Knowing Goethe's classical preferences in art, I am thus of two minds whether he would have appreciated the fine works on display at The Japan Society here in Manhattan. My friend Suzanne was visiting New York over the Thanksgiving weekend and phoned to ask if I would accompany her to a "textile show" at the Society. Little did I know that it was a major exhibition of the works of Serizawa Keiskuke (1895-1984), designated a "living national treasure" in his lifetime.
The works were imaginative and eye-catching, in the true sense of that word, and often drawing on Japanese and Okinawan folk tradition, then (after World War II) absorbing something like a modernist aesthetic. Since I spent several years living in Japan, I was also reminded of the very different Japanese color sense, a preference for bold, unmodulated colors. I can't help feeling that Goethe would have found this stencil print very jarring. On the other hand, he would have been compelled to try to understand it. It's a shame that Goethe wrote his essays on art and literature before the effects of the "world literature" that he envisioned came to pass. These essays often come across as pedestrian, indeed pedantic, an effect that seems dictated by the narrow nature of the mostly European subjects he wrote about. An exception, of course, is Goethe's foray into the literature and culture of the Middle East, with The West-East Divan, in particular the notes that accompany it. With Japan's opening in the 1850s, however, the era of "world literature," with its manifold possibilities of artistic and literary exchange, moved beyond its Eurocentric source. Interestingly, Islamic and Chinese cultures, which Goethe did explore, have been resistant to absorbing the "universalist" ideas implicit in the notion of world literature. Long-standing imperialist cultures have their own ideas of universality.