History of Art is a
registration of mankind's evolution on the process of expressing
For this very reason, the concept of art changed through time. In ancient
Greece, sculptors such as Myron, Phidias, Polyclitus or Praxiteles, were
considered stone workers. It was only in the
that the concept of artist begun to take place and status and the
movement itself can be seen as a renovation effort by going through a
re-visitation of Ancient Greece art. As history registers, any renovation
process usually implies a visit back to the roots.
Thus, Western Art History is mainly a vision provider of man's evolutionary way of
seeing things, expressing them, and always seeking renovation. The most
ancient civilization in the Far-East, China, is not so accessible due to
the fact that translations only give a pale idea of the cultural and
Men such as Leonardo DaVinci
understood that, like the human body is a full system, culture and
civilization was man's reflection of that system, for it was created by man, and while
centuries later men became specialists, the humanist vision of culture as
a whole system started to fade with consumism and the media focusing in
The 20th. century media became an ever increasing way to
exercise power through the media manipulation of information, and consumism begun to spread, driving the public's
mind away from a holistic perspective.
Knowledge became more and more divided into unrelated compartments, and
while globalization of communications is in its heroic period, there is
still a natural tendendy to ethnocentricity, as man is a product of his
immediate environment. Anthony D. Smith's
National Identity is highly reccomended for a further study on the
This tendency is, however, not incompatible with the adoption of
non-native cultures nor is it a new phenomena, since exchange of knowledge
occurred very long ago and more recently with the Impressionism Movement
of the 19th. century and the influence of the
China Trade Art invaded the West. However, one has to bear in mind
that there was always an exchange of influences, as the West also
Japanese Art and the court of the Qing was influenced by the Jesuits
who were astronomers, mathematicians, artists of which
Matteo Ricci was one of the most prominent.
introduction is what I consider a necessary preamble to understand the
mind frame under which I am addressing a subject on swords, and the
attraction they exercise on a group of initiates.
My observations of about
10 years lead me to the conclusion that the sword world is composed by
different groups of people:
- Traditionalists, who generally will only consider historical
based Western Swords under Oakeshott's
generally collect reproduction swords, both custom made and production
- Nihon-tô collectors who will mainly consider papered swords made
by Japanese smiths.
- Knife and folders collectors who will both seek Bowies or
Tanto made in historical ways or will collect very
contemporary folders or
hybrid knives composed of the fusion of different origins.
- The Ethnic Swords collectors who will seek to collect original
items of tribal or near-tribal societies.
- The Martial Artist who will have swords both custom made or
production (depending or their purses) which are put to use.
- The Aesthetical Collectors as those who buy whatever kind of
swords or knives that aesthetically appeal to them.
(1) by reproduction it
is meant the use of parameters of historical swords.
These general definitions that occur to me, may not be exhaustve, and are
pure characterizations of sword collection tendencies, each finding its
own legitimate reasons, which are all to be respected. In no way the above
characterizations are made for other than classification reasons.
The United States may be the country with more active bladesmiths in the
world. One may ask why.
I have my own explanation, which is directly linked to its history. Since
its Declaration of Independence in 1776 until today, the United States has
a history of 229 years, which makes it a fairly new country.
Under this context, the
Expansion to the West can be dated from 1821, or 184 years ago.
Therefore it is more than natural that the blacksmithing traditions that
accompanied the expansion have been kept alive and handed down.
This reality, I believe, is intrinsically connected to the above mentioned
existence of a knife and sword culture, which is not however, only
centered in the US.
China, Japan and Europe also have sword makers and
collectors, possibly not so active due to different laws and demand.
MULTI ETHNICITY, CULTURAL
APPROPRIATION & TRANSFORMATION
Being the country with more
active professional smiths, it is natural that this is a reaction to
On the other hand, it is known that after World Word II, the American
occupation forces in Japan came in touch with many Japanese swords,
which were aprehended and an incredible amount was brought over into the
United States, whilst the first Japanese smith, Nakajima Muneyoshi
would travel and settle down in the US, in 1962.
Another sociological characteristic of the United States is the
multi-ethnicity of its population, originally from different countries of
Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America and later, from even more countries on
the sucessive migratory waves that continue to flow.
