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The Aesthetics of Strangeness

The Aesthetics of Strangeness: Eccentricity and Madness in Early Modern Japan

Copyright Date: 2013
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    The Aesthetics of Strangeness
    Book Description:

    Eccentric artists are "the vagaries of humanity" that inhabit the deviant underside of Japanese society:This was the conclusion drawn by pre-World War II commentators on most early modern Japanese artists. Postwar scholarship, as it searched for evidence of Japan's modern roots, concluded the opposite:The eccentric, mad, and strange are moral exemplars, paragons of virtue, and shining hallmarks of modern consciousness.In recent years, the pendulum has swung again, this time in favor of viewing these oddballs as failures and dropouts without lasting cultural significance. This work corrects the disciplinary (and exclusionary) nature of such interpretations by reconsidering the sudden and dramatic emergence of aesthetic eccentricity during the Edo period (1600-1868). It explains how, throughout the period, eccentricity(ki)and madness(kyo)developed and proliferated as subcultural aesthetics. By excavating several generations of early modern Japan's eccentric artists, it demonstrates that individualism and strangeness carried considerable moral and cultural value. Indeed, Edo society fetishized various marginal personae-the recluse, the loser, the depraved, the outsider, the saint, the mad genius-as local heroes and paragons of moral virtue. This book concludes that a confluence of intellectual, aesthetic, and social conditions enabled multiple concurrent heterodoxies to crystallize around strangeness as a prominent cultural force in Japanese society.A study of impressive historical and disciplinary breadth,The Aesthetics of Strangenessalso makes extensive use of primary sources, many previously overlooked in existing English scholarship. Its coverage of the entire Edo period and engagement with both Chinese and native Japanese traditions reinterprets Edo-period tastes and perceptions of normalcy. By wedding art history to intellectual history, literature, aesthetics, and cultural practice, W. Puck Brecher strives for a broadly interdisciplinary perspective on this topic. Readers will discover that the individuals that form the backbone of his study lend credence to a new interpretation of Edo-period culture: a growing valuation of eccentricity within artistic and intellectual circles that exerted indelible impacts on mainstream society.The Aesthetics of Strangenessdemystifies this emergent paradigm by illuminating the conditions and tensions under which certain rubrics of strangeness-kiandkyoparticularly-were appointed as aesthetic criteria. Its revision of early modern Japanese culture constitutes an important contribution to the field.W. Puck Brecheris assistant professor of Japanese at Washington State University.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-3912-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. I. Contexts of Strangeness

    • CHAPTER 1 Strange Interpretations
      (pp. 3-23)

      Periodically, circumstances seem to produce, as Nelson Wu describes Ming China, a “perfect breeding ground for eccentrics.”¹ At these rare moments strangeness bursts forth to energize and reform mainstream culture.Kinsei kijinden(Eccentrics of recent times, 1790), the first biographical compilation of eccentrics (kijin) published in Japan, marks just such a moment.² But can the literary impact and dazzling commercial success of this work be attributed to certain social or cultural conditions describable as a “perfect breeding ground for eccentrics?” If so, what were the conditions that generated this ethos of eccentricity and what distinguished thesekijinfrom the isolated...

    • CHAPTER 2 Contexts of Strangeness in Seventeenth-Century Japan
      (pp. 24-54)

      Tokugawa Ieyasu and his immediate successors were taking no chances. Having witnessed Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s attempt to unite the country with only temporary success, Ieyasu undertook national unification with an understandable measure of paranoia. Ensuring the longevity of Tokugawa supremacy, he realized, would require bringing aspects of his subjects’ daily lives—the arts included—under political control.

      Attempts at consolidation of power during the Momoyama years (1573–1600) had left the arts with considerable autonomy. Fueled in part by active cultural exchange with continental Asia and Europe, painting, lacquerware, ceramics, textiles, prints, and publishing all thrived. As people...

