The Logic of Commensurability
Most observers would probably concede that Japanese art has grown progressively more similar to art of other regions of the world since the late nineteenth century. But what is to be made of this formal and perhaps social and even spiritual convergence? And what can be learned from a practice of art history that embraces rather than overlooks or regrets the increasing comparability of Japanese art to that of other regions? For indeed the convergence of modern Japanese art with art of other cultures has often provoked consternation and denial among art historians and others, whether from positions of cultural nationalism seeking a more exceptional status for Japanese identity, or positions of Orientalism seeking an exotic foil to a presumed universal Western standard. Contra such views, in search of a fuller understanding of the place of Japanese art within modern patterns of global interactivity, I would ask how have Japanese subjectivities benefited over the past century and a half from the international comparability of their art and visual culture? This essay argues that one of the benefits of increasing global resemblance has paradoxically been the production of more conspicuous and numerous distinctions of Japanese art, distinctions, however, that are dependent for their effect on their commensurability to distinctions associated with other cultures.
Transnationally shared formats, genres, and techniques have generated visual distinctions by thrusting them into comparison or commensurability as a relative measure of one another. This essay moves through a chronological sequence of such frameworks starting with late nineteenth-century world’s fairs and ending with global celebrity artists of today to assess the creation of commensurable distinctions by the increasingly pervasive optic of comparability. In order to situate Japanese art in this modern optic of comparability and to assess its generative operation, I chart a historical sequence of six media-specific episodes of convergence focusing on comparisons of [End Page 13] Japanese art to Indian and Mexican counterparts (this selection is discussed below). The six episodes are as follows: (1) ornamental bronzes designed for national displays at the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876; (2) national symbolism embedded in the Beaux-Arts architecture of monumental government buildings in capital cities; (3) oil paintings depicting national narratives in the mode of European academic realism, as well as criticisms of them that spurred new indigenous kinds of painting; (4) international women artists whose own bodies became primary sites for the expression of contested themes of gendered national identities; (5) abstract paintings instilled with native aesthetic qualities while aspiring to universal relevance; (6) and lastly, prominent artists of recent years whose globe-trotting careers are advanced by a market for tropes of cultural difference. My purpose is threefold: I wish to experiment with a more open-eyed approach than is customary to assessing the historical emergence of striking convergences between artistic cultures not usually grouped together; identify circumstances that pushed the aims of these disparate sites of production closer to one another; and appreciate the paradoxical ways in which such culture-spanning similarities of art have tended to precipitate expressions of uniqueness.
If modern India and Mexico seem unpromising choices for comparison to Japanese modern art given their geographic remoteness and the rarity of direct links between their respective centers of artistic activity, it is precisely this discontiguity of relations that recommends these regions for comparative analysis.1 For the history of globalization has proceeded as a sequence of increasing densities of interaction between remote cultures brought on by new technologies of transportation, communication, and finance. The relative infrequency of direct contacts between India, Japan, and Mexico suggests that the increasing resemblance of the art of these cultures over the past century and a half that is mapped in the following pages was accomplished through indirect channels of communication mediated through other regions. Thus, the tri-regional commensurability ascertained here poses an impressive measure of successive thresholds of multi-sited globalization.
Relations between these three cultures and such concentrations of power as the British colonial bureaucracy in India, the influence of the Paris and New York-centered art worlds, and United States cultural diplomacy in the Cold War have been sidelined here...