PRINT January 1986


the model critic: a new face in the empire of signs.

IT WAS MY FIRST TRIP to Japan, so I thought about art every time dinner arrived, every time I bought something and the clerk wrapped it so artfully. I think I was at the J Trip Bar, which is painted in not-Jean-Michel-Basquiats by a guy named Katsuhiko Hibino, Japan’s hot young artist, when I first said, "Everything is art here but the art (On another wall were a couple of old Hibinos that were not-Ben-Shahns.) I said it again and again and it began to sink in that my trained distinctions between art and art direction were all blurry. Our easy distinctions between fine art and commercial art don’t work in Japan. I decided I wouldn’t be able to approach this problem too directly. I felt there was a clue in their baseball organization.

“Nippon Ham Fighters” is my favorite Japanese major league-team name. The Fighters are owned by Nippon Ham. The Yakult Swallows are a division of a health-food company. The Lotte Orions are the sporting arm of a chewing gum company My adopted team, the Hanshin Tigers (they wear pinstripes), is owned by a railroad. I realized that commerce and the corporation are also regarded much differently in Japan. Although Ray Kroc, the late chairman of McDonald’s, owned the San Diego Padres, I could not envision them as the McNugget Padres.

Watching TV in Tokyo it occurred to me that the American boom in “Real People” and “More Real People” shows, and maybe even in bleeps, blunders, bloopers, and other popular losses of face, perhaps originated in Japan. TV drama is much less prevalent there. Real-people shows and quiz shows supplant the police drama, a fact that may or may not be connected to the absence of bicycle locks in Japan. Although Japanese programming goes a long way in do]ing out 15-minute fame units to all different kinds of people, a lot of it is simply filler to give the viewer time to go to the bathroom between commercials. The television commercial is the highest form of Japanese TV art.

Sometimes there are strange images to decode. Slo-mo roiling water is an abstraction of fluid mechanics until the source of the agitation, a goggled swimmer, emerges for a breath. The word Seiko appears. The watch that is not pictured must be waterproof.

A surprising number of ads are simply strong images accompanied by music. Pop music is not rewritten, as it is in American ads, where Elton John’s phrase “sad songs” becomes “Sassons.” In Japan it is played as is, receiving an artist credit. Art may get an artist credit too, as in a charge-card ad featuring the work of Jonathan Borofsky. These ads aim for evocation of complex moods. They are gifts of art. The brand-name tag line is like the donor plaque below a painting.

Some ads are amazing surreal tableaux—as in an Arthur Rimbaud spot for Suntory whiskey, with fire-eater, acrobats, dwarf, and Rimbaud throwing knives in the Ethiopian desert. But even the less ambitious, more product-visible ads can approach a fine-art vibe, exploring the minimal world of egg yolks, and splashing whiskey with scientific camerawork and a painter’s eye.

Perhaps these esthetic micro-miniseries work in Japan because the audience can accept the art of the commercial as a gift. There is no reason to be suspicious of the commercial, because Japanese commercials don’t lie. Detergents would never claim to produce a whiter white. White is enough. To be whiter than a competitor’s white is rude and gratuitous.

Sean Connery looks elegant in his advertisements for Ito Ham lunch meat (bologna, I think.) He hasn’t looked so good since The Man Who Would Be King, probably because the commercial-makers understand his image. They can accept him as an archetype and build the commercial around him. And Phoebe Cates, selling ramen noodles or whatever it is, is the archetypal Phoebe, a sort of Mona Phoebe whose peculiar smile, reproduced in this way, has the power to alter nature and influence evolution. I saw the facts: the Japanese woman is mutating toward a strange but somehow overwhelmingly appealing Eurasian Valley Girl look.1

I watched too much TV, maybe hoping to catch ads I had heard about, like Andy Warhol for TDK cassette tapes, or Sly Stallone plugging Kirin beer, or Sheena Easton in kimono warbling for Jun Shochu liquor, or Joseph Beuys toasting for Nikka whiskey I heard that Woody Allen had been signed up to model fashions. Suddenly I wanted to model. For the first time I felt it was art.

I must be nuts, I thought, pulling out a package of noodles. They were so nicely packaged it was all I could do to break in.

Glenn O’Brien writes reviews and a column on advertising for Artforum.



1. Meanwhile, American and European women are mutating toward the symmetrical beauty of the Japanese noodle model, with her big eyebrows, almond eyes, and perfect black hair.