PRINT October 1984


MODERN ART, TO SOME EXTENT because of its autonomous character, does not align itself exactly with social development. Notably, the current of fine art after the late 19th century may be said to deviate in its essential qualities from the social course. The collapse that the developed nations of the world are currently experiencing can be thought of in another way: as a result of the ultramodernization by intensive capitalism. Contemporary art sometimes follows the same path as the collapse, sometimes parallels it, and at other times moves in the opposite direction. These different responses depend on the particular ethnic group, regional area, and nationality involved. The progress, speed, and characteristics of modernization are different for each society, and that is only natural. When water, air, and land differ, people differ. When languages and thinking patterns differ, fine art differs.

There are many kinds of people in the world. Some Japanese are fervently steeped in European and American culture without knowing or valuing anything of Japan, and some Europeans and Americans refuse to recognize the existence of anything outside Europe or the United States; others have forgotten where they were born or grew up and are infatuated with cosmopolitanism. It is incorrect to say that art is considered the same the world over. To disregard characteristics in art that cannot be universalized and are particular to different societies is pointless. It has been said that the gods dwell in details; the essence of fine art is contained in such differences. Language differs according to ethnic group, regional area, and nationality, and so does fine art. To say that fine art can be an international language just because it does not use verbal signs is wrong; the fact that art cannot be mediated by language does not prove at all that it is international. This proof must be achieved on a constructive basis. For the same reason, to refer to art as a language is wrong. It is acceptable as a play on words, as a metaphor, but to liken artistic expression to linguistic expression is not acceptable. Fine art is a particular expression in itself, and many of its characteristics are determined by the society that produces it.

This particularity is one of the most important aspects of the current contemporary art situation. In other words, the core of the actual artistic situation after conceptual art, in a wider context the quintessence of post-Modernism, is first of all the fact that the various contextual characteristics can no longer be concealed; the differences appear above the surface. Until the period of conceptual art many of us, no matter what ethnic group, regional area, or nationality we belonged to, could use the term “fine art” with no doubt as to its meaning. Of course, if this was considered more carefully, although the same term was being used, we realized that there were differences in contextual meaning depending on one’s age, as well as cultural differences even among individuals of the same age. However, as generalization goes hand in hand with individualism, we did not avoid abstracting the differences and freely using the term “fine art.” To say nothing of ancient times, in our time we relate to fine art since the late 19th century as though it were the same all over the world. The attempt to identify with the trends directed by vanguard movements of European-American art inevitably brought about the concept of internationalism. If Impressionism to Cubism is considered the initial step along the way, the period after Dada can be thought of as the international period.

Why from Dada? There are two basic reasons. First, compared with Impressionism and Fauvism, which were French; Expressionism, which was German; and Cubism, which was mainly French, Dada was a movement that occurred at almost the same time in at least four Western countries, and subsequently spread. In the pre—World War II period, it is difficult to specify where Dada, Surrealism, and abstract art originated, and to do so holds little meaning. The other reason is related to the fact that Dada went so far as to question, doubt, and deny the existence of fine art. In other words, Dada pursued, from a position within the arts, the idea of self-criticism or self-denial. Contextual differences were leveled off in this self-criticism, and several different movements of Dada were concurrently formed internationally. In a way, the shared awareness of crisis forced a universal standpoint to be taken, or perhaps the awareness of a universal crisis covered and hid the contextual differences for the time being. Consciousness of internationalism from this point of view continued until conceptual art.

Conceptual art can be said to have flourished until the mid ’70s. Since then, there has been no single art movement that has spread extensively throughout the world. The movements called “Trans-Avantgarde,” “New Painting,” and “neo-Expressionism” do not qualify as trans-, new, or neo-; they are nothing more than trends of the sort that appear almost inevitably after an ideological extreme in fine art. I do not deny the existence of these trends, but my evaluation of them is that these movements are the embodiment of the situation that has followed the collapse of avant-gardism and progressivism in art and of the illusion of internationalism, and that each ethnic group, regional area, and nationality is beginning to return to its own context of fine art. This can be discerned not only in these movements; conversely, these movements can be considered as phenomena of a situation of differentiation. The importance of so-called German neo-Expressionism, the Italian neofigurative art, the American “new painting” or “punk art,” lies not in their points of similarity but in their differences. It looks like one strand because not much time has passed since the period of internationalism in fine art, but each strand is in reality extending in its own direction.

