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The history and future of contemporary art in Japan – Chapter 3: Where is contemporary art in Japan headed in the future?

Where is contemporary art in Japan headed in the future?

The future wave of contemporary art (one that will be recorded in official history) will be driven for some time by political ‘artivism’ (a word coined by adding art and activism) and community-building ‘relational art’. The former is most famously exemplified by Banksy, Ai Weiwei’s controversial criticism of the Chinese regime, and JR, whose projects focus on giant photo installations of faces in areas of conflict.

The latter include Rirkrit Tiravanija, who serves Pad Thai, a Thai-style fried noodle dish, in art spaces, and the art collective Ruangrupa, mentioned earlier. From here, I would like to foresee Japanese contemporary art in the society in which we live, especially in Japan. In conclusion, there are three directions which contemporary art will take in Japan.

1. deviations based on existing contemporary art forms
2. politically critical deviations
3. normalisation of art

The format remains the same

The contemporary art movement in Japan has mainly started since the post-war period. Along with Hariu Ichiro (針生一郎)’s ‘Sengo bijutsu seisuishi (戦後美術盛衰史)’ and Sawaragi Noi (椹木野衣)’s ‘Nihon, Gendai, Bijyutsu (日本・現代・美術)’, Chiba Shigeo (千葉成夫)’s ‘Gendai bijutsu itsudatsu shi (現代美術逸脱史) 1945-1985’ is one of the few books that deal with the general history of postwar Japanese art. Although the book is almost 40 years old, his definitions are still ‘alive’ and even point us in the direction in which contemporary art in Japan is likely to go in the future.

In his book, he unravels the flow of Japanese art in the 40 years since the end of World War II, showing what contemporary Japanese artists have been thinking and how they have been creating their work. Art collectives such as, the Gutai Art association (具体), Hi-Red Center (ハイレッド・センター), Mono-ha (もの派 School of things), Bikyoto (美共闘), Post Mono-ha (ポストもの派)… This book enumerates contemporary artists unique to Japan who have been conscious of the art world and have fought against it. The trajectory is neither an imitation of the West nor a return to tradition, but a deviation from existing art in which elements of contemporary art are depicted. From Duchamp onwards, if the definition of contemporary art is to be extended on the basis of Gaut’s earlier definition of art. What becomes a key element of contemporary art is, the novel deviation from existing art forms and exceeding the limit of perception of the very contemporaries who debate over pieces being art or not.

For example, Kusama Yayoi (草間彌生), Murakami Takashi (村上隆), Nara Yoshitomo (奈良美智) and Lee Ufan (李禹煥) are some of Japan’s leading star artists. They are all stars who have more or less fought their way between art and artlessness, but they have already fallen into the realm of understanding of their contemporaries, and are enjoyed as ‘have become’ acceptable. Even Okamoto Taro (岡本太郎) is already our textbook.

The degree of deviance is currently insufficient. What is visually and philosophically ‘correct’ cannot go beyond deviance. The history of contemporary art is basically spun by later historians of the art world, who describe and fix what has ‘become’ contemporary art.

If we speak of art that has become contemporary art, or art that ‘looks like’ contemporary art, then the only thing that can easily be identified as contemporary art is ‘9. belonging to an established art form’. To make a new deviation within that existing form, which is 1.

As for the first point, look at the up-and-coming artists and others who have been actively introduced at art fairs and department stores’ events held in Tokyo and Kyoto in recent years. However, whether or not they will be inscribed in the official history of contemporary art is another story.

Art that wakes a sleeping child

Art with a critical and political message is constantly looked down upon with disaproval in Japan. It is ‘subdued’ to those outside the intended audience (the art cluster) and is often regarded as ‘naughty people’ who should be passed over in the news.

