To Whom Does Art Belong?
On the forced resignation of Fram Kitagawa (Part I)
As I write, the forced resignation this March of Fram Kitagawa as director at the Niigata City Art Museum, a position he assumed in 2007 after years of having no formal institutional affiliation, is surely still fresh in readers’ memories. Kitagawa was forced to take responsibility for the problems surrounding the appearance of mold on exhibited works at the museum as reported in the summer of 2009 as well as the discovery of “around 40” insects at the same museum this year. Of course, the appearance of things like mold and insects that can only cause irrevocable damage to works in a museum’s collection is something that should not be allowed to recur. The Niigata City Art Museum should restructure its organization and ensure its affairs are administered in such a way that such incidents are not repeated. At the same time, however, it would only be adding insult to injury if as a result of these incidents the possibilities with regard to the exhibition of contemporary art, which has expanded the realm of expression by among other things increasing the diversity of materials, were to needlessly atrophy.
The origins of the fuss that eventually led to Kitagawa’s forced resignation lie in an article in the July 31, 2009, edition of the Mainichi Shimbun that reported on the appearance of mold at the museum and adopted a tone of harsh criticism toward the administrative responsibility of the museum. One of the experts cited in the article was art critic Kunio Motoe, a professor at Tama Art University, the former director of the Fuchu Art Museum and a member of the Niigata City Art Museum Support Group. Motoe was quoted as saying, “Displaying artworks that have water content is itself something that goes beyond common sense. In particular, soil includes things like mold and various kinds of bacteria that will inevitably give rise to decay.”
To avoid any misunderstanding, let me make it clear that Motoe’s statement would be perfectly reasonable if paintings by Picasso, for example, were being displayed in the same room. At the same time, one must also be mindful of the fact that what might be “common sense” in this kind of situation is not common sense in artistic expression as a whole. This is because in the history of cutting edge contemporary artistic expression, far from lacking common sense, “displaying artworks that have some water content” is almost the epitome of common sense (as seen in the work of Walter De Maria, Richard Long, Antony Gormley and so on). Moreover, granting that the conservation of artworks is one of the duties of art museums, making as many citizens as possible aware of the fresh possibilities of art would also probably be regarded as an indispensable role of such institutions in the modern era.
Simply excluding from art museums materials such as soil and water (which, if interpreted literally, would mean regarding as problematic artistic expression that deals with such things as used material and waste) and strengthening to the point of fastidiousness the conservation management of artworks from the past would only serve to place limits on expression at Japanese art museums. In fact, I’ve heard that since the incidents referred above, at least two or three public art museums that until now were enthusiastic about contemporary art, and one alternative space that essentially has no collection role whatsoever, have shown signs of adopting a cautious approach towards displaying works that incorporate soil. In order to resolve amicably this antinomy with respect to art and art museums in the modern era, we must not only view this example as problematic but also seek to use it as an opportunity to radically alter our thinking with respect to the present state of art in Japan. To begin with, just what kind of social significance do people look for in art in contemporary Japan? In this and my next column, I would like to consider this matter in detail by looking back into history.
In Japan, the modern era got underway in the Meiji period when so-called “civilization and enlightenment” were promoted under the slogans “fukoku-kyohei” (enrich the country and strengthen the military) and “shokusan-kogyo” (encourage new industry). Art administration was no exception. Western drawing was originally introduced into the Kobu Bijutsu Gakko (Imperial College of Art) and other institutions more as a scientific method for giving instruction in objective learning based on things like perspective and shading than as a form of expression. This is because it was considered of use to fukoku-kyohei as it related to the military, communications/records and the like. As a natural consequence of this, traditional arts such as those of the Kano school that had been patronized by the Shogunate and the old domains were excluded as mere hobbies that had nothing to contribute to the national interest. Not only that, but the promulgation of Europeanization stirred up the anti-Buddhist haibutsu-kishaku movement that resulted in the destruction of traditional artwork throughout the country. The impetus for the revision of this broad policy came from the Iwakura Mission (1871-73), which was headed by Tomomi Iwakura and included several core members of the new government, including Hirobumi Ito, Toshimichi Okubo and Takayoshi Kido. These men came to fully realize that at the heart of the Western powers lay not only technological innovation but also a nationalistic ethic, and after their return to Japan they set their sights on the country hosting an international exhibition of its own as a means of bringing together the policies of fukoku-kyohei and shokusan-kogyo and this newfound nationalism. Japan’s first official participation in such an exhibition, the Weltausstellung 1873 Wien, which coincided with the Iwakura Mission’s visit, led to the coining of the Japanese word bijutsu, meaning “fine art.” But it was traditional art riding on the wave of Japonisme then sweeping Europe that enjoyed the most favorable reception at Vienna, and this among other things convinced organizers of the first government-sponsored exhibition of paintings in Japan, the Naikoku kaiga kyoshinkai (1882), which came in the wake of the first attempt to imitate in Japan the great industrial exhibitions in the form of the National Industrial Exhibition (1877), to do an about face and concentrate solely on Japanese-style painting. Incidentally, this exhibition was presided over not by the Ministry of Education but by the Ministry of Agriculture and Trade, which functioned like a combination of today’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. In other words, at this point in history the administration of Japanese contemporary art clearly had a trade and commercial focus. That is to say, this was where things like traditional art and Japanese-style painting had an advantage over the Western powers. The government’s official view of art at this time went beyond the conservation of artworks and education to include using art as a commodity for the promotion of industry and tourism, (and one could probably say that Takashi Murakami’s recent projects, including GEISAI, can be traced back to this approach, with the archetypal images of “Nihonga” providing a clue).
However, although things have changed somewhat with the recent Independent Administrative Institution reforms, for example, art museums in Japan have long been criticized for lacking a commercial dimension, such as the provision of civic services or entertainment. And it is probably true that among art museum professionals there has been a tendency to shun such “side businesses” as having nothing to do with the main subject of art. So, just where did this rupture occur? It should be noted that in the birthplace of modernization, Europe, already by the 17th century the fact that art was circulating beyond the control of nation-states was regarded as a sign of the maturity of civil society, and it was precisely because such circumstances existed that the paintings of artists like Rembrandt and Vermeer were realized. Further, the art museums that have collected these works since the modern era have embraced what could roughly be described as three innovations from pre-modern times. The first is (democratic) administration by civil society; the second is the incorporation of the technological innovations that have occurred since the Industrial Revolution (which would probably include things like temperature and humidity control to prevent damage from mold and insects); and the third is the influence of sound market principles. Exhibition, collection and the provision of services are all implemented on the basis of these broad principles, and without them, even if artworks were conserved and efforts made to educate the public, the exact purposes for which this conservation and education were being carried out would remain a mystery. So, have Japanese art museums actually satisfied these three conditions of modernity?
In considering this and other questions, the significance of the holding in 1907 of the first Bunten (Ministry of Education Art Exhibition) and the change in course with respect to the ministries responsible for art administration from a focus on industrial exhibitions to the Ministry of Education, which regarded culture as a form of “authority,” is immense.