- Money, Trains, and Guillotines: Art and Revolution in 1960s Japan by William Marotti
William Marotti’s book is a landmark study of political art and the politics of artistic expression in contemporary Japan. Marotti’s self-described “microhistory” (p. 312) immerses us in the world of avant-garde artistic production and performance in the wake of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty (Anpo) protests of 1960 in an attempt to investigate “the politics of culture and the everyday” (p. 2). Through the eyes and experiences of artists such as Akasegawa Genpei, Marotti uncovers a fascinating, provocative, and sometimes-shocking history of political art in which the protagonists struggled to expose “unconscious forms of domination in the everyday world” and tried desperately to imagine and implement strategies for “radical transformation” which would bring some of them into conflict with the state (p. 28).
Marotti’s attention to detail and to the emotional life of his subjects is truly engrossing in the best traditions of microhistory. Indeed, this is a big book (over 300 pages of text alone) which should be savored rather than skimmed. But it is far more than a microhistory. Another appealing aspect is Marotti’s deft ability to anchor the micro in broader historical controversies over constitutionalism, the place of the emperor, and the depoliticizing effects of affluence and its state architects. Marotti’s depiction of artists’ attempts to swim against the economic and political currents of post-Anpo Japan made good sense to me as a student of civic activism which similarly shifted from mass protest to the “guerilla” tactics in movements such as anti-Vietnam war campaigns and localized antidevelopment and antipollution protests. Marotti aptly describes this as the “Monty Hall moment” of postwar Japanese politics “when thwarted demands for democratic participation were traded away for fabulous prizes” and when the state positioned “itself as the beneficent guarantor of welfare and economic prosperity” (p. 6).
Eschewing a linear narrative, Marotti organizes the book into three parts, each with its own chapters that move both synchronically across the historical field as well as backward in time to the occupation period where Marotti identifies the institutional origins of the postwar conservative political hegemony. In part 1 Marotti explores the Japanese state’s prosecution of Akasegawa Genpei for his monochrome prints of the ¥1,000 note. As he explains, these reproductions grew out of an “enthusiastic discussion” among artists about the “possibility of direct action through art” and the possibility that “practices emerging from art might contribute to or achieve revolutionary [End Page 461] results” (p. 2). With the perspective of hindsight, such artistic dreams take on a quaint if not wholly naïve complexion, yet, historically speaking, they graphically reveal how some progressives in the early 1960s still refused to accept the inevitable hegemony of “My Homism” and conservative rule. Since the ¥1,000 notes were clearly not created as counterfeits, prosecutors were forced to use obscenity laws in order to distinguish the art from “protected expression” and to place it within a “category of dangerous, aberrant action” (p. 4). Akasegawa, explains Marotti, saw things differently, imaging his and others’ radical art as “moments” with the potential to disclose the “dictatorial system of everydayness, loosening the grasp of a naturalized capitalist world of real things, and allowing its transformation to become conceivable” (p. 7).
Marotti’s theoretical analysis and historical explication of the issues at the heart of the ¥1,000 case are absolutely superb. Usefully deploying Jacques Rancière’s notion of the “police” (referring to the “order of the visible and sayable” [p. 4]), Marotti shows how this “politics of culture” in the early 1960s became a venue to contest the emergent postwar order by making audible a “discourse where there was once only place for noise” (p. 4). He explains how these artists were attempting to resist a perceived “colonization of daily life” in Japan similar to that experienced and identified by Henry Lefebvre. Rather than succumbing to the immediate gratification of passive...