These include feminist artist Rokudenashiko (ろくでなし子), who distributed 3D data of her own vagina and fought her case all the way to the Supreme Court; Okamoto Mitsuhiro (岡本光博), who continues to satirise giant imperial corporations such as Louis Vuitton and Nissin Foods; and Aida Makoto (会田誠), whose work incorporates pedophilia and erotic nonsense into his style. These include Chim↑Pom, who created a contrail shaped in the letters ‘Pika (flash)’ over Hiroshima and added some of his paintings to Okamoto Taro’s Myth of Tomorrow in Shibuya, Tokyo, immediately after the nuclear accident. This political art is unfamiliar to the Japanese climate, which places great importance on harmony and a desire to sweep things under the rug.

Basically, art that engages in political commentary is a minor part of the art world in Japan. In most cases, even after detailed discussions with ‘surprisingly understanding’ government officials and those in charge of the site and attempts to hold an exhibition, the exhibition is put off or cancelled immediately after it begins due to a report from a third party, as a result of a last-minute intervention from the top.

Almost 150 years have passed since the attempt to graft what is art onto Japanese society, but it still does not fit in and is close to being a lost cause. Contemporary art relies on Western views of progressive history and has become an autonomous tool for seeking a better way of being in society and the world.

In the Western sphere, trust in rational criticism underlies the idea, but Japan has imported the concept of art without that. Japan has imported only the superficial form of art, but has not learnt its essence and, in the words of a Meiji-era literary giant, it continues to ‘bloom out of thin air’. It would be no exaggeration to say that what is sought in Japanese ‘contemporary art’ is precisely the colourful, sparkling, unprovoking, uncritical, empty and simply drifting beautifully. The majority of our society seeks art that is not forward thinking but ‘present’ thinking, which is more digestible. The true history of deviance dwells in the artists who are now being treated as eccentrics, for the sake of sensationalism. The above is 2.

In a mature society

Looking at society from a bird’s eye view, the energy that once abounded in the art movement and which, to a certain extent, even changed society, has diminished, and changes in the international situation and social environment have also contributed to this trend.

We live in a mature society with an extremely large number of pastimes compared to the past. The human mind has been swept by the current of the times. With the fast-tracking of the countryside, video, animation and games have taken up a large chunk of our time, and the print experience and culture, where it is relatively easy to take time to think for oneself, has died out.

Basically, art is also a form of entertainment for intellectuals and requires a background in art history to read (i.e. understand). The experience of viewing art, which places a certain responsibility on the viewer, even brings with it a kind of superiority. There are fewer and fewer art clusters that are proud to have to convey the fact that there is a closed, authentic viewing experience. The culture exclusive societies, which is not limited to art, has already long since fallen into disuse.

Some art clusters who want to broaden the audience are even spreading lies to the masses to make them think that art is just something they can see and feel, as if it is a real art experience. ‘Fake art programmes’, which do not teach what art is but only provide an atmosphere, only introduce visually eccentric artists. The world of individuals who accept only the information that is comfortable for them accelerates the process of becoming close minded, and a bizarre cycle ensues in which good spectator cannot even get the time to think for themselves, which is essential for them to be a good spectator.

How is ‘deviance’ possible in a mature society? ’Sensationalism’ and ‘drama’ are both archaic concepts, and the art world and I may in fact still be chasing their illusions. In any case, Japanese contemporary art should admit defeat to Takizawa Galeso (滝沢ガレソ). The once-popular ‘bakatter’ (doing stuipid things on twitter) is now being done on X and tiktok at an accelerated pace, and artists with the legitimacy of having graduated from an art university or university of the arts have no choice but to stand by and watch the antics of those who have unknowingly become transient ‘contemporary artists’. Except for a few, they may not be prepared to bear digital tattoos that may last a lifetime. As far as social impact is concerned, the unknowing instant artists have the upper hand, but they are not living in the art world in the first place, as they are not aware of ‘10. being the product of the intention to create a work of art’. For this, they can never be contemporary art.