I would like, then, in this context, to discuss the current situation of art in Japan. It is up to Europeans and Americans to see and interpret contemporary Japanese art for themselves. What we as Japanese can do is to supply information, give suggestions and advice, and tell how we see and interpret the works. Our coming forward and expressing ourselves is important. This does not mean merely offering introductions, but we must make public declarations of our ideas. There is no other way to begin a discussion or dialogue. The present situation of differential articulation is a good occasion on which to start a discussion on equal footing, and presents the possibility of beginning a frank discussion based on agreement concerning ethnic, regional, and national particularities. With this, I want to make one more demand on the non-Japanese: although a show of interest in Japanese particularities is desired, dwelling on the exoticism of Mount Fuji and Geisha girls is intolerable.

Donald Keene, the renowned Japanese literature scholar, has declared that “Westerners should not forget above all that the modern is not the exclusive property of the West.”1 The categorization of developed nations and less developed nations is only one way to view the actual situation. Japan has desperately attempted Westernization for over a hundred years. As a result it is a country that at least appears to be as “contemporary” as Europe and the United States, and, depending on the point of view, may indeed be more contemporary than they are. Of course, degree is not the issue here; such a concept leads to the idea of developed and less-developed nations. The recognition of the mutual existence of different concepts of what “contemporary” means is the important first step in escaping the fixed notion of the term “contemporary” as dictated by the West.

In fine art two things are required in order to break away from exoticism. The first is to set aside anachronistic Japonisme, which for many Westerners seems to come to mind in connection with Japanese art, bringing with it thoughts of Buddhist art and Ukiyo-e. While Ukiyo-e greatly influenced late-19th-century French painting as an exoticism, in Japan it was not a thing of the past, but a view of contemporary reality. However, it offers such a view no longer. The second need is to reconsider the attitude that recognizes surface Japanese styles and the use of certain traditionally Japanese materials (wood, paper, small stones) in contemporary Japanese art as the only differences between it and art being produced in the West. The first goal may be achieved without difficulty because of the increasing and serious interest in contemporary Japan on the part of Americans and Europeans. However, the latter problem is more difficult. What is the difference between authentic contemporary Japanese art and art that gains the superficial appearance of Japanese style by using materials such as wood, paper, and stones? Work that only appears to be Japanese is merely a continuation of the previous exoticism; perhaps it is even worse. It is important to understand contemporary Japanese art in its particular context without being led astray by appearances. Two points must not be forgotten as fundamental premises concerning contemporary Japan: contemporary Japanese art has its own context, and it has developed during a most unusual period of a hundred years of Westernization.

Can Japan be considered a developed nation in terms of fine art? In the Meiji period, society worked toward rapid modernization and Westernization after a long era of isolationism, and Japanese art pursued a course of following the examples of Western movements, thinking, concepts, modes, techniques, materials, etc. As a result, Japanese society has achieved a modernization that can be compared with that of Europe and the United States. In some areas Japan, along with the United States, has started to enter an ultra-modern period. In fine art Japan has, in appearance, achieved modernization. The problem begins here. This rapid modernization, and Westernization in general, was accompanied by much excess, strain, and contradiction; so too the attempt to follow European-American art was filled with contradictions. If Japan had been a country with little or no culture or artistic tradition, the simple importation of strange and foreign European-American art might have been possible. But Japanese culture and art had a long tradition. To disregard all fine art before the Meiji period and to simply follow European-American art was impossible. However, we can say that in reality Modern Japanese art tried to attempt the impossible.

Westernization evolved in a struggle with the art concepts we held before the introduction of Western art. The existence of both intrinsic Japanese influences and new Western influences created a contradictory situation. The art produced in this particular situation can be categorized as traditional Japanese-style painting and sculpture, Western-style painting and sculpture, and contemporary art. Chronologically, the first two are from before World War II, and the latter from after it; the prewar art prepared the way for contemporary art. During the period under discussion traditional Japanese-style painting and Western-style painting were produced under the pressure of the idea of Modern Japanese art; neither expression was independent in itself and neither reached a high standard. The reason is that Japanese-style painting was not really the heir to tradition: it only appeared to be traditional. It was shut up in a petrified tradition, and became a craft rather than an art. Western-style painting was not kin to Western Modern painting but a belated epigone from a foreign land. To find work of value, one must look at the contemporary art situation.

