The Pottery War

When Japanese Shogun Hideyoshi invaded southern Korea as part of an unrealized invasion of China, his forces raided villages for potters with knowledge of advanced Chinese ceramic technology. This action greatly bolstered the Muromachi era of blossoming Japanese ceramic art. Hideyoshi’s invasion is sometimes called the Pottery War.

But of course anytime we use the word “war” we should understand the true nature of that word. In this instance, it meant villages razed, families murdered, people ripped from their ancestral homes and forever enslaved on foreign shores.

A closer look reveals Hideyoshi’s maneuvers as part of a much broader war, including the Portuguese swath of destruction across the Indian Ocean that initiated Europe’s China Trade era along with ensuing Dutch and English piracy on the open seas against Portuguese porcelain traders. Or the ascendency of Delft during a time of civil war in China that closed European access to export porcelain.

But also consider the implosion of the Egyptian Fatamid Caliphate which ejected tin-glazed pottery (and potters) into the Mediterranean world. Or the Christian conquest of Spain which brought that same maiolica to Italy. Or maiolica’s spread through central and eastern Europe by anabaptist Habens fleeing religious persecution. Or Counter-Reformation ravages that led fleeing stoneware potters to Germany’s relatively quite Westerwald district. Or the seditious act of making redware during the lead-up to the American War of Independence. Or virtually everything to do with Mexican maiolica. Etc. etc. etc… If one includes the machinations of today’s mining industry in its quest for cobalt, copper, and other minerals useful to potters, this war can be understood as never ending.

None of this offers a terribly flattering perspective when considering the works of today’s many talented ceramic artists. But there it is – another of those rare moments when pottery history echoes the words of The Jefferson Airplane’s vocalist Grace Slick way back in 1969: “Everything we do either makes noise or stinks.”

These words are not intended as a diatribe against making pottery. Far from it. Rather, we potters should know the full measure of our chosen field. Doing so provides us an intimate appreciation of the immense gift and privilege inherent in the words “standing on the shoulders of giants,” ie; the sacrifice of so many who gave so much so we can do all the things we do.

Don’t shy away from this collective past. Learn from it. Build from it.

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