Art, Error, and Repair

Today’s Washington Post has a feature on a Smithsonian exhibition about the Japanese art of mending ceramics with seams of gold (kintsugi).

At the risk of cultural expropriation–knowing as I do nothing about pot mending and little to nothing about Japanese art aside from what the story tells me–it suggests a fascinating way to think about mending texts.

An esteemed scholar of textual criticism, G. Thomas Tanselle, distinguishes between plastic (sculpture and painting) and temporal arts (music and literature). When one restores a sculpture or painting, a piece of plastic art, the original is altered. When one emends an error in the text of a piece of sheet music or a novel, the original object is not altered.

But even if one acknowledges that a pot is altered by mending, the craft of kintsugi (like perhaps the craft of textual emendation) makes a new thing, of interest as a new thing:

Because the repairs are done with such immaculate craft, and in precious metal, it’s hard to read them as a record of violence and damage. Instead, they take on the look of a deliberate incursion of radically free abstraction into an object that was made according to an utterly different system. It’s like a tiny moment of free jazz played during a fugue by Bach.

Calling all poets, John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is in need of repair. Repair, in the exhibition and perhaps in a library of scholarly editions, is the “unifying aesthetic thread.”

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