  5. II. Discourses on Difference in the Eighteenth Century

    • CHAPTER 3 Strange Tastes: Cultural Eccentricity and Its Vanguard
      (pp. 57-92)

      Post-Genroku Japan witnessed growing cultural independence, and had the aforementioned Chen Yuanyun lived several generations later one suspects his work would have encountered a warmer reception. This softening climate also nurtured broader interest inbunjinculture: a packaged nonconformity informed by Chinese tastes, amateurism, and detached playfulness. Such were the conditions catalyzing successive developments in art, philosophy, and print that collectively buoyed aesthetic strangeness throughout the second half of the Tokugawa period.

      This chapter identifies an escalating attraction to strangeness that fundamentally differed from the isolated cases of aesthetic reclusion evident in the seventeenth century. It examines how the cultural...

    • CHAPTER 4 Strange Thoughts: A Confluence of Intellectual Heterodoxies
      (pp. 93-115)

      The second half of the eighteenth century was beset by a sense of decline, an “autumn,” as Takahashi Hiromi phrases it.¹ In part, such sentiments crystallized around the perceived disintegration of political authority. The shogun, Tokugawa Ieharu (1737–1786), was a tragicomic figure popularly viewed, according to one Dutch observer, as “a lazy, lustful, stupid man.”² Described by Timon Screech as one who slept late, ate much, and accomplished little, Ieharu was a laughing stock throughout his rule. The reign began in 1760 with the worst of portents—a major fire that destroyed much of Edo, and later witnessed natural...

    • CHAPTER 5 Eccentrics of Recent Times and Social Value: Biography Reinvents the Eccentric
      (pp. 116-138)

      Prior to the mid-Meiji period, Marvin Marcus writes, biography amounted to “an encyclopedic compilation of short narratives, a sequence of episodes—often apocryphal—that together come to define a given collectivity. Indeed, the concise, formulaic account of one’s pedigree and accomplishments, enlivened by a representative anecdote or two (historical verifiability being quite beside the point), may be said to represent the norm of biographical writing in the Tokugawa period.”¹ Marcus is quite correct in stating that early modern biography—following portraiture, landscape painting, and other representational arts—concerned itself less with objective realism and more with reinventing its subjects as...

  6. III. Finishers and Failures of the Nineteenth Century

    • CHAPTER 6 Strangeness in the Early Nineteenth Century: Commercialism, Conservatism, and Diffusion
      (pp. 141-171)

      Sinophilicbunjinhad long been Tokugawa society’s primary custodians of aesthetic strangeness. It was largely through their efforts thatki, kyō,andmuyōwere validated and popularized as cultural topoi. From the late eighteenth century, however, aesthetic eccentricity diverged from its previous trajectory and moved in varying directions.

      In urban centers this diffusion was catalyzed by a swelling appetite for spectacle. Increasingly, public life became typified by ostentation and performance. Whether in the licensed or unlicensed pleasure quarters, leisure centers like Ryōgoku Bridge, or temple precincts, such spaces afforded citizens opportunities to watch and be watched. The carnival of public...

    • CHAPTER 7 Reevaluating Strangeness in Late Tokugawa
      (pp. 172-202)

      In many cases, early modern Japan’s aesthetics of strangeness was a success story. A number of its protagonists—Baisaō, Taiga, Jakuchū, Shōhaku, Kageki—achieved extraordinary notoriety during their own lives and continue to be recognized as the period’s greatest talents. Even those who faced occasional hostility or punitive reprisals for their antics—Nankai, Kien, Rosetsu, Kageki, Kazan—generally lived as local celebrities free of public contempt. The explosion ofkijindenand the appropriation ofkiby disparate interests across the social spectrum also indicate an infiltration of strangeness into late Tokugawa society.

      The following discussions take stock of the preceding...

  7. NOTES
    (pp. 203-236)
    (pp. 237-242)
    (pp. 243-254)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 255-268)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 269-271)