PRINT April 1985


ASKING GOOD QUESTIONS IS MORE difficult than giving the right answer. Most questions come from what we already know, so how do we begin to phrase new ones? During a summer visit to Japan filled with the remarkable, conversations opened and gave shape to ever more perspectives. At our request, Jo Kondo, a composer of contemporary music, and Joseph Love, assistant professor of art history at Sophia University. taped one of their many discussions. Father Joseph Love went to Japan as a young priest many years ago and stayed. As a music student at Tokyo University. Jo Kondo attended his lectures. They have become friends who share a world but who come to that world from very different directions. What follows is an edited portion of their conversation.


Joseph Love: Years ago a man who had just gotten off a plane entered a gallery in Tokyo, looked around at the contemporary art, and said, “I can see all of this in New York,” and left. He thought that what he saw was a cheap imitation of what was happening elsewhere. But if he had looked a little longer he would have found that despite great similarities, it was not the same. There is a different backbone, and that backbone is embedded deeply in Japanese culture. These days the questions are international, but the answers differ. For instance, even today in Japanese painting color is used in a different way than in Western paintings. I think this is probably because of a difference between the concept of color as light and that of color as separation.

Jo Kondo: You mean that we Japanese treat color as an issue of separation?

JL: In my work, as a Westerner, if the light changes, so does the color. Everything changes. Color becomes a thing in its own right—having its own movement and its own life. Color is light-bearing space that you can’t pin down closely. Whether we think about it or not, Westerners treat color as light, and these two can be interchangeable at any time. When you look at light you are looking at color; when you look at color you are looking at light. The most obvious example is found in the painting of the Venice school—Titian and those people. Their problems were the Renaissance problems, but their solution came from the fact that they lived in a particular atmosphere. In most Japanese paintings that I’ve seen, from old Buddhist paintings right up to the present, the color is used first to separate one thing from another, so you know you are not looking at the same thing. That separation doesn’t really mean that the color will be the color of the actual object—it’s something like it, but it’s not the same. It’s usually uniform. It’s not the color of light, and has nothing to do with space. It’s simply a surface that you can see.

JK: For me, as a musician, every sound has its own life. However, if we regard the music color as orchestration, we can say that flute sounds all have the same color, even though each note played by the same flute is a separate entity and sounds different. They are still all the color of the flute.

JL: So one doesn’t move in a dramatic way from one sound to the next, and then to the third?

JK: No, not at all. Our conception of sound and its color is closer to being one of separation than of the drama of color that comes from light.

JL: That differs culturally from my way of thinking. There are people in the United States who think of color as “natural color,” because of the tradition of realism. But generally the great artists in the West have concentrated on the use of color as light. Perhaps the best example would be Vermeer—the picture he painted of the woman weighing gold, or weighing pearls, inside her home. The light comes from the outside through a small window and hits her straight in the face and hands. What it actually does is transform her. The gold and the pearls that she is taking care of become totally new things. The newness comes from the light, nothing else. You experience something you can’t imagine in ordinary reality. It’s something extremely deep, and the depth, again, comes from the light.

JK: Before I went to the United States I didn’t understand space as you do. As you say, Japanese art doesn’t have any conception of light and therefore no conception of space in painting. In New York I was impressed by the shadows of the skyscrapers. I found that the shadows made the space, which meant to me that light creates space. It was then that I understood what space is in Western culture. It was the deepest experience of my visit.

JL: Strangely enough I think the most important influence on me has been the stone gardens in Kyoto, and especially the Ryōanji garden.

JK: That’s a source of light for you?

JL: Yes. Looking at the garden I realized that it becomes two-dimensional, rather than three. I don’t move, I simply stay at one spot in the middle. Gradually the ground stands up and it looks as though it is totally flat, like a painting. And then, in the background, the outside world flows into the image and also becomes part of this two-dimensional, painterly experience which comes from the light and the way the garden is constructed. There is a moving, spatial change which you could clock, fast or slow. Usually the experience takes about half an hour. I first started painting in Japan. I began by copying pictures and ideas. One of the things I did was a Ukiyo-e peninsula. It struck me that the hard line and the finish of the whole thing gave it a three-dimensional quality that I liked very much. I think the reason that Ukiyo-e wasn’t very popular among the serious artists in the Edo period was in fact because they didn’t want that three-dimensionality. But in the West these woodblocks became popular among Impressionist painters precisely because they seemed to solve the problems of flatness and space.

JK: It’s very difficult to talk about this.

JL: A painter I know in Japan who works in flat sections always talks about the space in his paintings. But I didn’t see any space there at all. And then when I spoke with the composer, Toru Takemitsu, about the space in his work, he explained it very much the way the painter had—in terms of two-dimensionality. That really intrigues me; both a painter and a musician talk about the importance of space in their work, from which I got only a two-dimensional impression. They found space that I can’t recognize.

JK: I think that the space that Takemitsu is talking about is not the space but the silence between sounds . . .

JL: This is like the Japanese language—which is also very flat, two-dimensional. In it everything flows like a river across your consciousness. It doesn’t come to you from somewhere far away; it comes across your perception. Someone once said everything in Japanese can be turned into an adjective. Japanese is one long adjective. The European languages are more architectonic.

