- A “Pirates’ View” of Art History
In the globalizing contemporary world, it is vital for minor languages to have access to major languages. A lack of access would be fatal to their survival. “Translation” is their survival kit. This also means that minor non-Western languages are subjected to Western editorship, censorship, and even rejection and cancellation. Such acts exemplify the politics of translation. Let us briefly examine its dynamism and mechanism in the cross-cultural exchange between “the dominant West and the marginalized rest” with brief reference to Bengal and Japan, encompassing the fields of commercial transactions, stock exchange markets, world literature, and pre-modern, modern, and contemporary art history. How can non-Western cultural products obtain “civil rights,” so to speak, in the Westernized global market? What are the by-products such a “promotion” produces as a result of necessary and inevitable compromises?1 Let us examine the meaning of “piracy” in this process of cultural translation. “Piracy” here is perceived not as a criminal act per se, but rather as a beneficial form of resistance to political hegemony. Who is entitled to define the “criminality” in question? And to what extent does the “pirates’ view” invalidate the geopolitical domination of major languages and hegemonic cultures?2
Batta-mon: Between Piracy and Authenticity
Batta-mon is a colloquial expression local to the Kansai region of Western Japan. This term designates commodity goods circulated and supplied through irregular or illegal channels. Though the etymology is not clear, batta-mon, or batta-things, are to be distinguished from bacchi-mon or pacchi-mon, which includes fakes, forgeries, counterfeits, illegal imitations, etc. (this pair of terms may be of Korean origin, and may have circulated in Japan first among Korean residents). By coincidence, batta also means grasshopper or locust. The artist Okamoto Mitsuhiro took advantage of this chance homonym by creating stuffed artificial grasshoppers and covering them in leather printed with world-famous [End Page 65] brand marks. His grasshoppers printed with the logos of Chanel, Gucci, Fendi, among other brands, were exhibited at the Kobe Fashion Museum in 2010. Although this event went, for the most part, unnoticed, one of the companies whose brand mark was used took notice and demanded the removal of all the pieces with the brand maker’s logo from the exhibition space, claiming that they infringed on the company’s trademark rights.3
Okamoto, the batta-mon artist, was accused of copyright violation and threatened with a lawsuit for damages to intellectual property. As stated above, batta-mon are by definition irregularly circulated, dubious merchandise. But Okamoto’s batta-mon were “authenticated,” ironically enough, by the very legal accusation made against them. Let me add that the artist never made it clear whether the printed leather used in his pieces was “authentic” or illegally counterfeited. This, however, does not make any difference, as the pieces were not intended for sale. In any case, the authenticity of this artist’s battamon—that is, objects distributed through illegal channels—was recognized legally. What resulted turned out to be a sophisticated tactic for obtaining a mark of “authenticity”: social recognition as a fake.4 However, the recognition was paradoxical because this very form of authentication deprived the grasshopper-form of the batta-mon the right to be openly displayed to the public. And one might wonder what exactly was being “violated” in this case?
Okamoto’s batta-mon were subsequently removed from the Kobe Fashion Museum. The claim against them was filed by the Director of Intellectual Property at the aggrieved company’s Japanese affiliate. Upon receiving the claim, the municipality of Kobe and its Foundation for Cultural Promotion immediately ordered the removal of the works on May 6, 2010. Okamoto and the chief curator of the museum were not informed of the removal in advance. The claimants also prohibited any future public exhibition of the batta-mon. This demand was injurious to the artist because he could no longer exhibit his pieces. Yet, through this tactical defeat Okamoto triumphed in terms of general strategy; he succeeded in provoking an excessively self-righteous reaction from one of the world’s top-ranking fashion firms. And...