable ingenuity in setting up the explosive charges to reduce the entire monument magnificently carved into the mountain to rubble. The bombing was universally condemned, but the general consensus was that no action need be taken because the bombers had ‘only’ attacked a sculpture without killing people. Perhaps they would stop there.

Later that year, as the summertime of long days and lazy heat was slowly winding down, my thoughts again turned to how to go about the Central Asian quest. I decided to eliminate the things I disliked — long hours cooped-up in vehicles without a stop, long-winded guides discoursing on history I would soon forget, shopping, and not enough free time to walk around and spontaneously enjoy the surroundings. September is always a time of renewal, of new plans, of quickening activity as the yearend is in sight; a harvest-time, a time for giving thanks for the bounty of nature, a time for reckoning-up gains and losses, making budgets which carry with them our forecasts, really our hopes and dreams, for the year to come. Shaking off the summer torpor, the pulse quickens, the vigor of autumn animated by the end of the sense of endlessness, the feeling that now is the time to start whatever we hope to do — before it’s too late.

The television was absent-mindedly on one morning, even though nobody was watching it. I saw in passing what looked like a movie, a burning building, people running in panic, firemen running toward the smoke. Smoke and dust obscured the ground-level view, which seemed strange — the movie director should have waited until the smoke cleared. The handheld cameras were unsteady, they kept shifting from the narrow streets to a vaguely familiar-looking bridge, to the view from across a wide river, to an aerial view from a traffic-monitoring helicopter. The TV picture shifted to the Pentagon, part of which seemed to have caved-in. What did that contribute to the story? The sequence was chaotic, it made no sense. Finally an announcer made it horrifyingly clear this was no movie. A passenger airliner had flown into the World Trade Center in New York. How could that happen on a clear day?

Suddenly the flaming building collapsed in on itself. In seconds, office workers, secretaries standing at Xerox machines, executives in their corner offices, messengers delivering urgent messages, were incinerated in the skies above New York and reduced to smoke-filled rubble. The building instantly became the tomb of thousands. Before I could take in the enormity of this mass death, another airplane flew directly into the other tower. This was no accident. That building too collapsed in on itself soon after. As the broadcasters began to piece together the gruesome details — the attack on the Pentagon, the planned attack on the White House foiled by courageous passengers who downed the plane in southwestern Pennsylvania, the demented religious zealots who had carried out the attacks — the president of the United States urged Americans to go shopping. (His advisers feared an economic meltdown, and that was the best they could think of to prevent it.)

world trade center

World Trade Center

Together with the 3,000-plus lives snuffed out on that day and the destruction of symbolic commercial buildings, the sense of a shared destiny in the world was also shattered. The divisions exploited by warlords and politicians were already there, of course, but this wanton act of mass murder deepened them immeasurably. Since then, self-appointed spokesmen for ‘the world’ or ‘the international community’ have proliferated; their hollow calls for ever-more foreign aid could neither comprehend nor mask the fact that that world of shared destiny had been obliterated.

I realized my Central Asian idyll was over before it could start. For a long while to come, that spontaneous camaraderie that is the essence of international travel would give way to mutual suspicion and fear. Large swaths of the world would become war zones or no-go zones. Visitors would be advised to practice ‘situational awareness’, a heightened threat sense always on the lookout for possible attackers.

Afghanistan, the home of Ghandaran art that mingled Roman, Indian, and Central Asian motifs, would become even more of a war zone than it had been in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion, when I caught only a dusty glimpse of it from the border town outside Peshawar. The verdant Swat Valley of Pakistan had already been taken over by one of the competing death cults spawned by a twisted religious faith, the same one that had harbored the absentee leader of the attacks on New York and Washington. And the newly independent Central Asian nations became staging areas for strategically flawed wars on their borders.

