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When I lived in Indonesia, I purchased and devoured every Japanese classic that I could get my hands on. From Kawabata and Oe to Mishima and Tanizaki, these novels invariably featured some very odd and different themes from the books I typically read. Spring Snow by Mishima remains my favorite of that lot, which I left in trust at Universitas Gadjah Mada for a wing of the library to be called “The Douglas MacArthur Memorial Library for Peace, Tolerance, and Justice.” Eventually, I encountered a work that I had much less trouble instantly understanding and appreciating: Chiyo Uno’s The Puppet Maker.

Chiyo, herself, was a celebrity. She lived fully up until the end of her very colorful 98 year life. She penned several interesting works, most notably Ohan, according to scholars. I learned of her works through Rebecca L. Copeland’s excellent The Sound of the Wind: The Life and Works of Uno Chiyo. Copeland compiled and translated (I think) three of Chiyo’s short works and added an original biography of her. And so, it is in this book that one may find The Puppet Maker. A final note about the publication: it comes from the University of Hawai’i Press. This university press is one of my favorites, as I visited the school bookstore in February and no amount of time was enough for me to enjoy A Dictionary of Cantonese Slang, Fundamentals of Japanese Grammar, Manchu: A Textbook for Reading Documents, Modern Tagalog, and The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy amongst many, many others. They specialize in works with niche Asian subject matter that really appeal to specialists and really dorky amateurs like myself. Browse the UH Press titles some time.

The Puppet Maker itself is essentially journalistic, told from the first person perspective of Chiyo as she travels to meet Tengu Kyukichi, perhaps the last great puppetmaker. She, a young woman, and he, an 85 year old, witness and discuss the puppetmaking art form at the precipice. As the puppetmaker sees it, “If this story were a play, then I suppose you could say we’ve come to the third act. If we do the third act today, the rest of the play won’t last another week.”

Later, he continues:

“You know what I think?” he said. “I think the puppet theater has seen its last days.” Indeed, the old man believes that it is now only a matter of time before the puppet theater perishes completely. And yet he continues to devote himself all the more to this dying art. If those in my line of work ever heard that the alphabet we use—that is, the alphabet I am using now—was shortly to go out of existence, I doubt they would continue to write, hoping against hope that by doing so they could perpetuate their art. No, we would give up immediately, and that is why I sense in the old man an extraordinary depth of passion.

And so, the work is communicating on several levels. The author has something to say about the man, the art, and tradition. We are inclined to sympathize with the puppetmaker, but not pedantically so. Unlike in a movie, there is no musical score to make us dance to whatever feelings the director wishes to evoke. Chiyo lets Kyukichi’s words speak for themselves. For a modern Westerner, they are difficult to assess, but I suspect they represent a time and a way of life very different from today. Indeed, Kyukichi spares few words for the wife who has accompanied him for six decades, and fewer still for children, some of whom he can barely remember anymore. Of his wife, he says this:

“What was it she’d do for me that I appreciated most of all? Sometimes I’d work late into the night, you see, and when I did she’d always wait up so she could lay my bed out for me. Well now I suppose just about anyone would have done the same. Laying out bedding is no great task. But once I’d crawled into bed and started off to sleep, I’d sometimes feel my old wife go around behind me and pat the quilt down soft around my shoulders. That’s all. But no one else would have done it.”

From the few words he uses, it seems he has a core tenderness, just one that is hardly practiced and little noticed. It didn’t matter as much then, when there was so much less opportunity. Still, the truly compelling parts of the narrative concern art and our relationship with it. For this, puppet-making is truly a wonderful foil and Kyukichi’s words come alive. Kyukichi describes the state of puppet-making thus:

