INTRODUCTION
History of Art
is a full registration of mankind's evolution on the process of expressing itself.
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 Rennaisance 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 civilizational context.
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 merchantilistic issues.
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 subject.
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 East and 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 influenced 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.

FURTHER THOUGHTS

The above 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 Typology will generally collect reproduction swords, both custom made and production ones.(1)
- 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 American 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 demand.
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 the past.
This by itself incorporates a core and decisive transformation from the original tamahagane 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

The old La Fontaine 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 Mc
Luhan 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 hunting painting and the present day power over the masses through advertisement).
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:

2. Abstraction
When beauty is abstracted
Then ugliness has been implied;
When good is abstracted
Then evil has been implied.../...

Beauty... 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.

CONTEMPORARY AESTHETICS AND THE EDGED WEAPON
AN EXAMPLE OF INNOVATIVE HYBRIDATION

While browsing the net for innovative blade designs, I came across Don Fogg's Cloud Cutter 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 collaborative work.
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 from traditional.
Jim Kelso's mountings of this maple leaf tanto by Louis Mills embody a unique blending of his own personal experience as a jeweler and wood carver artist and his exposure to Japanese culture.
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 viewed as 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 then disastrous  when compared with the originals
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 example.
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, consideration, respect.
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 Giri 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 superb swords 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

The 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 the crafts...
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 Socratic 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 decadent.
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 analysis.

by Antonio Cejunior 2005 - BLADESIGN