To do this I think it is necessary to analyze the categories of traditional Japanese-style painting, Western-style painting, and contemporary art from the start, along with the premises that support it. Two approaches must be eliminated in order to do so—the approach that disregards Westernization and considers traditional art concepts sufficient, and the approach that regards Western art concepts as almighty. In other words, the two approaches to be eliminated are traditionalism or chauvinism, and Westernization or internationalism. Of course, eclecticism does not answer this point. If this question could be settled just by eklegein (to choose), there would be no problem. Eclecticism is not creation. The attitude that must be adopted is to face the contradictory situation of traditional and Western concepts pressing against one another, a condition that must be recognized as our basis for beginning everything. The result of this situation does not have to be called “art.” It is called “fine art”—Bijutsu in Japanese2—because there is no other name for it. But in truth it is possible that it may be something else, or something not yet understandable. If this is so, the question, What did our art produce in this particular framework?, should be rephrased to, What did we produce in this particular framework, and what should it be called?

There is no doubt that it is almost art, and it is what has been developed around art, and it can finally, more or less, be called art. But as soon as it is called art, the fact is that we cease to grasp something. More precisely, what we have created is an art that does not overlap into art based on previous concepts.

Without hurrying on to the conclusion, a look at the actual flow of contemporary Japanese art would be useful. There is not enough space here to give a full historical account or describe individual movements in detail, but if we look at all that we have actually produced and amassed and consider the main point to be a search for what the essence of this work is, and what the particulars are, I think that a continuity begins to appear in so-called contemporary art. In other words, an underlying subtle constant can be extracted from avant-garde movements that have occurred in Japan. These movements can be broken down as follows: first, two pioneer avant-garde movements of the 1920s and ’30s—the former referred to as Taisho period avant-garde, influenced mainly by Russian Futurism and Dada, and the latter entitled Showa period avant-garde, strikingly influenced by Surrealism, Constructivism, abstract art, etc.; secondly, the Gutai and Anti-art or Neo-dada movements, which were followed by Japanese conceptual art of the 1960s and by so-called Mono-ha from the late ’60s, both based on their two former movements; and finally the prominent new-generation art since the late ’70s.

The Gutai Art Association was founded in 1954 and continued to exist until 1972. Its most important years, though, were from its founding until 1957. With the introduction of the decisive influence of the European Informel after 1957, it changed to an Informel style of painting. But the three-year period after its founding was the most important time of the movement, with diverse activities being carried out, including performances, actions, installations, and sound and film works, alongside various objects and explorations of materials, development of the relationship between the work and environment, etc. Prominent Gutai artists included Akira Kanayama, Atsuko Tanaka, Kazuo Shiraga, Saburo Murakami, Shozo Shimamoto, Michio Yoshiwara, and Sadamasa Motonaga. The Japanese Anti-art or Neo-dada evolved around the Yomiuri Independent Exhibition3 of 1958 and continued until the early ’60s. These artists included Genpei Akasegawa, Shusaku Arakawa, Tetsumi Kudo, Tomio Miki, Natsuyuki Nakanishi, Ushio Shinohara, Jiro Takamatsu, and Masunobu Yoshimura. On the average they were about ten years younger than the Gutai artists and were of the generation born around 1936. The Informel shock had swept Japan from 1957 on, and this other group of artists began their art activities in the midst of the maelstrom. However, they did not embrace Informel painting, but succeeded the early Gutai anti-art movement. After the mid 1960s, when these two movements quieted down, the maelstrom resulted in two extremities. The first can be recognized in the Japanese conceptual art movement begun by Yutaka Matsuzawa, who in 1964 began working in his own style separate from European-American conceptual art. (Strictly speaking, though, the term conceptual art does not apply to his work.) In this group were Jirò Takamatsu and Etsutomu Kashihara. The second is the movement to investigate mono, things or objects. The Mono-ha movement, which began in 1969, is an important movement that Europeans and Americans should know about.4 It was developed by seven main artists: Lee U-Fan, Nobuo Sekine, Katsuro Yoshida, Katsuhiko Narita, Shingo Honda, Susumu Koshimizu, and Kishio Suga. The extent of its influence has been exceedingly wide and its importance to Japanese art cannot be overlooked.