“You see, art is tradition. It’s the same for carving puppets, too. If you’re going to carve Lord Hangan, you carve him the way tradition tells you he’s got to look. And, if you’re going to carve the hero Yuranosuke, you carve him in keeping with the Yuranosuke tradition, the way he’s been carved for centuries. But what happens to art when it’s done the same way over and over for hundreds of years? Back in the old days folks did things a certain way because it seemed natural to them. But now we’ve reached the point where we’re just copying the way things were done long ago without really understanding why, and so long as we’re just copying, it doesn’t have much meaning for us. Years ago folks lived with one goal in mind, and once they reached that goal, well, they were ready to die. But now, if you don’t set your sights higher and higher and aim to get beyond whatever goal’s been set, you might as well go ahead and die, and you sure don’t have any business talking about art. But, you see, I didn’t come to figure this out till four or five years ago—and it dawned on me when I finally noticed folks weren’t coming to the puppet plays much anymore. They were turning up their noses at it. How I wish I’d realized this sooner!”

There’s always a sense that the old days were different than today. For example, people often say that politics was kinder and gentler in the United States. In some respects, yes. In some respects, no. Yes, in that there was less overall competition and fewer interests bound up with the results. A good ‘ol boys network might ably control local politics for decades with most living their lives well. But no, in that you were much more likely to end up dead, run out of town, or ruined as a result of them. Slander? Try 1800. Things were no better in the 1940s or 60s. And so, in this respect, Kyukichi may be overreaching about his conclusion that in the old days artists merely replicated the old ways. It is possible, but I am skeptical. Even by seamlessly duplicating another’s style, there may be slight, but important differences of technique. Perhaps one carves faster. Perhaps one artist develops a change seemingly as slight as the puppetmaker equivalent of the damp fold in sculpture, but it has not been consciously appreciated yet.

But it is true that without something more, an art form might become static and uninteresting to the consumer. I really like Kyukichi’s sensibility regarding the intrinsic need for growth in the arts. Certain forms may have held special meaning in the past, but if they fail to in the present, then artists ought to consider change. In this case, we see a titanic struggle between modernity and tradition, because what Kyukichi is alluding to is not the necessity for mere changes of style. Given the improvements in technology and the changes in attention span, the art form itself is obsolete as pure entertainment for anyone born after 1930. Rather, Kyukichi may be unconsciously be pushing at the reality that puppetmaking needs some kind of fusion with other art forms, lest it be relegated to museums and ceremonial performances. His lament, “How I wish I had realized this sooner!” gives us a window straight into Kyukichi’s heart. This is his fondest wish.

The narrator herself struggled with the character of the puppetmaker:

I had never thought anyone could actually sit in the same place for sixty or seventy years doing the same thing day in and day out. If the person were performing a religious austerity, like those who practice zazen, perhaps I could understand it. And yet here was this old man, doing just what I had thought impossible. “I don’t know how it looks to others,” he told me, “but I’ve a reason for sitting right here all day long, never going out. You see, if someone came on business while I was away—well, wouldn’t be anybody else here who’d know what to do. No, I decided it was for the best if I stayed in as much as possible. Look, I’ve got my tools and things all laid out around me so I can sit right where I am with everything at hand’s reach. The sort of life the old man has led may not seem all that strange in a country town like this. No, he has lived just as a tree or flower might live, completely natural.

The power of a metaphor isn’t only that it helps us to see data in a new but analogous fashion. It’s also that it amplifies selected fundamental qualities or characteristics of a thing or situation in our perception. Chiyo’s description reflects a common perception in the modern day that a man who found his way early and did that the rest of his life grew like a tree or flower — sitting in the same spot, but still full of life, untarnished by the blemishes of modernity, unconcerned. And yet, it would be just as true to take the metaphor in a negative sense. We can lament his lack of opportunity, to be stuck no matter his true desires or talent, to in effect be condemned to the same lot generation after generation as the vast majority of the world were for thousands of years. Only in the mid-20th century did social mobility take off. Kyukichi, after a certain age, and maybe even before it, would still probably have it no other way, though. By the time of the interview, he has a solid sense of what his role is in the art, and more importantly, art’s role in him:

“…but let me tell you a thing or two about art. There’re folks who set their sights on one level in art—and once they’ve reached that level, they figure they’re finished for life. Then we’ve got craftsmen like Hidari Jingoro who keep right on perfecting their skills until the day they die. You see, there are those who always push for better, who are always struggling and trying so long as they’ve got breath in their bodies. And, I wonder if this isn’t where art is said to live. Once you’ve decided that you’ve gone far enough—you can’t do better—well, then that’ll be the end for you. I don’t know how much longer I’ll live. Maybe two more years, maybe three, but this that I’m telling you is what is closest to my heart.”

