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  • The Empty Museum: Western Cultures and the Artistic Field in Modern Japan
  • Tom Havens (bio)
The Empty Museum: Western Cultures and the Artistic Field in Modern Japan. By Masaaki Morishita. Ashgate Publishing, Farnham, Surrey, England, 2010. x, 149 pages. $99.95.

Many critics dismiss the typical public museum of modern and contemporary art in Japan as a lavish but hollow shell, lacking its own collections, full-time curators, or education programs. Masaaki Morishita’s slender volume synthesizes Japanese scholarship on public art museums that offer few or no permanent exhibitions of their own holdings, beginning with the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum (est. 1926) and ending with the National Art Center, Tokyo (est. 2007). Such facilities are sometimes known as rental galleries, available for temporary exhibits sponsored by artists’ associations, media conglomerates, or other patrons; Morishita prefers the term “empty museum” because most of them started off without curators or collections of their own, and many still lack standing exhibits. At 129 pages of text, almost half of which has already appeared elsewhere in English, [End Page 242] The Empty Museum is an extended essay in seven uneven parts rather than a smoothly integrated, full-scale monograph.

The subtitle is somewhat misleading: Western cultures are treated mainly as models deliberately not emulated by the founders of Japanese public museums of modern art. The author frequently deploys Pierre Bourdieu’s well-known ideas about the field of cultural production but without fully demonstrating how they illuminate the distinctive characteristics of Japanese artistic institutions. He also refers to the important concept of transculturation, as elaborated by Mary Louise Pratt and particularly by James Clifford, the latter of whom posited that museums could function as contact zones between disparate groups, schools, or styles within a single country. Summarizing Clifford, Morishita argues that “museums could stage transculturation between the socially separated peoples and cultures in a multicultural society” (p. 119), but he does not convincingly show how the interactions between the contending subcultures of Japanese curators and artists’ associations after World War II produced much more than predictable squabbling, let alone transculturation, as they compromised to turn the museums into mixed-use sites.

If its theoretical underpinnings are a bit wobbly, The Empty Museum nonetheless provides a good deal of useful data about public Japanese art museums, especially those founded since 1950. The author skillfully retells the familiar story of official art exhibitions, beginning with the Bunten show sponsored by the Ministry of Education, first held in 1907 to exhibit sculpture and painting. After detailing the rise of various artists’ associations, Morishita labors to identify the authority of their headmasters (iemoto) with the power of the emperor as conceptualized by the political scientist Maruyama Masao (p. 50). Morishita problematically asserts that, like the emperor, the headmaster “is neither an innovative creator nor merely a protector of tradition; in the school, he is the Divinity who embodies omnipotent power and eternal tradition” (p. 52). The Imperial Academy of Art reorganized the official Bunten exhibit as the Teiten in 1919 without breaking the grip of the artists’ associations and their headmasters on what could be displayed there. This annual show found a permanent home when the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum opened in 1926 as “a ‘rental gallery’ to let its gallery spaces to various art groups” (p. 59). The author suggests that the new institution’s “no-collection policy” was deliberately adopted to accommodate growing audiences and the larger numbers of exhibitors in the 1920s who needed temporary spaces for display.

The most interesting pages of this synoptic study deal with the many new art museums established since 1950. The Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of Modern Art (est. 1951) initially lacked its own collection and permanent exhibits, but it differed from the Tokyo Metropolitan in that it had full-time curators. At first it declined to host shows organized by outside groups, [End Page 243] including the ever-strong artists’ associations; instead, its own curatorial staff developed rotating exhibitions of loaned works, supposedly without intrusion by external financial sponsors. This policy, associated with the museum’s long-time director Hijikata Teiichi, was intended to “historicize” modern Japanese art and “designate new classics of post-war Japan...


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pp. 242-245
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