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positions: east asia cultures critique 10.1 (2002) 141-172

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State v. (Anti-)Art:
Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident by Akasegawa Genpei and Company

Reiko Tomii


All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.

—Marcel Duchamp, 1957

A Preliminary Overview

Open to the public? asks the present volume. This question, which distinctly engages modern society, is one that confounds art. It can be argued that art is open to the public in many post-1945 societies. In Japan, for example, a staggering number of people saw such world treasures as Venus de Milo, the riches of King Tutankhamen, and Mona Lisa. (These works attracted, respectively, audiences of 831,198, 1,297,718, and 1,505,239 in 1964, 1965, and 1974.)1 This phenomenon, however, coexists with a multiplicity of contemporary practices and productions of art, including those of the avant-garde [End Page 141] that are more often than not antagonistic to mainstream taste. Although vanguard artists may aspire to communicate with a large audience, with their exhibition, in theory, open to the public, in reality their art caters to a small circle of people in the hundreds, or even tens, who are receptive to such new art.

Generally speaking the “public-openness” of art concerns, in part, the issue of reception and relates, in part, to that of art institutions. What is offered to the public, at which venue, by whom, under what circumstances, resulting in what reception—all are subjects worthy of investigation if one is to understand the mechanism and politics of the exhibition system. At the same time the issue of public-openness also foregrounds the contradictory and divided nature of the avant-garde. While formalist factions (for example, abstractionism) embrace the sanctum of high art, antiformalist factions (such as Neo-Dada and Anti-Art) seek to transgress the boundary between art and life. Still, not unlike the former, the latter tend, despite their merge-art-and-life rhetoric, to operate on the modernist principle of “autonomy,” which is by definition elitist. Thus an inquiry into the public-openness of vanguard art, more than that of masterpiece art, inevitably leads to the fundamental, though contentious question, What is art?

Vanguard artists are not entirely indifferent to addressing the public. Okamoto Taro (1911–1996), for one, was an influential artist-theorist whose advocacy of avant-garde philosophy gained a popular audience from the 1950s onward. Still, artists of radical persuasion seldom volunteer to explain themselves and their art to society at large. In this respect, Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident [Mokei sen-en satsu jiken] was a rare occasion of just such open self-explanation.

The infamous Incident began quietly in 1963, unbeknownst to the public, when one-sided, monochrome replicas of the 1,000-yen note were fabricated for Akasegawa Genpei (b. 1937), a core member of Tokyo's avant-garde (fig. 1). But there was no incident until a year later when the Tokyo Metropolitan Police launched a criminal investigation of the artist and the printers as coconspirators, decidedly thrusting Akasegawa's work into public consciousness. Subsequently the Tokyo Metropolitan Prosecutors Office indicted them for currency fraud and successfully tried the case in the court [End Page 142] of law. In 1970 the supreme court upheld Akasegawa's guilty verdict, thus activating his suspended three-month sentence of hard labor. As the events unfolded in the public press, the artist and his peers made imaginative efforts to cope with the situation. Akasegawa invented the theory of model (mokei); his supporters formed the 1,000-Yen-Note Incident Discussion Group (Sen-en-satsu Jiken Kondankai);

2 and what was once an artist's experimental idea evolved into a collective project titled Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident.3 [End Page 143]

It may not be an exaggeration to say that Incident left...