- Experimental Arts in Postwar Japan: Moments of Encounter, Engagement, and Imagined Return
In this engaging book, Miryam Sas guides the reader through the complex world of the experimental arts in Japan of the 1960s and after. In contrast to Sas’s emphasis on literary texts in her first book, Fault Lines: Cultural Memory and Japanese Surrealism (Stanford University Press, 1999), this [End Page 207] volume focuses on experimental theater, performance, butō, video, and film. The author offers compelling, close readings of experimental art through the lens of its age and in the spirit of artists such as Terayama Shūji, Betsuyaku Minoru, Hijikata Tatsumi, Moriyama Daidō, Hosoe Eikoh, Jōnouchi Motoharu, and Lee U-Fan.
Sas classifies the art she studies as experimental rather than avant-garde. Particularly when applied to post–World War II art, the term avant-garde has come to be used to refer to virtually any cultural form that is not strictly mass-market entertainment. Historical studies of the avant-garde, furthermore, often critique the claims to radicalism or vanguard status of the postwar “neo-avant garde” as both compromised by its proximity to commercialism and overly complacent in liberal democratic contexts. Critics compare the postwar “avant-garde” to the epoch-making innovations of the historical avant-garde (Dada, surrealism, futurism) in an age of world war and revolution in the early twentieth century, a global movement that shook the art establishment with its radical challenge of the very notion of art, proposal of a new relationship between art and everyday life, and dismantling of many sacred concepts and institutions of high art. In contrast, the term experimental art has been more comfortably associated with art after World War II, often situated in the very institutional contexts and mechanical media that the prewar avant-garde sought to challenge. Much of the art that Sas studies exemplifies the postwar spirit of “irreverence and defiance” inspired by Sakaguchi Ango’s foundational 1946 essay “Darakuron.” Postwar experimental art, Sas highlights, continues the historical avant-garde emphasis on breaking down the hierarchy of genres and working in a variety of media and genres.
The experimental art of Terayama, Betsuyaku, and others is highly conceptual while deeply engaged with the philosophical currents and the ethical dilemmas of the day. For this reason, Sas highlights the artists’ critical writings, which are integral to understanding their work. Evidence for their conceptual approaches is also found in what books they were reading (popular at the time or mentioned by the artist), their interactions with other artists and thinkers, and, to a lesser extent, the historical contexts of their art.
Sas structures Experimental Arts around three key concepts: engagement (angajuman), encounter (deai), and return/origins. These ideas resonate strongly with the political and artistic milieux of post-1950s experimental art. These are not random tropes manifested in experimental art but instead ideas that developed and became influential in philosophical and ideological discourses of the second half of the twentieth century. Indeed, the importance of understanding such highly conceptual modes of creativity in relation to philosophical and ethical debates grounded in specific historical and political dilemmas is one of the key points of Sas’s book. [End Page 208]
In contrast to the popular meanings of angajuman as “marching in the streets,” “political protest” (p. xiv), Sas examines in detail the profound presence in experimental art of the idea of engagement, as theorized by Jean-Paul Sartre as a process that entailed acknowledging responsibility for the political consequences of one’s art and the importance for artists and intellectuals to speak out and act on urgent issues of the age. Sas regards engagement as bridging “theoretical, aesthetic, and political questions” (p. xiv). Engagement here is a complex notion, which means not only political critique but also transformation of consciousness and vision. Terayama Shūji, for example, uses his art to invite his audience to “a specific kind of vision . . . giving ourselves over to the gaze of others” (p. 61).
Sartre, in his renowned What...