Online Magazine for Japanese Arts. Explore the True History and Story.


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


Currently, contemporary art refers to the objects or things that deviate from the art history of the art world. This is the reason why we often have an inexpressible feeling towards contemporary art. It can be described as a mental block or aversion. The enigmatic feelings, sometimes unpleasant, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes uncomfortable that cannot be captured by clichés, that we feel when we see it, originate from our own cognitive inadequacies.

The desire to deny what is in front of us, to say that this is not art, is pure, but it often stems from ignorance of art history. This is probably because the unrecognisable objects and things we encounter for the first time catastrophically shake our innocuous and unquestionable common sense and preconceived notions of what is possible.

It is similar to the feeling that the self-identity that makes us who we are and what I have been protecting for some reason is shattered. Contemporary art is the thing or thing that a certain number of people in the art world ruminates on and accepts over time, while struggling to grasp the phenomenon of perception, struggling to understand it, feeling nauseous, sometimes ignoring it, but still feeling repelled by it.

In this series, the 3 parts are divided as follows.

(1) Definition of art
(2) History of contemporary art in Japan
(3) Where is contemporary art in Japan headed in the future?

The history and future of contemporary art in Japan will be unravelled by naming specific key figures and artworks.

Definition of art

Now, before presenting its history and future prospects, I would like to start with the question: what is contemporary art? The question is: what is contemporary art? When discussing contemporary art, the difficulty of defining it is one of the biggest headaches for everyone. There is no other word besides ‘art’ that can be discussed with so many people wielding their own definitions and with the gears not meshing.

As Confucius once said that one must first correct one’s name and tried to rebuild politics, at least within this essay I would like the reader and I to have a mutual understanding.

The term ‘gendai art (現代アート=contemporary art)’ is, to begin with, Japanese English. However, although regretful to further scrutinise, but at this point the two words already have a big difference, and since this can vary even more for the reader, it comes unfathomable. The rest is out my control. A situation akin to the Sokal case arises, where pedantic, ignorant and pretentious researchers and glib critics exchange empty rhetoric.

This article distances itself from such actors and devotes its space to clarifying the term ‘gendai art (現代アート=contemporary art)’, which is a Japanese word.

Analysis of Japanese contemporary art

What do you think of when you hear the term ‘contemporary art’? Those who are constantly exposed to Japanese media will think of visually familiar clichés such as Murakami Takashi (村上隆), Kusama Yayoi (草間彌生) and Yokoo Tadanori (横尾忠則). Some may list artists who have already passed away, such as Akasegawa Genpei (赤瀬川原平) and Okamoto Taro (岡本太郎).

If you are an art cluster who knows about overseas artists, you may mention Damien Hirst, famous for his formalin-preserved sharks, or Jeff Koons of Balloon Dog. Art-watchers and so-called connoisseurs might mention ruangrupa of Collective, who curated Documenta 15, or Anton Vidokle, chief curator of the Shanghai Biennale 2024. You might cite someone from the Power 100, an annual ranking of the 100 most influential artists in the art world published by the British contemporary art magazine ‘ArtReview’.

Documenta is a large group exhibition of contemporary art that has been held every five years since 1955 in Kassel, a small town in the state of Hesse in central Germany. (Photo taken by author)

Contemporary art has a thousand different definitions for the speaker who imagines it. Here, we will try to extract something like the lowest common denominator that most people have in common when it comes to contemporary art, and use it as a basis for discussion. Rather than taking a sweeping definition of contemporary art, this paper will also attempt to start from a fuzzy understanding of contemporary art-ness, that almost has a slang like feel.

Naturally, there is no element that everyone can agree on. It is still too early to give up just because a universally acceptable definition is impossible. It is possible to extract the elements and calmly examine whether they can be defined as art: the contemporary musician who described the 911 attacks as art was caught in a whirlwind of controversy, but we can analytically break down his provocative discourse, neither supporting nor opposing it. Here is an overview of the elements that make it art-like with reference to Robert Stecker’s book, AESTHETICS AND THE PHILOSOPHY OF ART (『分析美学入門』).

Various theories on what constitutes ‘it’ as art

At the beginning of the story of art, there is Mimesis. You may have heard this word in ethics or philosophy classes. Simply put, if a work of art ‘imitates something in the real world’, it is more likely to be considered art. This is called the mimetic theory. If you draw an apple, art is created as an imitation of a real apple.

