- From The Sideshow Called Fine Art
The excerpt “Long Arms, Long Legs” is a chapter taken from Kinoshita Naoyuki’s book The Sideshow Called Fine Art (Bijutsu to iu misemono, 1993), prefaced by a brief section from the book’s introduction that summarizes the author’s general argument. It is difficult not to see Kinoshita’s work in relation to the work of Kitazawa Noriaki (also excerpted in this issue), since he similarly interrogates the discourse of art and its adaptation in the 1800s, but their accomplishments differ dramatically. Kitazawa examines the centripetal process through which art was institutionalized, while Kinoshita conducts a centrifugal study that goes beyond the definitional borders to enter the domain of early modern popular entertainment industries that were subsequently disqualified from the territory of fine arts. Many media that developed in the margins just outside of art proper appear in Kinoshita’s narrative: photography, the panorama, sculpture, painting, and others that defy classification. In each chapter he searches for moments in which bijutsu, or the fine arts, cuts into these formative fields to sanction divisions. For instance, panoramas, which were at first seen as a medium of entertainment during the Meiji period (1868-1912), were eventually lifted from the popular sphere and elevated to the realm of fine art, where they could serve as a tool of education. The Sideshow Called Art, then, is a study of outcasts, outmoded means of expression, and half-breeds that emerged out of experiments during a period of cultural adaptation. Some made the cut, while others would fade back into the amorphous background of daily trivialities and leisurely pastime. This historical moment of flux is at the heart of Kinoshita’s fascinating study; he tirelessly points out that the narrative of art is not necessarily one that moves through official channels, and much of his text wanders through the labyrinth of popular desire. He rails against the current culture of art that still does not recognize this particular past: [End Page 165]
[E]ither way, Western oil painting and silk cloth painting were not oil painting proper, much as Nezumiya Denkichi’s “stone figure” wasn’t exactly a sculpture because it was a doll made of chicken wire. I understand the temptation to cast them aside as mere sideshow attractions and not call them “Western oil works” (seiyō edakumi). But it is undeniable that oil painting and sculpture of the Japanese had to begin precisely at this very site. If the oil paintings of sideshow stalls were not considered art, then which oil paintings would have satisfied [critics]? Would these have been the works that hang in exhibitions? Museums? Galleries? Art schools? Yet none of those places yet existed in Tokyo in Meiji 7 .i
It is possible to read this text as a means to recover an audience that took to playfulness, which was part of the constituency of “art” before modernism. And to an extent, this audience still haunts the borders of art without gaining entry. Therefore, The Sideshow Called Art is just as much the story of a lost audience as it is a glimpse into the world of skills and activities before fine art. Implicitly, the book suggests a link between the lost constituency of misemono (sideshow attraction) and the contemporary significance of otaku and subculture in Murakami Takashi’s Superflat. But if Murakami looked to the Edo-period painter Itō Jakuchū to perform a return to culture that had already been sanctioned within the domain of art, then Kinoshita sneaks out of “fine art” proper to join the gregarious crowd, reveling in their uproarious laughter and irreverence. In this fashion, the book constantly folds the profane into the sacred to show that separating the world of “fine art” from the everyday has always been a tenuous project that could come undone at any moment. Kinoshita recalls a moment when he encountered a room made for the imperial family, only to discover in it yet another misemono:
I entered the oldest Western mansion in Osaka, called the Senpukan (built in 1870), the reception hall of a dormitory facility for the Japanese Mint Bureau, which was...