Therefore, within these events, cultures and habits circulated, and as the
world wide web emerged, the appearence of the sword in the internet
became, with many other topics and interests, part of the daily life of
many, which spread world wide with the universalization of the internet.
Under these circumstances, bladesmiths of different orientations begun to
appear with their products online, and with them became available to the
collector all swords of swords, from genuine nihon-tô, to genuine
American antique blades, to what can be called European Reproduction
Swords, object of pursuit of one's own roots, as well as the study of
ancient swords, only available at Museums.
On the other end, American smiths begun to study and reproduce the Katana,
Wakizashi, tanto and some polearms. These cultural appropriations became
with time consolidated and evolved due to the non stop study and
improvement of the metallurgical characteristics of the steels employed in
This by itself incorporates a core and decisive transformation from the
mainly through modern steels coming from industry. Then, the monosteel
katana style sword becomes a product of the American bladesmith, because
in every appropriation, there is always a transformation, since cultures
and rules are different.
THE ARTISTIC ARGUMENT
fable can quickly respond to the more than usual dismissal of the
notion of art when it does not suit one's purposes. However it will not
change for this fact.
Rather than change, art is an addition of concepts derived
from sociological mutations, economical changes, technological
developments and multi-culturalism.
Masterfully at one point and controversially at another, Marshall McLuhan
stated that: Advertising is the main art expression of the 20th.
century, it is the strip tease of societies of Abundance,
becoming at the same time
the Cave Art of the 20th. century (a direct historical
reference to the power that was held by the cave artist, who was the
magician-shaman that performed the ritual wishful
painting and the present day power over the masses through
Agreeing with this statement of his, directed to industrialized and
consumism oriented societies,the next issue is aesthetics.
The Dao De Qing, in
it's second chapter, already states in a premonitory way:
When beauty is abstracted
Then ugliness has been implied;
When good is abstracted
Then evil has been implied.../...
the view that the Media and Advertising uses to sell everything. Beauty is
a trap, a circumstantial manipulation when one considers the
Flemish beauty painted by 17th. century artist Pieter Paweul
Rubens and the 1960's icon
Twiggy which today
could be called anorexic,
Therefore, perhaps a visitation to Umberto Eco's
History of Beauty would provide more food for thought.
AND THE EDGED WEAPON
OF INNOVATIVE HYBRIDATION
browsing the net for innovative blade designs, I came across Don Fogg's
which appeared to be a gentleman's knife until I saw the scale of this
sword and its
performance. Jimmy Fikes must be acknowledged as well, in this
Don is mainly an innovator who draws new experiences from different
sources. The Cloud Cutter arises in me memories of a Falcata and a Kukhri,
yet it is none of the both, but a step forward in the shape. It is in
shape and in his Old Bone
detail that innovation resides. Yet, selective hardening is part of
the inherited basic knowledge.
In short, what makes Cloud Cutter an innovative blade is the creativity
embedded in it. Where it comes from? Through the
hybridation process of cultures, appropriation of shapes, its
transformation leading to a disobedience to the mainstream. It is relevant
to further explain in this context that mainstream is mass belief
sold for marketing/consumism purposes.
For that same disobedience, one is led to look at the now classic
Oosic mounting of
one of Howard's katana style blades. Howard plays an important role in the
metallurgy of swords with his L6 bainite steel, which is therefore, far
Jim Kelso's mountings of this
tanto by Louis Mills embody a unique blending of his own personal
experience as a jeweler and wood carver artist and his exposure to
In other words, what makes a sword or its mountings a piece of art is the
way tradition is reinterpreted rather than copied time and again.
Under a sociological perspective, mounting an American made
Japanese style katana made in the USA with traditional mountings, could be
kitsch or the "aesthetics of simulation" for which I myself started
with when designing some of my early swords mountings. In fact the definition applies to
everything, and it is mainly striking the phrase " it apes forms or
combines them discordantly; it repeats fashion without having been part of
the experience of fashion". The same applies to any culture that
adopts a foreign aesthetics. It happened when the Gaules tried to coin
their own currency when they were occupied by the Romans. The results were
disastrous when compared with the
However, it is important to point out that presently, notions are
differing as any science is always behind the appearance of movements
such as the hybridation processes mentioned before.