Elsewhere, the Tempest, in which Beethoven expresses his inner turmoil as that of a storm, is considered art because ‘the work expresses the artist’s emotions’. This is known as the expression theory. If the work is a ‘painting’ made with paint on canvas or a ‘sculpture’ made of wood or stone, it is considered art because ‘the work is produced according to a certain form’. This is called the formal theory.
The above theory extracts one characteristic element of a work of art, and with that, the object is considered art, which is called the simple function theory.

The following theories are the most common and most likely to be agreed upon. The Mona Lisa, the Pietà, the Primavera… The works of art created by the Renaissance masters, which are brilliant in the history of mankind, still define our sense of beauty to a great extent and continue to constrain it to a certain limit. This is the curse that art must be beautiful. This is evident in the fact that art and art is often comfortably reworded as ‘fine art’. That is the aesthetic function theory.

However, this has changed in the modern era. We live in Reiwa era, and our aesthetic tastes are sometimes still stuck in the early 20th century. Marcel Duchamp, the infamous ‘contemporary artist’, stopped the clock.
A drop of poison he poured into a previously clean and untainted art history turned it into a well of water that can never be used again. Since his ‘fountain’, art, especially fine art, has been overflowing with objects that cannot be interpreted according to other theories of simple function, such as the aesthetic function theory.

After the collapse of the simple function theory, including the aesthetic function theory, a theory still voraciously attempts to define art. This is the institutional theory by Danto and Dickey. This paper also relies heavily on their theory.
There are two ties: one painted by Picasso and the other by an infant. Both are completely indistinguishable from each other. What then is required to position one as art and the other as child’s play? Is there a methodology to draw a line between two things that look the same? This is where I found a certain interpretation of ‘it’ and its connection to art history and art theory.

Art is always placed in the context of art history and its existence is valued by theory. This means that, generally speaking, what may be insignificant rubbish to one partner (a YU-GI-OH! (遊戯王) card, for example) is a treasure to another, and even an irreplaceable object to those who value it.

Art is no different. The world created by museums, critics, gallerists, professors at art and art universities, art students, art lovers, aesthetes, publishers and other stakeholders in the art world is the art world, and it is within this world that artworks are judged as to whether they are art or not and their value is determined. The world is the world in which the work of art is judged and its value is judged. This world identified Marcel as art, and the current art history is an extension of that world.

In addition to the institutional theory, there is also the historical theory, which identifies art as art if there is some relationship between ‘it’ and art from the past, and the familial analogy theory, which breaks down the elements of art and says that if it has certain elements, it can become art.

A good summary of these elements is Gaunt’s cluster theory, an idea with which I have a great deal of resonance. Gaunt lists ten properties in this theory.

1. have positive aesthetic qualities
2. be an expression of emotion
3. be intellectually challenging
4. formally complex and coherent
5. capable of conveying complex meaning
6. presenting a personal point of view
7. be an exercise of creative imagination
8. be an artefact or performance that is the product of advanced technology
9. belong to an established art form
10. be the product of the intention to create a work of art

The idea is that a work of art does not have to fulfil all of these properties, but should be defined as a work of art if it fulfils more than a certain number of them.

When you think about it, the 911 attacks are largely 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, depending on who you ask. We have not yet reached the point where we regard anything that hurts people, makes people unhappy or brings discord as art, and we may never need to.

These ten elements of Gaunt are not complete, and it would be good to add some selective additions, for example, ’11. that which does not make people unhappy’, or, taking into account the recent elements of relational art, ’12. that creates or changes harmonious relationships between people’.

Also, each of the items alone has the price of an art-like element. If the work is from an art or art college and meets 9.10., it is generally unquestionable as art.

Each of these items is rewritten and modified by the art world from time to time, and art becomes art. The more expensive a work that satisfies the above criteria is exchanged, the more ‘art’ it becomes, and to complicate matters further, works that do not satisfy 9. may be placed in the canonical history of art by later histories.

This is why art is so difficult to define, which is one of the most exciting aspects of art. This is an overview of what makes art ‘art’. Now, with these criteria in mind, let’s move on to the indigenous art world of Japan.

【To be continued Chapter 2】

  • NEW
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 – Chapter1: Definition of art