My travels were never burdened by the illusion that my passage would ‘make a difference’ in the lives of the people I encountered. That desperate desire to intervene unasked in other people’s lives is the last vestige of Imperial do-goodism, against which the aid object’s desire NOT to be improved is impervious. Giovanni di Lampedusa’s observations about the Sicilians apply equally to other unwilling aid recipients:

‘The Cardinal of Palermo was a truly holy man; and even now after he has been dead a long time and his charity and his faith are still remembered. While he was alive, though, things were different; he was not a Sicilian, he was not even a southerner or a Roman; and many years before he had tried to leaven with nordic activity the inert and heavy dough the island’s spiritual life in general and the clergy’s in particular. Flanked by two or three secretaries from his own parts he had deluded himself, those first years, that he could remove abuses and clear the soil of its more flagrant stumbling-blocks. But soon he had to realise that he was, as it were, firing into cotton-wool; the little hole made at the moment was covered after a few seconds by thousands of tiny fibres and all remained as before, the only additions being cost of power, ridicule at useless effort and deterioration of material. Like everyone who in those days wanted to change anything in the Sicilian character he soon acquired the reputation of being a fool (which in the circumstances was exact) and had to content himself with doing good works, which only diminished his popularity still further if they involved those benefited in making the slightest effort themselves, such as, for instance, visiting the archepiscopal palace.’

Some people may incidentally benefit from the ministrations of well-intentioned official and unofficial bureaucracies. Infectious disease may be temporarily reduced, projects aimed at food and water self-sufficiency may help as long as the ability to maintain them persists, schools may be built and perhaps even maintained without outside help — all this is commendable, but the place of such activities in the moral sweepstakes is not necessarily superior to all other efforts. The aid organizations’ self-congratulatory reports first of all perpetuate themselves and their lavish fund-raising parties and gabfests, their stratospheric executive salaries, and their rampant corruption, while transferring wealth from the poor of rich countries to the rich of poor countries. Their record of actual effectiveness is often considerably less than advertised.

The artifacts and monuments of ancient civilizations bear powerful witness to their endurance. When savage zealots destroy them, the goal of their rage is to eradicate all memory, to start over. The same desire, to impose mass amnesia, produces mass murder and genocide. There is therefore some survival value to humanity in remembering its past glory in all its various cultural manifestations. When these artifacts are converted into icons of wealth, though, then their civilizing influence is lost. Such is the modern antiquities trade, which has become a criminal enterprise rivaling in its size the drugs and weapons trade. More valuable than the objects themselves is the viewer’s response to them, that sense of being transported through deep time and across vast distances into the world that created them, and to experience that world anew. Whether ancient or contemporary, whatever evokes such a response has inestimable transformative value.

Therein lies the best hope of rebuilding the shared destiny that has since 2001 been subjected to repeated attacks. We cannot restore the pre-2001 world. By recognizing these attacks for what they are, as attempts to destroy memory, to induce amnesia, to substitute fear for love, we can, through person-to-person interaction, create a new sense of what connects all of humanity. Like art, that new sensibility is a creative act. We are still in the midst of imagining it.


Saul Bellow on maintaining internal order amid a mass of distractions:

‘The modern reader (or viewer, or listener, let’s include everybody) is perilously overloaded. His attention is, to use the latest lingo, ‘targeted’ by powerful forces. I hate to make lists of these forces, but I suppose that some of them had better be mentioned. Okay, then: automobile and pharmaceutical giants, cable TV, politicians, entertainers, academics, opinion makers, porn videos, Ninja Turtles, et cetera. The list is tedious because it is an inventory of what is put into our heads day in, day out. Our consciousness is a staging area, a field of operations for all kinds of enterprises, which make free use of it. True, we are at liberty to think our own thoughts, but our independent ideas, such as they may be, must live with thousands of ideas and notions inculcated by influential teachers or floated by ‘idea men’, advertisers, communications people, columnists, anchor men, et cetera. Better-regulated (educated) minds are less easily overcome by these gas clouds of opinion. But no one can have an easy time of it. In all fields we are forced to seek special instruction, expert guidance to the interpretation of the seeming facts we are stuffed with. This is in itself a full-time occupation. A part of every mind, perhaps the major portion, is open to public matters. Without being actively conscious of it we somehow keep track of the Middle East, Japan, South Africa, reuinified Germany, oil, munitions, the New York subways, the homeless, the markets, the banks, the major leagues, news from Washington; and also, pell-mell, films, trials, medical discoveries, rap groups, racial clashes, congressional scandals, the spread of AIDS, child murders — a crowd of horrors. Public life in the United States is a mass of distractions.