A rough explanation of Mono-ha’s essence would be that involvement with the world or with artists’ circumstances can itself be considered art. Unlike Earthworks and land art, which approach nature with assumptions based on art conceptions, the Mono-ha art was not conceived around art or from art. Without concern over whether it could be considered art, the point was the involvement with the world in itself. Whether this can be called art is an ex post facto question. We are tentatively calling it art because there is no other name for it. For the Mono-ha artists, a thing was not something separate, but the whole of the world. For example, a stone is at the same time a part of nature, and nature itself. The size of a mountain is different from that of one small stone, but the two are equivalent in quality. The involvement with the world is the most important point of the Mono-ha group. For instance, a work entitled Limitless Condition, July 1970, by Kishio Suga, an artist representative of Mono-ha, consisted of a rectangular piece of lumber placed on an upright diagonal in the windowframe of a museum. This goes beyond dealing with just a particular thing or the relationship between one thing and another. The visual field is a world that extends from the space inside the museum, through the window, to all of the outdoors. Isn’t this what Matisse wanted to realize in his painting? The work goes beyond the concept of art and steps into the world.

The intention was to relate this involvement with the world or with the circumstances of art. Mono-ha clarified the consistent characteristic in contemporary Japanese art that notably began with the Gutai, which founded the postwar avant-garde movement. In other words, before Mono-ha, established art concepts were overly conditioned. Mono-ha, on the contrary, clearly went beyond and indicated that there could be something different. In reflection, therefore, it can be seen that Mono-ha shed light on the various previous movements from different angles.

Although the Mono-ha movement was short-lived, it left many achievements and influential ideas. Now, ten years after the end of the movement, as I look back on the activities of artists after Mono-ha I feel the need to introduce another point of view. By doing so, a synthetic or total view may be realized. This viewpoint has two sides. One involves the question of why these movements, Gutai, Anti-art, and Mono-ha, were so short-lived. The reason can be drawn from the fact that the artists themselves developed their movements on an avant-gardism that was too simple. Basically, this simplicity was due to the fact that the artists more or less neglected or ignored the various contradictions that had inevitably emerged during the hundred years of Westernization. The artists should have dealt with the situation squarely, but instead they seemed, consciously or unconsciously, to avoid it, embracing Western concepts of art and engaging in seemingly avant-garde activities. This situation may resemble that of Japanese society in general after the war, when it forced itself beyond its capabilities, neglecting the realities of poverty. However, art does not spring from nothing, and something borrowed can be used as a beginning, although what is borrowed must eventually be returned. The other side of the viewpoint begins to appear here. We must turn our eyes toward Western-style painting from the Meiji period onward, which was essentially imitative of European and American styles. (Japanese-style painting, which degenerated to a craft, can be considered irrelevant to this discussion.) To turn our eyes does not mean, of course, to actually return to Western-style painting. The results left behind by Western-style painting are almost insignificant, and there is no reason to return to such a style. The struggle with Western concepts of art is an extremely important struggle to be realized as the artist’s own, but the Western-style of painting (or sculpture) should at this point be reconsidered or reevaluated, and its value or use for the Japanese artist questioned.

Observing the flow from the Gutai to Mono-ha, and objectifying and evaluating it from various points of view, I cannot help but consider that the total results of the period from the Gutai through the Mono-ha seem also to diminish somewhat. As a result there seems to be, in short, no other alternative but to tend toward the pessimistic belief that contemporary Japanese art has been and still is unproductive. To think this way may be the most realistic. The post-Mono-ha generation of artists should be aware of this situation. The works and activities of this generation of artists, Yoshihisa Kitatsuji, Susumu Koshimizu, Naoyoshi Hikosaka, Kosai Hori, Kiyoshi Nakagami, Isao Nakamura, Hitoshi Nomura, Kyoji Takubo, Toeko Tatsuno, and others, and of the following generation, will, I am confident, be the most important. I believe that a time of positive change has begun in Japanese contemporary art.

Shigeo Chiba is Curator of the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.



1. Donald Keene, “Nihon Taikoku-ron” (Japan as a large country), in Chuo Koron, May 1962; reprinted in Nihon to no Deai (Encounter with Japan), Tokyo: Chuo Koron Publishers, 1972.

2. This word did not exist in Japanese before the Meiji period.

3. Sponsored by the Yomiuri Newspaper Company, this event was held annually from 1949 until 1963. As an exhibition for which no jury selected work and which was free in display, it played a critical role in postwar Japanese art.

4. “Mono” means “thing” or “object,” and “ha” means “group.” We do not know who named this movement Mono-ha. It probably automatically received the name, from these artists’ use of natural and manmade things in their work, but the essence of Mono-ha is not the use of certain kinds of things. This tentative name is now being used to describe this group. (Cf. Shigeo Chiba, “L’Art du Mono-ha,” in Artistes (Paris), no. 16, Summer 1983.