Back in the good old days, a select few youth were chosen to work in the studios of active and proven masters. After a few years of grinding pigments and other grunt work, they may or may not have had the opportunity to get their hands on a brush. In today’s world of instant gratification, most beginners prefer to cut to the chase without bothering with a proven master. While good quality workshops provide shortcuts for sure (see our Workshop Calendar) there are still many untutored and unguided, who wander daily into their studios to struggle on their own. With the current abundance of wonderful books by masters, this has also become an acceptable and often effective route.
Japan is a country where traditional apprentice-master approaches affect many areas of creativity. Known as Meisho-Deshi (May-ee-shoh-deh-she), some remarkable systems continue to frame and advance the Japanese miracle. Traditionally, apprentices were taken on at about age ten, and were not allowed to touch a master’s tools for several years. Surprisingly, some were not even allowed to ask questions. Even more surprisingly, they were taught to disdain the information provided by books. The apprentice was to learn by seeing and absorbing. The ideal apprentice was all eyes — and mute. If a master was very old when he passed on, the apprentice might be quite elderly, and quite quiet, before stepping into his sandals. Further, as well as “kata” — or “way of doing things,” learning to be a master involved philosophical and ethical obligations.
Part of mastery lay in the need to develop an understanding of and sympathy for human nature. Further, with increased skills, prowess and consequent fame, obligations came automatically. A true master needed to live frugally and yet be generous with his earnings. Among the most ascetic masters, it was not good to keep a day’s earnings through the following night. We recognize that things have sped up since Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) made woodblock prints of all those spots along the Tokaido Road. (These days the Shinkansen (bullet train) goes the length of it in about two hours.) But in our game, there is still a place for working, sharing, showing, and the good old business of demonstrating. Hiroshige, whose many apprentices developed in brilliant directions, would just be dazzled at the speed.
PS: “The Japanese system was geared to produce experts, not just men with enough training and experience to do adequate work. As a result, the quality standards for workmanship in all fields of labour were those requiring the ability and dedication of a master.” (Boye Lafayette De Mente, from “Elements of Japanese Design”)
Esoterica: It always surprises me when beginning artists do not make a rugged effort to search out their masters. Fear of “bothering” and shaky feelings of intimidation may be a couple of the reasons. Most masters I’ve known have been more than generous with their time and encouragement. Daily, I thank them for being there. I have, however, never known one who didn’t try to keep his earnings through the following night.
This letter was originally published as “Master-apprentice dynamics” on July 16, 2010.
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“The temple bell stops but I still hear the sound coming out of the flowers.” (Matsuo Bashō)
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