- From Art and Identity:For Whom, For What? The “Present” Upon the “Contemporary”
This excerpt is taken from Satō Dōshin’s Art and Identity: For Whom, For What? (Bijutsu no aidentitī: dare no tame ni, nani no tame ni, 2007). Like his earlier discussion of the establishment of the internal economy of art in Modern Japanese Art and the Meiji State: The Politics of Beauty (Meiji kokka to kindai bijutsu: bi no seiji gaku, 1994; the English translation was published in 2011), this book also focuses on the institutional facilitation of art. But more broadly, Satō turns his attention to developments and discourses that do not necessarily comport with imperatives of the state. He attempts to reconsider four different juxtapositions to examine the history of modern art in Japan: 1) placing the present (genzai) upon the postwar contemporary (gendai) to reconsider art as an implementation of Western notions; 2) considering modern art history as a specific discourse emerging out of modernity; 3) positioning the present in a broader, global condition; 4) examining the present from the perspective of human identity.
In the prologue of Art and Identity, Satō aligns himself with Kitazawa, whose work he frequently references, and writes: “The purpose of [the research] was to find out why art exists as it does today and to understand more about the present condition of art.”i However, unlike Kitazawa who traces the historical circumstances that shaped art, Satō’s inquiry here revolves around the more existential role art plays in human society. This philosophical inquisitiveness adds a unique dimension to his research.
Why do artists make artworks, and why do people seek art? The age in which art was produced for gods and kings has passed long ago, and the age in which art was made for nations and the national people has also passed. And what about the labyrinth of postmodernism, which contemporary art has wandered into? Has it found a way out? I’m lost among these questions. Even though many discussions have transpired, future prospects seem quite dim–yet the twenty-first century has already begun. What has art become and what will it be?ii [End Page 341]
What are the stakes for art when it has lost its cultural legitimacy? What sort of imagination can art continue to help us organize and effectively articulate? Art and Identity is one response to these questions regarding the viability and efficacy of art. Satō attempts to relegitimize art by examining how it has functioned as an intercessory term between self and other, domestic and foreign, known and unknown, the duty for which art has been consistently drafted for centuries: “It appears that humanity has always tried to stabilize itself by establishing its outside or counterpart. Where is the human now, and where is it headed? Like ‘art,’ have we not determined the identity of humanity and the human world merely by locating liminal borders?”iii Even though this study is grounded in careful empirical research, Satō speculates about the challenges that humanity will face as the scope of knowledge inevitably expands into the fields of artificial intelligence, neuroscience, and space exploration. Art is still effective, he suggests, because of the problems that these disciplines will necessarily introduce: “The acceleration of artificiality has far surpassed the speed of biology and compromised the borders that define our human existence. And the quickening pace of technological and social transformation will incessantly force us to reassess the identity of humans with every given situation.”iv In other words, the history of art that pictures our humanness is a history of immunization that protects and establishes our basic need for identity. If so, art remains a legitimate vocation as long as there is a category called the human, through which our sense of stability is measured and assured.(Kenichi Yoshida)
1. Shifting Vectors: The Taishō and Prewar Shōwa Periods “Japanese Art” without Japonisme
When we view the development of “art” from the Meiji era (1868-1912) to the present as a “system,” two time periods clearly stand out: the early Meiji period and the early postwar period. Together, they mark a major...