Some artists are not possessed by achievement in their field. In these days, I suspect a higher portion were, though. I’m fascinated by his comment that he wonders “if this isn’t where art is said to live.” Is he saying that it’s in the focused struggle to create ever better art? We do know that by then, Tengu Kyukichi had ceased being someone much associated with the past, and as we know, this partly includes even insuperable ties to family. They remain, incidental, to his story, but they are far from the chunk of the iceberg. What lies below is the passion binding him to his passion: the art of puppet-making, its limits, its transcending moments. It is indeed of art that he wishes to speak:

“…as I’m making my puppets, I feel as if I’m praying to the gods. Don’t you see, where my skill stops—when it doesn’t go any further—that’s where you’ll find the gods. Yes, they’re there just beyond human understanding. […] But let me just say that if you don’t reach out to the gods first—make some kind of effort—then they sure aren’t going to go out of their way to help you. […] Before I start to carve a puppet I have it all clear in my mind how that puppet ought to look. But there’s always one part I just can’t get no matter how I try—yes, there’s always something missing, and it’s in that part, that missing part, where the gods reside.”

Humans do not possess perfect information. They act in a world replete with risk and full of uncertainty– yes, these are two different things. And despite Kyukichi’s mastery, he is humbled by the reality that there is something beyond his precise calculation that goes into the art. It’s not just chance, but perhaps the occasion when he initiates some carving only to see something he missed in his mental conception that he now wishes to execute — or something that might be a flaw. Kyukichi recognizes in the flaw of his imperfect conception the idea of gods. Gods are unfathomable, but generally considered to be, if not all-knowing, certainly more knowing than we and arguably non-linear in temporal perspective. This reminds me of the literary theorist Kermode who argued “the concords of past, present, and future towards which the soul extends itself are out of time… To close that great gap, we use fictions of complementarity. They may now be novels or philosophical poems, as they once were tragedies, and before that, angels.”

These angels very much resemble Kyukichi’s gods. And so there is something in the human make-up that acknowledges its own imperfection, yet stubbornly refuses to attribute individualistic, virtuoso creations (art) to pure chance. Instead, we seek out any semblance of knowing will. Perhaps there’s some beauty in Kyukichi’s gods, who do not exist independent of humanity’s imperfection, though they ably light the way for humanity’s endless drive to overcome it.

For thousands of years, in an unbroken but accelerating trend, humans have migrated from rural areas into urban ones. It’s not hard to come up with reasons why, but in conventional parlance we say that people can find more opportunities in a city than on a piece of farm real estate. Still, that’s only part of the story.

In ancient days, cities weren’t worth much unless they were built near water because it could be used for irrigation and trade. These same economic advantages still hold, but moreso for the latter reason. With more trade comes more goods and services to sate human desires — of which you can be sure there are an infinite number. The more these desires are fulfilled, the happier (so the theory goes) humans are. In general, this should be rather obvious. Looking at the extremes, places where there are no choices (North Korea, various indigenous communities), humans almost always prefer lifestyles with more choices. I do not mean to say that indigenous communities do not have intrinsic value, merely that humans do not prefer them, just as I wouldn’t say a 1992 Ford Taurus isn’t worthless– but almost everyone (Conan O’Brien excepted) would prefer a 2009 Nissan Maxima if all things were equal.

