There are plenty of art forms that have successfully made their way across countries and continents — painting, sculpture and photography have undergone countless variations as they have passed through the hands of the many people who developed them into the styles we see today.
Of course, the same cannot be said for every traditional art form, especially those for which there is no exact cross-cultural equivalent. Many East Asian practitioners consider the process of creation just as important as the piece of art that takes shape, turning the actions of writing, gardening or even serving tea into carefully choreographed displays.
Americans have often been fascinated by cultures outside of our own, but the 21st century has dawned to reveal a rather kitschy side to our desire for objects and images from outside our borders. We love stuff, but would rather forego the emotional or traditional “baggage” that comes with it. Japanese calligraphy is a perfect — and often painful — example of how an intricately-tuned cultural tradition can be watered down into a commercialized, easy-to-swallow concept once it has left its natural habitat.
Japan uses three main writing systems to render language and meaning. Kanji, a vast collection of characters that are both concise and visually beautiful, is considered the most complicated of the three. Able to pack a huge amount of significance into a single symbol, kanji is the writing system most commonly used in Japanese calligraphy.
Unfortunately, it’s these characters — which look decidedly exotic to anyone who grew up learning the Latin alphabet in the United States — that also end up plastered on Asian-themed Walmart bathroom accessories and tattooed on your friend’s upper tailbone.
So why do America’s commercial tendencies often result in these grievous cultural misinterpretations? It’s because what is essentially a fully developed artistic ceremony, a carefully choreographed dance between brush, ink and paper, has been diluted down to a final visual product that is easy to silkscreen onto mass-produced comforters. Though many Americans have been taught to see Japanese calligraphy as purely visual, it’s the physical and mental process of putting it to paper in which the true art form lies.
As a Westerner with a firm love of the Roman alphabet, this was a concept I had to see to believe. I had the opportunity to watch an instructor and try it myself during a visit to Japan in 2008. Though I did quite well at the beginning, I was quickly reprimanded for using my left hand (how do righties live such an empty life?) and forced to make the awful switch, making all my subsequent work look as though I’d spooked an octopus over my sheet of paper. Though I know I’ll never cut it as a brush-wielding artist, I did gain a deep appreciation for an artistic medium in which process is just as important as the end product.
Those of us west of the Prime Meridian don’t really have a cultural equivalent to something like East Asian calligraphy, which is just as much a mindset as it is a fine art. The ceremony begins the moment you sit down and lay out your tools in the correct positions — inkwell and brushes to the right, paper to the left. As you mix your ink and load your brush, your thoughts must clear as you allow the meaning of the kanji you have chosen to crystallize in your mind and as you concentrate on each of the strokes you are about to make.
Even your execution matters — the character you draw consists of a set number of strokes that must be laid down in the correct direction and order. Strokes must be elegant yet deliberate — any mistakes or hesitation will show, and attempting to break the pattern of the ceremony to fix them will earn you a death-glare from your instructor. Watching a true master of calligraphy (and yes, there is a calligraphy credentials system in Japan that can grant you titles like “Grand Master”) gives you a sense of the overarching rhythm of the entire ritual. The resulting pitch-black characters contrast starkly on the soft white paper, giving off a sense of gravity even to those who cannot read them.
But you can’t shrink-wrap and sell a process, only its artistic result. The girl inking your tattoo isn’t concentrated on imitating the sequence of calligraphic brush strokes for your rib cage design — she’s concentrating on making sure you don’t ask for a refund when you see her work. The IKEA product designer mass-producing Asian-themed wall plaques doesn’t care that writing the word “Tranquility” beneath the kanji for “tranquility” is redundant and incorrect.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we should stop borrowing from other countries and their cultures — we are who we are today because we have assimilated the knowledge and talents of other cultures. But borrowing means an obligation to understand a culture’s traditions as a packaged deal, even the parts we don’t usually get to see in action.