'Only U'

‘Only U’, photogravure etching, Peter Miller (2014)

‘By some this is seen as a challenge to their ability to maintain internal order. Others have acquired a taste for distraction, and they freely consent to be addled. It may even seem to many that by being agitated they are satisfying the claims of society. The scope of the disorder can even be oddly flattering: ‘Just look — this tremendous noisy frantic monstrous agglomeration. There’s never been anything like it. And we are *it*! This is *us*!

‘Vast organizations exist to get our attention. They make cunning plans. They bite us with their ten-second bites. Our consciousness is their staple; they live on it. Think of consciousness as a territory just opening to settlement and exploitation, something like an Oklahoma land rush. Put it in color, set it to music, frame it in images — but even this fails to do justice to the vision. Obviously consciousness is infinitely bigger than Oklahoma….’

— Saul Bellow, Afterword, in Collected Stories (Viking, 2001)

Asia Everywhere


From the time of Marco Polo’s first journey to the Orient, Europeans have been fascinated with Asia — its strange customs, its alluring women, its spices and jewels and colors, its markets where everything could be had for a price, its vast expanse traversed by caravansaries buying or selling silk, its fearsome warriors, the persistence of its pre-Christian animist religions — the list is endless. One could explore Asia for a lifetime, and many have done just that.

Marco Polo

Marco Polo

Missionaries were among the first, followed by traders, explorers, and the advance guard of European sovereigns seeking to extend their political domains. The British and Dutch East India Companies sought the riches of the Orient, one of the products of this search being the lure of the exotic. As imperial colonies were established, legions of outcasts found a second home in Asia which over time became their first home. Such were the younger sons of the British elite who became colonial administrators, populating the stories of Maugham and Kipling, with their easy acceptance of Asian ways shocking their metropolitan cousins, who wrote them off as having ‘gone native’. The quaintness of the phrase reveals its irrelevance today.

Perry's Second Fleet

Perry’s Second Fleet

The Victorian / Meiji period (mid- to late-19th century and early 20th-century) saw an influx of Western visitors different from their antecedents. They were, in a way, missionaries in reverse. Soon after the forcible ending of Japan’s isolation in 1853, there arrived in Japan a cohort of visitors less interested in bringing Christianity than in seeking enlightenment via Oriental Wisdom. These prominent Bostonians comprised literati (Ernest Fenollosa), archaeologist-collectors (Edward Morse), connoisseur-collectors (Sturgis Bigelow), historians (Henry Adams), artists (John La Farge), explorers (Percival Lowell), enlightenment-seekers, curiosity-seekers, and afficianados of the exotic (the erstwhile low-life Lafcadio Hearn, who rose from nowhere to become an honored sensei in Japan). Their pioneering role is described in Christopher Benfey’s excellent Great Wave book. They forged the template for all who later found their way to Japan and Asia. Even before reaching Japan’s shores, their fertile imaginations conjured a semi-mythological Japan. The modern Western enchantment with Japan then embellished the Japanese home-grown myths of national identity.

The Bostonians’ dissatisfaction with the post-Civil War money-grubbing America of their day supplied the negative image from which their positive notions of the Orient were fashioned. It was no coincidence that New England-style transcendentalism, restraint, and nature-worship were attributed to the Japanese. To these admirable qualities others were added: alluring women, exquisite craftsmanship, disciplined warriors, oracular brevity, charming village life, respect for tradition, and quiet savoir-faire. Upon arrival, the visitors sought out artifacts corresponding to their notions of the Orient, thus launching the lively export trade that grew up to satisfy this demand.

Harunobu, Fidelity

Harunobu, Fidelity

The Mysterious East, especially Japan, was only too happy to oblige, making itself into a major exporter of exotic cultural artifacts. Once the Japanese learned what was expected, they lost no time in producing it. To the Oriental tendency of providing whatever it was that was sought-after, was added, especially after the ‘Black Ships’ had arrived in 1853, the necessity of cultivating friendly relations with would-be Western imperialists until Japan might be better able to defend itself. From the mid-19th-century onward, Japan produced a prodigious number of woodblock prints for export. These pictures of courtesans, simple country-folk tilling idyllic golden fields of rice set in green landscapes, rural villages, ghoulish monsters, dragons, animated seascapes, colorful temples and shrines, and numerous other exotica catered to the Western desire for contact with exotic Japan. The land conjured by these images was neither wholly imaginary nor quite real: Fantasies, like dreams, must have some basis in fact to carry conviction. These woodblock prints poured out of Japan unceasingly, finding their way into every museum in Europe and America. For many public and private collectors, ‘Japanese art’ means woodblock prints, as if nothing else existed. Ukiyo-e today retain much of their original fascination, as waves of Japonisme sweep over the lands to which they were first exported.

