Putting The Lie To Civilization
Korea Old and New: A History, p.129:
Ceramics occupied a special place in Yi dynasty art. In the early period pieces called punch’ong (“powder blue-green”) were produced, like Koryo celadon only with a glaze that had devolved toward an ashy blue-green tone. This was a transition stage leading to the making of white porcelain (paekcha), a genre that departed from the smoothly curved shapes of Koryo celadon in favor of simpler, warmer lines. These creations also stood on broader bases, resulting in more practical vessels that give the viewer a sense of sturdy repose. This Yi dynasty ceramic ware, with its varying shadings of white ranging from pure white to milky to grayish hues, is said to constitute a fitting expression of the character of the yangban literati.
Nowhere but in the world of the antique is it more obvious that many of the things that we, as societies and individuals hold dear, are completely arbitrary. I read the above passage, head buzzing with a single thought: How many writers removed are the above sentiments from actual knowledge about ceramics. I think it’s a safe assumption that the many authors of Korea Old and New necessarily know more about Korean history than they do about ceramics, and yet here they are repeating that it ceramic ware of the period ‘is said to consitute a fitting expression of the character of the yangban literati’. What does this mean, exactly? The things that they held dear reflect the desires and values that they held? Really, are you sure? Furthermore, the slavish description of the varied hues of white in Choson porcelain indicates that this unevenness is something to be desired. Why? The only reason that we know that uneven whiteness was something to be desired is because that’s what the people who wanted fine porcelain ended up getting.
Why do we eat T-bone steaks? Is it because it has a bone in it that is shaped like a T? If one were to look back on this era and read about a T-bone steak, and in recalling that fine cut of meat they were to lavish attention on the imagery of the meat trisected by a widget of bone, and to attempt to describe the decision to order a T-bone in terms of the mind of the eater, would we accept the argument that the presence of the bone in the meat reflects the innermost essence of the minds of the times? Perhaps. But perhaps we would not.
And likewise, when we look at a surviving piece of ceramic ware from the Choson period, and we make ourselves aware of the standards by which the people of the period judged good pottery from bad, how deep should we go? How much of the continued evolution of pottery from Koryo through the Choson period had anything to do with changing taste itself, and how much of it had to do with the unadorned desire for something new and rare? Were the styles of the 1980s in any sense better than those of the 1970s? Did they say something about the minds of the people of the period? Undoubtedly they did. Were they ‘a fitting expression of the character’ of the 1980s westerner? I leave it to you to judge.
What I find most objectionable about passages like the above is that, yes, clearly the yangban of that period saw something in those ceramic designs that appealed to them on a deep level. But to what extent do the writers of the present understand what it was about the pieces that moved the yangban? How much of the appeal was aesthetic, and how much of it was simply the appeal of rarity? People these days will pay more for a 100 year-old mint condition penny, a mass-produced piece of currency, than reason might dictate. To what extent was this simple motivation to own something rare (and thus valuable) merely for its flawlessness motivating the ceramic collector of the Choson period?