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Reviewed by:
  • Modern Japanese Art and the Meiji State: The Politics of Beauty by Dōshin Satō
  • Christine M. E. Guth (bio)
Modern Japanese Art and the Meiji State: The Politics of Beauty. By Dōshin Satō; translated by Hiroshi Nara. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, 2011. viii, 365 pages. $75.00.

Reviewing a translation of a scholarly work poses considerable challenges. Not only is there often a considerable gap between the time of the original publication and that of its translation, but even when the author’s words are rendered accurately, the tone may not be appropriate to the target language. The book under review began life as a series of essays published in specialized journals that were gathered into a single volume in 1999 under the title Meiji kokka to kindai bijutsu: bi no seijigaku and awarded the Suntory Prize for the Social Sciences and Humanities. When it appeared, three years after his influential monograph Kindai Nihon no kotoba to senryaku (The birth of Japanese art: the language and strategy of modern Japan), the relatively young Satō (b. 1956) was already recognized as a leader in applying new methods of analysis and narrative strategies to the interpretation of the establishment and development of modern art in Meiji Japan. For art historians, both in Japan and abroad, trained to focus on formal stylistic analysis of painting and on questions of connoisseurship, Satō’s insistence on looking at art during this era through economic, political, and social frames and the clear and accessible manner in which he chose to communicate his ideas seemed daring, refreshingly new, and hugely promising. Today, as this translation by Hiroshi Nara takes its place within a vastly expanded body of cosmopolitan literature on Japanese visual culture and a whole new set of interpretive relationships that were not part of its initial reception, its contents and methodology raise troubling questions that were not so apparent initially.

The book is introduced by a thoughtful consideration of the revisionist approach and conceptual framework that animate Satō’s thinking about the changes in the ontological status of art in Japan when Western epistemologies were introduced. Written by Chelsea Foxwell, who studied with him at Tōkyō Geijutsu Daigaku in the course of her dissertation research, it helps [End Page 454] to contextualize the tectonic shift in the discipline in which he was a key participant and to bring sympathetic nuance to his views. The account of the art system during the Meiji era that follows is loosely organized thematically into three parts: The Politics of Modern Art, The Language of Modern Art, and The Structures of Modern Art, each divided into multiple chapters. Throughout these chapters, Satō uses the word bijutsu, which first made its appearance in 1871 in the context of Japan’s participation in the Vienna International Exposition, as a metaphor for the new ways of thinking about art that both facilitated and obstructed cultural exchange with the West. Within this framework, the author explores topics including the history of the formation of research about Japanese art in Japan and the West, art policies, art education, and art journalism. Arguments about the mutually constitutive nature of the Meiji state and Meiji art are carefully built up, step-by-step, on the basis of prodigious research into documentary sources, many of which are summarized in accompanying lists and diagrams. This privileging of text over image, also reflected in the relatively small number of illustrations, however, fails to acknowledge the agency of visual culture to challenge the meanings desired by the state. Government policy is one thing, but artworks are not always received as intended.

The main thrust of the first section is the identification and explication of the key structures of Meiji art and the political and economic contexts in which they were first produced, circulated, and consumed. Creating goods suitable for foreign export was imperative during the early and mid-Meiji era, when arts administration was carried out variously as part of the promotion of industry and manufacturing (shokusan kogyō) under the ministries of industry, interior, agriculture and commerce, and education. Although these institutional structures were new, Satō shows that their staffing and outlook were informed by...


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pp. 454-458
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