Money, Trains, and Guillotines: Art and Revolution in 1960s Japan by William Marotti (review)
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Money, Trains, and Guillotines: Art and Revolution in 1960s Japan. By William Marotti. Duke University Press, 2013. 464 pages. Hardcover $94.95; softcover $25.95.

How does one write about art when the work of art is a political gesture? How does one write about a political act that is performed using the tools and techniques of an artist? William Marotti’s Money, Trains, and Guillotines: Art and Revolution in 1960s Japan is a richly informed and intellectually provocative response to these two interrelated questions. As a text that deals with the Japanese avant-garde of the 1960s, this book joins a list of several English-language scholarly monographs published in the past five years on postwar Japanese experimental arts, including books by Bruce Baird, Miryam Sas, and Yuriko Furuhata. Museum publications and exhibition catalogues by the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, have also left lasting marks on the field.1 [End Page 183]

But be warned—despite the subtitle, Marotti’s book is not about art. At least, it is as much about revolutionary politics, and about Japanese cultural history as part of the global 1960s, as it is about art. Because of this wide scope, readers drawn to the book hoping to learn more about Japanese art in the 1960s may be disappointed to find that it does not provide a wide-ranging overview of the arts in the Japan of that decade. From an art historical perspective, the scope is limited to avant-garde visual arts with roots in painting, sculpture, sound, and practices that a decade later would come to be referred to as “performance art.” Other artistic practices taken up in the publications mentioned above—for example, film, dance, theater, and photography—receive little or no sustained discussion in Marotti’s book. Furthermore, the book does not situate its subject, radical avant-garde artistic practices, in a sequential art historical narrative.

Rather than viewing Marotti’s selectivity in a negative light, however, we can regard the scope and the narrative strategy of Money, Trains, and Guillotines as offering a welcome intervention to standard accounts of the story of 1960s Japanese art. Writing as a cultural and political historian, Marotti argues that the framework of “art” is too narrow to fully encompass the revolutionary nature of the practices he examines in this book. In his view, a more conventional art historical approach that insists on placing the art object at the center cannot do full justice to the inseparable ties that exist between artistic and social practice. His discussion of politically motivated performance- and practice-based works by artists including Akasegawa Genpei provides a perspective that is clearly distinct from approaches focused on the “text” or the “work” as the fundamental object of examination.

In Money, Trains, and Guillotines, Marotti argues “against a view that would separate considerations of politics from culture (narrowly defined) by revealing the underexamined politics of [1960s Japanese] avant-gardism as one of the period’s most prescient and potent critical voices” (p. 315). For Marotti, cultural context is not simply a background to the works of art he discusses, nor is a work of art a mere reflection of the political motivations of its creator. Much more than a philosophical exercise is entailed by the questioning of the boundaries of art as an aesthetic category. As the book shows, the stakes are no less than the livelihood of artists and the rights of artists and ordinary citizens to engage in political dialogue. Referring to Akasegawa’s indictment and trial in a case involving accusations of counterfeited 1,000-yen notes, Marotti writes, “The forcible ascription of his activities into the delineated sphere of Art compresses the work’s dimensions as part of an emergent, radical practice within the established definitions of this sociological category” [End Page 184] (p. 75).2 By mapping out the ways in which artistic practice and institutions in the prewar period through the 1950s can be linked with social movements and discourses centered on postwar democracy, the emperor system, and media infrastructure, Marotti demonstrates how the radical practices of the Japanese avant-garde in...