Hokusai, Fishing

Hokusai, Fishing

The simplicity and novel perspectives of these charming prints influenced Monet, Cezanne, Whistler, Frank Lloyd Wright, and many others. Where the West was driven by the cult of efficiency and machinery, Japan in their view revered wabi/sabi and the softer virtues. Their favorite sensei, Okakura Kakuzo, hit upon the idea of using the Bostonians’ love of tea to popularize cha-no-yu. It, and he, worked their charms largely on women like Isabella Stewart Gardner (of Museum fame), in whose polite society he cut a broad swath.

Zorn Anders, Isabella Stewart Gardner

Zorn Anders, Isabella Stewart Gardner

The narrative of the Mysterious East survived every disappointment that the facts on the ground could throw at it. The rigors of travel in Meiji Japan, dodging cholera epidemics, typhoons, foul-smelling agricultural fields, noisy bathers at an inn, and excessively elaborate etiquette, tried Henry Adams’ patience no end, yet did not discourage his artist-friend John LaFarge from training his eye on charming village scenes.

John LaFarge, Ueno

John LaFarge, Ueno

As Japan’s intense drive to modernize gathered momentum, though, even affcianados of traditional Japanese virtues found it hard to direct their gaze exclusively on the past. Around the turn of the 20th-century, they realized their time was up — they could neither live with nor deny what they saw as Japan’s ruin. Yet the narrative survived Japan’s industrialization, militarization, and even the deadly conflict of World War II.

Enami, Love at First Sight

Enami, Love at First Sight

As much as tea parties and flower-arranging appealed to those favoring the yin virtues, the complementary yang virtues of adventure attracted others. No less a Rough Rider than Teddy Roosevelt practiced Oriental martial arts (spurred on by Sturgis Bigelow). The ‘Great Game‘ in Central Asia attracted those who were anxious to test their mettle against some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet — the barren unexplored Himalayan plateau and mountain passes. Explorers and soldiers-of-fortune dressed in native garb mapped these seemingly impenetrable regions, paving the way for the hardly more regular troops to follow. For a century they fought native tribes and each other for King and Country, or Czar and Country – for this was a contest between Britain and Russia, two empires which the emirs and khans did their best to play off against one another, knowing this was the only way the latter could keep their independence. The great prize of the ‘Great Game’ was India, the pearl of the Orient, and the brightest star in Queen Victoria’s crown. With every advance of the Czar’s forces toward Herat, the Khyber Pass, Gilgit, Chitral, or the unnamed route through the Pamirs, London and Calcutta trembled, yet held the high ground until it was time for India itself to become independent. The ‘Great Game’ is still being played out in Central Asia today, under a different guise, with America inheriting the British role, and local tribes still jockeying for position by playing the imperial powers off against each other.

Through the enormously varied cultural interchanges wrought by trade, war, migration, and travel; from sleek consumer electronics and fashion models, to manga, cuisine, and minimalist architecture, Asian influences now permeate the lives of Westerners without their ever leaving home. With the declining salience of antiquarian purity in Asian art, and the inability of contemporary Western models to fill the gap, the ‘mysterious East’ will likely re-invent itself again, in the hands of those artists and viewers for whom Asian traditions are second nature.

_/ _/ _/ _/ _/ _/ _/ _/ _/ _/ _/ _/ _/ _/ _/ _/ _/ _/ _/ _/ _/

This essay is published in the exhibition catalog for the Asia Everywhere exhibit held at the National Museum of Oriental Art in Moscow, Russia in September 2015.

'Asia Everywhere' exhibition catalog

‘Asia Everywhere’ exhibition catalog

The catalog is available from the Oriental Museum, 12a Nikitsky Blvd, Moscow 119019; tel: +7-495-691-0341. ISBN 978-5-903417-64-3.

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