Art that comes natural to us as breathing

So where is Japanese contemporary art going? Art, which is greedily expanding its elective definition, is looking for something new to deviate from. It may be developed in the form of an existing art form, or it may be a medium of expression.

As far as we can think of now, the field with the potential to be exploited is ‘crime’ or ‘everyday life’. In other words, this is ‘3. The normalisation of Art’.

It is true that the trend to see art as a means of changing society for the better is a global standard. (Contemporary) art has gone from being a simple aesthetic pleasure-giving device to a complex range of activities, from connecting people to communities to town planning.

Like painting, sculpture, poetry and music, architecture is already a familiar art form, but it is becoming more artistically tautological. Many architects are involved in urban design, not only for individual buildings, but also for entire towns and cities, along with community building. In some cases, designers do this, but the aim is still the pursuit of a better way of being for the betterment of people.

Drama, sensationalist stories and bakatter antics are actually easy if the individual is prepared to bear the digital tattoo. The process of developing a strategy and gaining consensus in the public arena is far more challenging. The hottest artists in Japan at the moment can be described as urbanists.

The deviation from drama can be described as a return to the everyday. It foresees the future somewhat further ahead. When art has its sights set on city planning, nation-building awaits if it is to move towards higher concepts. When it comes to nation-building, the medium is now politics. If we are allowed a double anachronism in the past and the future, the greatest artist in the post-war span would be Tanaka Kakuei (田中角栄). He thought about town and country building and pursued a way of being (i.e. a happy state) for many people in the midst of controversy.

Looking at the present from this perspective, Yamamoto Taro (山本太郎)’s performance of handing a letter directly to the Emperor at the most recent autumn garden party in 2013, the first since the Ashio (足尾) Copper Mine poisoning incident and Tanaka Shozo (田中正造), can be considered an ‘accomplishment’ in the history of art… Is this too far ahead of its time? If we change the time scale, we can go back to great Japanese statesmen such as Saigo Takamori (西郷隆盛), Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉) and Shotoku Taishi (聖徳太子), and if we broaden our perspective to the East and West, we can now go back to thinkers of the Axis period such as Confucius, Jesus and Siddhartha Gautama.

A society where everything is art

Whether in Japan or the rest of the world, the destination of art history is the divergence of artistic concepts. In other words, everything that pursues a better way of being becomes art.

Our previous art histories have argued over what is or is not art. What we can do when art returns to the everyday and the concept of art diverges is to thoroughly examine what kind of art it is over a glass of wine with others. This is the destination of the normalisation of art.

The germ of art can be seen everywhere in human activity, in cooking, in sports, in silly meaningless jobs. Martial arts, how tightly you lovingly hold your baby in your arms, all of these can be art.

Lullabies are songs, used to put children to sleep or as a means of expressing love, art that should be repeated over and over again. This state of affairs is the destination of .3. the normalisation of art even further than it is now. This may be the state of affairs in a hyper-mature society where AI and blockchain are widespread and basic income is universally enjoyed.

A society in which many of us are freed from labour like the ancient philosophers, sharing a glass of wine with our friends in the daytime and discussing art and love is already at hand. It could even be called Classical Antiquity 2.0, where the conceptual manipulation of art can be manipulated by the masses.

Although the last part of this article has been rather grandiose, we have described the history and future of contemporary art in Japan over a total of three articles. We hope that this article will have a positive impact on the art appreciation of our readers.

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Valeria Okano

Contemporary art critic. While majoring in aesthetics at an art college in Tokyo, she has been engaged in art activities without limiting her field of activity, such as painting, sculpture, art projects, and curation. The image of this profile is AI generated from her name.

  1. The history and future of contemporary art in Japan – Chapter 3: Where is contemporary art in Japan headed in the future?

  2. The history and future of contemporary art in Japan – Chapter 2: History of contemporary art in Japan

  3. The history and future of contemporary art in Japan – Chapter1: Definition of art