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Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012

'Cool Japan is over': a sociologist looks at Japan's art world


BEFORE AND AFTER SUPERFLAT: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011, by Adrian Favell. Blue Kingfisher, 2012, 246 pp., $24.95 (paper)

A book about Japanese art with the word "Superflat" in the title may repel those of us who find much of the work clustered under that rubric super-dull.

The good news is that Adrian Favell's "Before and After Superflat" is not fan-boy enthusiasm over the careers of Takashi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara and others associated with that movement.

It is, instead, a sophisticated, sociologically informed account of the factors that made a Murakami, a Nara, possible, and of the transformed art world that Superflat left in its wake.

The book is a substantial contribution to our understanding of what has happened in Japanese art in the past couple of decades as well as what happened in Japan.

It may once have been radical to note that an artist's work is, in significant part, determined by the society and time into which he or she is born. Now it is commonplace. Thus, one is happy to learn that Favell is a sociologist and that he has given us "a sociologist's account of the contemporary Japanese art world today."

A deep understanding of how societies work, particularly Japanese society, is essential to his enterprise. Without such knowledge, it would be impossible to explain, for example, how Murakami's "My Lonesome Cowboy," "a monstrous eight-foot-high plastic sculpture ... [of] a naked cartoon boy with a big grin ... masturbating, a wild lasso of plastic semen filling the air around him," could be "the most successful piece of Japanese art ever."

As a sociologist, Favell is well-equipped to notice that Murakami's "Cowboy" has less to do with Japan than with "Cool Japan," a marketing strategy devised with non-Japanese in mind: "The hip high-end Western tourist's Japan that everybody wanted."

Murakami's genius lies in how quickly he recognized this foreign fascination with things (sort of) Japanese, and how ably he capitalized on it: "My Lonesome Cowboy" sold in 2008 for $15 million.

Since Murakami and Nara came on the scene in the 1990s, there have been ups and downs aplenty in the art market as it relates to Japan — Murakami is one of the few Japanese artists who has managed to float above them — and Favell is an able chronicler of that roller-coaster ride.

We see, for example how the otaku culture that Murakami and other Superflat artists drew on in their work was, surprisingly, embraced by the conservative politicians running Japan at the beginning of the millennium.

"Soft power" was, at the time, a compelling enough notion that they were convinced that a Japan declining economically could retain its influence through the strategic export of manga, anime and Hello Kitty goods. Soft power, however, becomes attractive only when a country has lost the other kind of power, and has seldom been an adequate replacement for it. The politicians eventually realized that, and now, as Favell notes, "Cool Japan is over."

Back in the cool old days, though, it seemed that not only would Japanese art and culture conquer the world, but that Tokyo could also make itself an international art capital. We see evidence for a real attempt at this, for example, in the early days of the Mori Art Museum at Roppongi Hills.

David Elliot, the first director, "insisted that ... it had to be highbrow and aim for the global elite, it had to put on original shows, it had to foster young curatorial and artistic talent," Favell writes.

After a few years, the Mori family, however, tired of bankrolling the challenging exhibitions that Elliot favored. He was moved on and "more emphasis [was given] to corporate sponsored exhibitions that pleased the public and reduced the space for art," Favell writes.

"By 2011," he writes, "the Japanese art world didn't seem to mind that the West was no longer looking."

Maybe there's no reason they should mind. That artists in a small island country should have a mostly local audience is hardly shocking. Favell makes a convincing case, though, that the art being made in Japan since the demise of Superflat — and since the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident catastrophe — is worthy of attention. Perhaps the losers are those whose attention is elsewhere.



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