While traditionalism which implies an obssessive way to look into
the Past and just the Past and nothing but the Past, may be of great
importance for period studies, Evolution is the most natural
process of Nature and therefore, of Man.
My purpose is not of accusation but rather of analyzing a definition that
exists for art, therefore, for an exponent of cultural expression. It is
rather a proposition for thought, based
on much observation of art and swords and the way they are generally viewed and
accepted. I personally do not condemn as I myself collect and use swords
allien to my specific culture, specially in a moment of the history of the
world where cultures circulate and intertwine, but sociologically speaking,
it may be considered such, in as much as having a Chinese or a Japanese
man wearing a Scottish traditional formal kilt. It is just the mirroring
The West has a definite view of things that is not Eastern, and though one
can admire nihon-tô, and the Japanese government regulations
towards preserving the Japanese sword, the cultural context in which this
takes place is not the same as what happens in the West.
Take an example: The Chinese use the word "face" as a symbol of honor,
Giving face to an artist who is inviting you to his solo exhibition is
definitely showing up at the exhibition. Or honoring the given word.
"Fán mien" or "reverse face" means changing the natural flow of
relationship, reversing what was the natural course of a river. This is an
insult in Chinese manners.
The same applies to the Japanese concept of
although the reference of one must not take into account one's
own suffering when alleviating or helping another out of a difficult
situation is not applied anymore in a global consumist society.
Many none Japanese nihon-tô collectors don't read Japanese and though
their admiration of the
originated by a specific culture, should not be exclusive, in the same way
as English is spoken differently in the United Kingdom, the US, Jamaica
and Australia. Each specific culture carries its own identity. Though
similar, they are diverse.
ART & THE SWORD
concept of art differs in the East and the West, but both are designed to
inspire spiritual feelings and emotions to the viewer.
In China, a painter
from the Ming Dynasty would copy masters of Tang and Sung Dynasties. In
doing so he sought to achieve a sense of perfection through already
sedimented knowledge that would be re-acquired. Thus painting, calligraphy
and sculpture were the main expressions of art, while the West would later
consider architecture, as well as painting and sculpture as the major art
expressions, and jewelry, ceramics as minor ways of expression. Then came
While this academic concept has by now fortunately faded away, it is of
paramount importance that both the source (the author) and the public,
understands that for an object to be considered art in today's globalized
society it must still carry a certain amount of innovation which is not
synonimous of invention. Words such as artist, warrior, etc.
are used randomly and without a real knowledge of what it means.
People confuse an artisan who does a very intricate piece such as this
9 balls ivory carving as art. Ability or dexterity is not
art! An illusionist has dexterity. Dexterity is not art! Technique is
also not art!
Let us remember that the origin of the Greek word
Techne was far wider and even philosophical as this
reference shows, in its dialogue with epistêmê (knowledge).
Therefore it is important to understand History of Art, and realize the
importance of the
Impressionist Movement as the clivage starting movement against
decadent Academism. In fact whatever remains immutable becomes naturally
In the history of civilizations, there is always a period of ascendence,
another of consolidation and splendor and a period of decadence.
It is up to each of us, as social and cultural beings, to understand these moments or
periods in history or in any other area of art, economy, politics and so
forth under one important issue: nothing is absolute per se and the
worst mistake is to commit the sin of considering only one perspective,
devoid of its global context.
This small article is imbued of a spirit of sharing a personal view of swords as
art. Its aim is not to dismiss traditionalists, nor to attack historic
swords that are reproduced, but rather to raise the question of how swords
can evolve as an artistic expression, within their anachronistic battle
role in the 21st. century, bearing in mind what is obvious: Any innovation
is the sum of acquired knowledge from the past, imbued with the intrinsic
necessity to make a statetement of present day aesthetics that can be
found everywhere around us, be it in automobiles, cell phones, computers,
or any single produced good to be consumed as per my above quotes on
Marshall McLuhan's brilliant statements.
In other words, I think it is important, not only for a designer, to be culturally
coherent by being contemporary in
aesthetics as a result of the reflection of his self-identity and the
subsequent combination with the realm of creativity, bearing in mind the natural need for
renovation as a vital part of the human condition.
Note: This article
was written as a pure personal contribution with no intention other than
by Antonio Cejunior