JK: Do you think there is any relation between the Japanese concept of nature and Japanese art in terms of this two-dimensionality?

JL: Here in Japan the steepness of the hills is so evident that they appear almost flat when you look at them. Their look of uniformity, as well as the visual uniformity of the plants and trees on them, is such that you don’t know which hill you are actually looking at. Also, the climate in Japan increases this sense of two dimensions because it is very hazy.

The relationship between man and nature is very important to any discussion of cultural difference and likeness. I think of three different types of gardens in which different ideas of nature are expressed. The European Baroque is one. The other two are Oriental—Japanese and Korean. The person who built a Baroque garden shared an idea of nature with Plato—that is to say, of nature always striving for a higher place, trying to get farther and farther up the ladder. If he helped nature along by making the trees into geometric shapes, he brought them into a higher form, a more mathematical nature which was thought of as better. Nature was seen as a mess that had to be put into order by mankind. The second kind of nature is found in the Japanese garden of trees, rocks, and water, which looks very natural. That is, the image looks natural. But really the trees have been bent and tied together with wires, and put up on struts; the process is very unnatural. Trees do not grow in their natural ways. They are made to grow, forced into a final shape that is something you would only find on a cliff overhanging the sea—caused by the wind and sun. So in that way the shape of the forced tree is natural; it is in this sense that nature is employed in the Japanese garden. If you look at a formal garden in Korea it’s very different. The concept of nature is not one of form, or of striving for something better, but of things as they are. If they don’t find a rock in place they look for one around the vicinity but no farther. With few changes, the Koreans try to keep things as they actually grow, in that particular circumstance, in that particular weather.

Basically these three ideas are totally different because the underlying philosophies are so different. We have to be very wary of speaking about things as “natural.” The interpretation depends on the culture. I saw a Korean standing screen—a common folk-art object. It was an interior landscape of a scholar’s room, with his desk, his seat, his books, and all the other paraphernalia he needed. He wasn’t there. It was just his objects. Ordinarily in the West when we look at a series of things in one space, they gradually come to a Renaissance vanishing point. But the perspective in the screen was completely and absolutely the opposite. When things came close to the viewer they became smaller. An explanation was offered to me by Lee U-Fan, an artist born in Korea, who said: “In the West you look at the landscape. In Korea the landscape looks at you.” The same thing happens in Japan. Take for example a person who wants to build a weekend house in the country. In the West, it would be on a promontory overlooking the sea. Or it might be on a mountain two-thirds or all the way up to the top-so you can look out and see the whole world. In Japan it is just the opposite. If two hills come together with a little rivulet in the middle, you build your cottage next to it, or even right above it. You don’t see very much because nature is so close to you. And nature, because of that, is thought of as motherly.

JK: Like a cradle?

JL: Yes. Here in Japan you are surrounded by things that are taking care of you. In the West you are looking out for yourself. I find this true in the music, too, and in the art. Even when there is a three-dimensional object, it is looking at you. In Japanese paintings the thrust of space is from the outside. Toward you. Perhaps the same can be said of much Japanese music. But what also strikes me in listening to classical Japanese music—for example koto music—is that it is very cold and formal. It doesn’t affect me emotionally.

JK: That’s because it is an ornament of life. It’s not evocative.

JL: I listened to the kayageum, which is the Korean version of the koto, and it sounded like an old lady sitting at the fireside carrying on an emotional conversation. I wondered, where do we find this earthy quality and strong emotion in Japan? In Kabuki we have aragoto, and people expressing strong emotions, but the strong emotions are expressed so strongly that they become decoration, and nothing more. No one takes it seriously, including the fellow who’s doing it. He lets you know that he really isn’t involved. He’s just giving you a good time. As Takemitsu once said, in the other Far Eastern countries there’s leeway for individual thinking, especially in folk music. In Japan, he says, folk music is made by the group. And I think that’s probably a generally true statement about art—although the individual has more to say today. In the past, and even in the present. Japanese painters have followed a tradition. Before they start the painting ifs already decided what direction they will take. In Japan even painters who work freely, and find marvelous new images that no one else has, repeat those images endlessly if they receive the approval of the public. I guess it happens in most countries. but ifs more obvious in Japan. Here you don’t have a value judgment placed on changing and evolving.

JK: That’s true. If someone establishes a school, like the Noh plays, the followers keep it. No developments, no changes are supposed to be involved. We don’t have a tradition of change. Most people here want to do something established, something. that is accepted. Since the average music listener prefers nineteenth-century music, and since that music is approved of by the audience, Japanese composers, even young composers, follow that road. So again the issue is, what is a value judgment based on?

JL: Value judgments here are different. For the last year or so, day in and day out, as I’ve gone through the station on my way to the train I’ve noticed that the magazines in the newsstands always have covers filled with the faces of not particularly attractive young girls. The ordinary is not allowed to be extraordinary because it stands out from the crowd, which is not acceptable behavior.

JK: That is a problem of mass-media culture.

JL: Here there’s a totally different idea of the relationship of each person and the society, one that stresses the group rather than the individual.

JK: So do you think we all should find our own way?

JL: I don’t think you think about it. If you do something on purpose, it’s like the famous quotation from the Chinese philosopher Chuang Tse remembered by John Cage in one of his diaries: “How to improve the world (you will only make matters worse).”