New York City is arguably the greatest city on earth, a place where interesting, growing culture and life can be found in even the darkest and smallest nook and cranny, which in my mind cannot be said of Los Angeles, Barcelona, (my beloved) Hong Kong or Vienna… and Paris is in no way as dynamic a place as NYC. Speaking of French food, you can get it 24 hours a day at fine dining establishments all over NYC — good luck finding delicious cuisine in Paris at 4 am. ( I’ve tried. And failed. ) In New York, there’s more than job opportunities: there’s family, transplanted and reformed nationalities, linguistic hot zones, and, oh yeah… art.

To look at a list and read out loud every gallery and museum in New York City would take you hours. ( I recently enjoyed this post by Joanne Mattera on a beautiful, tasteful private home-cum-gallery. ) The diversity and wealth of aesthetic experience, perhaps only possible in New York City, is a direct function of trade. Trade opens up people to new possibilities, and enables different parties to, based on the principle of comparative advantage, share what they are good at. The more people you have in a place like New York City, in a country that prides liberty and trade like America, the more possibilities.

So when I read this article in the New York Times (h/t Russ) on the New York Philharmonic performing for free in Central Park, consider how many improbable but beautiful elements of this there are: a first-rate world-class orchestra that has served as America’s ambassadors to North Korea and soon possibly Cuba (an effort I support, unlike many of my GOP colleagues), people of all income levels enjoying its artistic excellence, and a green space where time slows a bit (just a bit) from the world’s greatest city that surrounds it. The space, incidentally, enjoyed as much for its moments of artistic resonance as its jogging paths.

And so I wonder how cognizant the New Yorkers are of just how anomalous their experience that night on the lawn was: the people in that orchestra can play in many other orchestras, but they chose New York (let us blessedly avoid discussion of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for the time being). The painters and photographers whose work draws millions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctions but make their home in New York could live in Paris, London, Milan, Berlin, Tokyo, Beijing, Sydney, or any number of other cities. But they chose New York. Why? In part because the pay is better. In part because there’s more creative possibility — and these parts are related, neither being possible without the freedom of expression and number of people. I suppose what I am trying to get at, but am not expressing very well, is that urban aesthetic experiences like this are built on the backs of business people (and their families), those like the traders of ancient times who founded and built cities on rivers — who, today, are the daring entrepreneurs, empire-building capitalists, and, yes, the heroes of any given Ayn Rand novel.

The more regulations a city passes, the higher taxes a state imposes, the higher the barriers to entry for artists. ( How many low-income artists are going to be able to hire a lawyer or consult with the VLA? ) Sooner or later, the people gathered in Central Park to enjoy a perfect evening with the New York Philharmonic will have to confront a startling reality: it’s not as easy, as obvious, or as likely, that these kinds of aesthetic experiences come as a result of charity and luck. Although such experiences may indeed be ends in themselves, make no mistake, the artists can afford it — and they can afford it because they’re already satisfied in so many other ways (financially, temporally, etc.). This seemingly simple and eminently enjoyable experience is inextricably linked to the thriving, dynamic commercial nature of the city.

( Picture credit: New York Times (2008) )

As has been well documented on this blog, I believe that one possible lens for the analysis of politics is the philosophy of aesthetics. Whether or not it is meaningful is up to each person, but it nevertheless contributes information. Hence my “politicians as artists” series. In the spirit of the Olympics, I want to touch briefly on athletics.

The notion of ‘athletic beauty’ has been discussed since time immemorial, though notably by Plato, who believed that it was surely one of the most beautiful of the arts. I cannot find the source (wild guess: The Republic), but I seem to recall Plato glorifying athletics because athletes shape themselves and train (a sacrifice?) for performance that all recognize as beautiful. While something can be said for this appraisal of athletics, modern athletics do not often resemble the athletics of Plato’s time, which I believe consisted of wrestling, wrestling, and a lot more wrestling. ( Yuck. )

Today we have well-developed professional leagues and massive state-operated programs to develop athletics. In the former case, examples in America include the MLB, NBA, NFL, and NHL, amongst others. Some deride these leagues, pointing to the huge amounts of money that team owners and players seem awash in. How can much beauty come from that? Or look in the latter case toward China’s sophisticated program of developing athletes. Critics point out that some athletes are selected at very young ages to train to become guardians of national honor, and they will be told they cannot see their parents for over a decade. Weekends off? Hah! Plus, the national government can throw as much money as they want at it. In both cases, where is the pure dedication to performance as an end in itself, or for the service of others?

