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'Sekken' & The Problem with Consensus

By David Warren

There is a Japanese word, "sekken", I would like to understand better. It is used to name the otherwise nameless social consensus, that is held to control Japanese public life.

I first encountered the word many years ago, in reading about a great controversy of the early 1960s, over the discovery of a hoard of ceramic pots and drawings in the village of Sano, north of Tokyo. A group of famous artist-potters, learned curators, art historians, and other scholars and intellectuals, with unimpeachable credentials, pronounced the whole find to be the lost late work of the master potter Ogata Kenzan (1663-1743), working in obscure retirement. There was a media frenzy.

Before the public at large had even seen pictures of any of these wares, it was generally accepted that they were among the most beautiful productions in the whole history of Japanese art, an exquisite and invaluable national treasure. Indeed, as the enthusiasts were eager to explain, they were more than a national treasure. They were the evidence for a kind of romantic individualism, that Kenzan and his tradition had embodied. We had the spectacle of great masses of people identifying with a romantic individual -- the Lord Byron phenomenon.

The several stubborn Tokyo art dealers who persisted in doubting the finds were bullied into silence. It was held that nobody should listen to them, because they had an obvious interest in the matter. The sudden appearance in the marketplace of a great quantity of these purported late Kenzans, would seriously depress the value of the earlier, and unquestionably legitimate, Kenzans they owned. The mere prospect of this had already crashed their prices. What could be more self-interested than their mewling declarations that the Sano Kenzans were "probably" fakes?

Whereas the people upholding the discovery were models of virtue. Quite apart from their credentials, they were above any crass financial calculation. They were men who drew their salaries from universities and other fine public institutions, who did not dirty their hands in buying and selling. A consensus of such men must be accepted as beyond dispute.

The entire hoard consisted of crude fakes, incidentally. This became more apparent in stages, as the "Sano Kenzan" pots, and sketch pages, were exhibited to the public. They were made of recent materials. Pigments had been used in the brushwork that hadn't been available in the 18th century. The paper under the drawings was quite new. Test after test came back thumbs down.

But the works should have convicted themselves long before these results were posted, for they were clunky and crude and boisterous -- their oppressively common feature being a distinctive loud parody of the "Kenzan" signature, slapped everywhere.

Let me mention that I had myself a stake in the controversy, albeit an infinitesimally small one. As an adolescent lover of pots (still am), who practically worshipped the life and work of the artist-potter Bernard Leach, and of his Japanese contemporary Shoji Hamada -- both of whom had declared early and confidently that the Sano finds were genuine -- I knew where I stood. Leach's book, Kenzan and His Tradition, was like an object of religious veneration to me. It remains a remarkable book, even if its later chapters on the Sano wares are rubbish. Long after the consensus of the experts changed, I persisted in defending "Sano Kenzan". The reader may find this hard to believe, but I really do not like a consensus.

If I understand, "sekken" is the word for the mysterious power that convinced all Japan that the Sano finds were wonderful and astounding. And "sekken" was the power that subsequently convinced them otherwise. Not a single argument, nor a single authority, but a single force moving an entire society from bug-eyed credulity, to haughty dismissal; and which can always move them back again.

A Japanese friend, who is irreverent towards her own culture, explained "sekken" to be the power that moves a large school of fish this way and that, as if they were a single organism. It is "the power that can move the entire school into the astute fisherman's net". She experienced it once herself, in a small way, when she wrote something controversial that happened to be true. She found herself in the position of the lone fish, who has somehow missed the tribal instruction to turn a sharp left.

The latest United Nations report on global warming confirms the international "sekken" on this topic. I explain my own objection to it, above.

© Ottawa Citizen

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