Pablo Picasso once said, “Give me a museum and I’ll fill it.” Was this, perhaps, an exuberant statement of creative zeal? (Certainly, Picasso could fill many museums.) Or was it a shrewd observation on the tenuous ground between artistic integrity and ego?
Those are black and white terms, to be sure, but anyone who has felt that the urge to fill a museum is at odds with his/her creative soul knows that the spiritual and the commercial have never been easy bedfellows, and never will be.
Tea is one of a handful of consumer goods that is simultaneously sacred and mundane. When I look around the tea community today, including at the work here on T Ching, it is not hard to perceive a certain amount of existential hand-wringing. Some ask: How will the art and authenticity of tea come to terms with the realities of the marketplace? Others simply state: These are two discrete things, irreconcilable by nature.
As a casual observer, but also an industry member, I have witnessed astonishing, sometimes puzzling, enthusiasm: a revolution is afoot, behold the rising tide that will lift all boats. In words heard round the industry, “Tea is Hot.” Go to the World Tea Expo and this mentality is, unsurprisingly, palpable.
What is intriguing about this phenomenon is not that people are employing psychology to buy and sell business opportunity – what else would they be doing? – but rather that the presentation of the opportunity is so deeply housed in the spiritual, aesthetic vision of tea.
In our industry, a cynic is someone who does not even care to aspire to this higher ground, who sees tea as just another business. An enthusiast points to glowing statistics and holds that converts will start with the trendy flavors or teabags and walk the path to the holy classics. A pessimist bemoans product mediocrity, and argues that the authentic will either never appeal to the masses or will never be properly presented to them. An aesthete replies, “Who cares if the tea industry grows?”
Is it possible that such distinctions are beside the point?
On a regular basis, I watch customers go George Carlin on our flavored tea collection or declare wretched some of the finest tea in the world. I have met people with sensitive kitchen scales, thermometers, and reverse osmosis water at home, and others who would perish from the earth without a microwave. I giggle when I see teapots with fanciful cats on them, but I know why people buy them. There is no right and wrong in this world.
Something very tiny, but very powerful, happens when I speak briefly about tea in front of a small group – a frequent occurrence at the teashop. Almost always, someone asks if it is “sacrilege” or a “sin” to enjoy flavored teas or to add sugar/honey/milk to their cup. The response is, naturally, no. I follow the famous saying that “good tea is tea the way you like it.”
This customer confession (to continue the religious imagery) is quite illuminating. It is the smiling wink of a conscious betrayal—a laugh, with all due respect of course, at the pomp and circumstance that we have assigned to tea. It has taught me the humility of my work, even though I fashion myself an ambassador. We often forget that it is not our place to judge enjoyment, only to act in its service.
Certainly this is not a call to abandon our own connoisseurship, or to neglect the cultivation of a deeper appreciation for tea in our communities. It is simply a call to see past a trick we are playing on ourselves, the idea that our loyalty is to the leaf instead of the drinker. Maybe Picasso was saying something entirely different – that he would fill the museum…with people.
In the specialty tea industry, the dialogue between the “businesspeople” who “tell it like it is” and the “purists” who “tell it like it should be” is unlikely to cease. Our spiritual and commercial instincts will continue their uneasy alliance. It’s a fascinating exhibit.