I, on the other hand, think that we should consider athletic achievements irrespective of the money. The Olympics are a chance to do that. Yes, America is a wealthy country whose people can afford to spend lots of money (the income effect being larger than the substitution effect for many helps) on athletics which thereby creates huge opportunities for development. Yes, China can only compete with this by spending a massive amount of taxpayer money on similar development. In either case, or in neither, the achievements by the athletes stand by themselves however. All achievements have their context in time, of course, but money just provides opportunities — money isn’t some intangible substance, rather, it represents people’s values and concerns. So can’t we revel in the awesome display of athleticism by the ubiquitous Michael Phelps in the same way as we can in the precision and austerity of the underaged He Ke Xin?

The Olympics, at their best, concern the excellence of the human form. In so doing, at their best, they transcend the lesser concerns of identity and politics to draw our gaze toward the art of athletic beauty and achievement. The Beijing Olympics were a terrific success and we should be proud of the achievements of the Chinese athletes, as if, in some ways, they were our very own. To appreciate them thusly would be a proper celebration of the Olympics.

The image of Richard Nixon is very powerful in society. Media are anxious to explain that the cynicism many Americans feel toward the Presidency, or politics in general, began at Watergate. Of course, the truth is far from that. Rather, and perhaps because of the media itself, cynicism toward politicians and political institutions had been on the rise for decades. ( One wonders if it has indeed been simply constantly high. ) In any event, discussions on Nixon inexorably return to this figure so closely tied with corruption, scandal, and disgrace.

Nixon was elected to two terms as President of the United States, and the second election by a blowout margin. Nixon’s policies were quite moderate, especially by today’s standards. Though a Republican, he supported price controls and other odd interventions to the economy. Though once a strident anti-Communist, he opened and formalized relations with the People’s Republic of China, engaging one of humanity’s most terrible butchers, the Chairman. Though elected to end the Vietnam War, he eventually fought it with relish, engaging in a spectacular set of foreign policy manipulations that brought America to the very tip of success. For all these reasons, and many more, Nixon is a character whose reality has not been fleshed out in standard media. In recent times, however, some have made more compelling portraits of the man, whose inner struggles and manifest contradictions might finally be brought to a more tempered and artistic fulfillment.

First, Conrad Black’s Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, does wonders for rehabilitating the man as a complex human to be studied — a man whose colorful and turbulent persona demands understanding. Black, who is perhaps best known these days as a Thatcherite persecuted for questionable financial decisions, renders as magisterial a portrait of Nixon as might be possible in the current time. He does not gloss over the darkness, and he wallows not too long in the light. As Christopher Wilcox writes in the NY Sun:

This is by no means the last word on the 37th president, but it is a magnificent one-volume summing up of his efforts on the world stage and, as such, provides a clearer picture of Nixon and his times.

Although I have not read the book fully, as it is 1100+ pages long, I have read several long portions of it in the library and look forward to purchasing it eventually perhaps for an… extended vacation. Black’s painstaking research and attention to detail well-serve the subject. However, if you’re like me, you want a biography more like American Caesar, William Manchester’s magnum opus and one of the finest biographies of any man yet written (it helps that the subject is Douglas MacArthur, about whom one can never say too little or exaggerate too much). Lots of drama, lots of glorification, and maybe even a touch of hagiography every now and then. You know, kind of like an opera.

If you are like me, then, you are in luck! For the other recent and compelling portrait of Nixon comes in John Adams’ Nixon in China, an opera recently performed in Denver, and four years ago in St. Louis. ( If you missed it, and I have a feeling you did, fear not for it will be released on CD “next winter” supposedly. ) According to The New York Times, in its second review of the piece:

The opera, it may be recalled (or inferred from its title), is based on President Richard M. Nixon’s groundbreaking visit to China in 1972, though it plays out more in the psyches of the principals than in the action itself, which is chiefly ceremonial. And what dominates the Nixonian psyche in Alice Goodman’s libretto is a consciousness — a sort of split self-consciousness — of history in the making.

