Living Up to My Blue China

Terzameron Day 16
April 5, 2020

Tim Martin


A few years ago I read an unusually beautiful and well-written book about art. Art as Therapy, by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong, is a tour of human feeling and experience as reflected in art. It advances the notion that people should look to art for counsel, comfort, and empathy—hence the title. The authors argue that in fact this is how most people “use” art, but because museums are organized along art-historical lines, many visitors feel at sea—wandering from a pieta to a still life of dead fish because they were painted around the same time and place. The authors argue that museums should reorganize their collections around human feelings and experience, and so have galleries of Love, Tenderness, Loss, Fatherhood, and so on. Visitors to the museum could get the comfort, counsel, and empathy they seek, by going to galleries where the art pertains to their lives.


Anyway, one of the little essays embedded in the book concerns a Korean moon jar. The authors discuss how this moon jar speaks of honesty, candor, and modesty. It is very simple, yet very imperfect—pocky and blotchy and off-kilter. They propose that, if you focus on this moon jar, contemplate it as a work of art, or, just as a thing, perhaps its imperfections might encourage you to think of your own imperfections. Maybe you could then accept your own imperfections, as the moon jar does, and live with them without apology, no pretense of a better self—in other words, maybe the lesson of the moon jar is modesty, modesty which comes from being honest about yourself. “For a person who is given to arrogance, or anxiety about worldly status,” they write, “the sight of such a jar may be intensely moving as well as encouraging.” And so Walt Whitman, our national courage-teacher is anticipated by an eighteenth-century Korean jar: “Have you surpassed the rest? Are you the President?” He asks. “I exist as I am; that is enough.”

Of course, not every work of art exhorts us in the same way. The object that I am writing about, my stepfather’s marvelous tankard, is also a simple (if costly) domestic object, made with care and cherished for generations. At the risk of jumping into the deep end, I’ll tell you why I love it—which is to say—how it speaks to me; what it means to me. For people who aren’t accustomed to staring at objects and having feelings about them, this may sound bonkers. Here it is again:



You can see that it is relatively simple, and I admire that. It is very old (London, 1708), and hasn’t suffered much from aging, so, that’s something to hope for. It is generous—twice or at least half-again as capacious as its contemporaries. Its surface is beautifully patinated and suffused with the grey color unique to objects that have survived hundreds of years without repairs, so it literally radiates authenticity and integrity. It has beautiful proportions: a merit in and of itself. Unlike almost any other tankard of this type and this period, the handle joins the body at the top rim, and then swirls off again, creating a strong sense of movement, almost play, against the great, solid body. This swirl is echoed in the thumbpiece, which is beautifully proportioned and perches on the edge like a little sculpture. These movements give the tankard a difference, a playful eccentricity, proudly carried. All these—strength, generosity, integrity, eccentricity—are qualities I admire, and strive for.


The moon jar and the tankard are different, but our relations to them are the same: there are things about them that speak to us, and we find their attributes worthy of emulation. So, I know what Oscar Wilde meant when he said “I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china.”

Add a comment