I was first brought to a serious interest in Pottery, when I realized that the founder of the Zen school I study, brought the first Tenmoku bowl to Japan from Song China. This reinforced my interest in Mingei and the work of Hamada Shoji, Bernard Leach and Yanagi Soetsu, as brought to my attention by the Minnesota potter, Warren MacKenzie. To me, there is a lot to learn about living an "awakened life" in these modern times, from the work and lives of Dogen Zenji and the founders of Mingei.
Culture is not genetic. Actually, one definition of culture is: the non-biological transmission of knowledge. While I apprenticed in pottery with Tatsuzo Shimaoka, my wife Jean studied Moku Hanga (woodblock prints) with Master Tetsuo Itoe. Jean is inspired by folk toys, especially Japanese folk toys. We were a couple of the youngest people in the Hanga club, where we studied with Itoe Sensei. One of our fellow students (the wife of the Master Kiln Builder in Mashiko) once said to Jean, "Our children will not carry on and preserve our Japanese culture, but Jean will!"
At the UofMN, I once had a Grad Student say to me:
"Why are you making this Japanese Shit? You should made American stuff."
It was during the first invasion of Iraq. Another student was studying slip casting and was making slip cast toys. He threw an imperfect toy gun in the recycle and I asked if I could have it. I cut it in two and put it on a tea bowl, the grip the handle and the barrel sticking out the other side. I put an American flag in the barrel and Voilà! and American Tea Bowl! I still have it today, to remind me not to be provincial and to encourage me to have a "cosmopolitan" mind (as my late zen teacher, Dainin Katagiri Roshi used to call it.)
Postscript: That Grad student dropped out the same quarter.
Today, with communications and access being so available, we have no excuse for not being aware of the greatest examples of work in our field, done in various historic times and in different places. We look to Japan because the highest form of ceramics aesthetics were developed there, driven by the unique tea culture, which really doesn't exist anywhere else on the planet.
Doesn't mean you need to copy it. But, it is important to know the best examples of your form, be they Mino, Buncheong Sung, English Slipware or German Salt Glaze, Hopefully they will help us make our own work better.
Last week, I discovered that I am the 15th Great Grandson of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Does that mean I should stop making stoneware and start making Majolica? ;) No, but it sure is an incentive to lose my focus.