James Robinson’s production stresses that inner dimension in several ways, using what he calls “the romantic bluish glow of the television screen.” Rather than monumentalize, as aspects of Peter Sellars’s original production of 1987 did, Mr. Robinson tends to miniaturize, through images running almost constantly on as many as a dozen television sets spread across the stage. And those images, mostly from news video of the actual meeting in China, enhance the sense of history made in the moment.

Alas, perhaps this is too nuanced for me and I might have preferred the 1987 production. In any event, I think these productions bode well for our culture’s ability to cope with media-inflicted distortions and still arrive at the truth, warts, glories, and all. This post should not be read as one in the “Politicians as Artists” series, as such an assessment of Nixon’s art is well beyond even this critic at the time. The shades and echoes of the man must grow more full yet.

No doubt, at some level, politicians are artists. Whether we use broad definitions or narrower definitions that say art involves scenario-building or vision of some kind, politicians build a kind of art. We may not admire their art. Indeed, we may be terrified of it — coming out of a century of industrialized murder (Stalin, Mao, Hitler) — it’s easy to feel that way. But it could still be a kind of art. Unfortunately, that would lend some kind of aesthetic credibility to that hack of a human being Kim Jong-Il, who still runs concentration camp gulags in the Hermit Kingdom.

Apparently, the New York Philharmonic has accepted an invitation to play in North Korea. From one perspective, this performance occupies an important role in scenario-building: one of engagement, understanding, and unity. This is history, from the NYTimes article:

The Philharmonic’s trip, which has generated some controversy among orchestra musicians and commentators, will follow a venerable line of groundbreaking orchestra tours that have played a role in diplomacy, the most famous one, perhaps, taking place in 1973, when the Philadelphia Orchestra traveled to China soon after President Nixon’s historic visit and amid what came to be known as Ping-Pong diplomacy. In 1956 the Boston Symphony was the first major American orchestra to travel to the Soviet Union. The New York Philharmonic, under Leonard Bernstein, went three years later.

There certainly will be critics with very good arguments. There are artists who would much rather play for dictators in North Korea than leaders of the free world. The author of this blog is a strong proponent that North Korea remain on the list of state sponsors of terror. Its bombing of Korea Airlines flight 858 could no sooner be forgotten than North Korea’s wanton axe slaughter of American servicemen in 1976. I support any and all artistic engagement with the regime, so long as it is done with open eyes. The New York Philharmonic appears to be on top of things, again from the NYT article:

[The conditions for performance sought by the Philharmonic] included the presence of foreign journalists; a nationwide broadcast to ensure that not just a small elite would hear the concert; acoustical adjustments to the East Pyongyang Grand Theater; an assurance that the eight Philharmonic members of Korean origin would not encounter difficulties; and that the orchestra could play “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

A US functionary of dubious honor, Christopher Hill, said that he thinks the conditions have been met. If he’s right, but only if he’s right, this would make performance an acceptable and honorable political act. Nothing will change the fact that the ruthless dictators of North Korea will brainwash its citizens (and American tourists, including a once-dear friend of mine) into thinking that the Pueblo Incident was America’s fault. Nothing will change the fact that the murderers of Pyongyang tell their citizens America is responsible for them not having any power, despite the fact that Pyongyang was once the capital of the industrialized half of the Korean peninsula. During the Japanese occupation, the Empire only allowed development far away from Japan as they viewed the peninsula as a dagger pointing into Japan’s heart. Forty years later, the situation was drastically reversed.

No, nothing will change any of that. But at least we can say that we acted in good faith and shared our art with them. Maybe one person will stop and say that heart-felt beauty like this could not possibly come from a terrible imperialist nation. We may gain something, however small, and at no cost whatsoever.