Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 21, 2007
Thomas R. H. Havens Radicals and Realists in the Japanese Nonverbal Arts: The Avant-Garde Rejection of Modernism Honolulu: University Of Hawai'i Press, 2006. 312 pp.; 10 color ills.; 24 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (0824830113)
Thumbnail

In 1968, the Mono-ha artist Sekine Nobuo dug a perfectly cylindrical hole, 2.7 meters in depth and 2.2 meters in diameter, in a park in Kobe. Next to it, he placed an earthen column of identical dimensions, giving the impression of a simple transfer of matter, a sculpture plucked from the earth. Presenting earth as earth, this work was intended as a negation of the artist’s privileged role as creator, as a critique of the art market, and as a questioning of the modernist art object. This and other works of its generation constituted an attack on modernism that was, argues Thomas Havens, the assertion of a postcolonial and “post-Western” voice in contemporary Japanese art.

Havens’s book Radicals and Realists in the Japanese Nonverbal Arts: The Avant-Garde Rejection of Modernism is a history of the arts in postwar Japan, and covers enormous ground, treating painting, sculpture, performance art, music, and dance from 1945 to 1960. Like his previous book in this field, Artist and Patron in Postwar Japan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), this new volume provides a social history of the period, and draws disparate artistic fields together through complex social ties. Relying upon archival research and interviews with over fifty key figures of the 1950s and 1960s, Radicals and Realists is an important addition to the small but growing literature in the field of postwar Japanese art. The latest bibliography of this vibrant field can be found in Art, Anti-Art, Non-Art (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2007).

Drawing upon his background as a social historian, Havens begins the book by making the distinction between artists born between 1926 and 1934 (the so-called hitoketa or generation born in the single-digit years of the Shōwa era), and the generation that came after them. These generational differences are, for Havens, as important as aesthetic or ideological distinctions, as they separate the colonial from the postcolonial. The book is thus divided into two parts: the 1950s are framed as a period still in the shadow of the American Occupation, and the 1960s, a period marked by postcolonial experimentation and resistance to modernist practices.

Each part of the book begins with an overview that frames its primary conceptual claims, followed by a series of short studies that lay out the most important movements of the decade. In “Part One: Experimental Voyages: The 1950s,” Havens treats Jikken Kōbō (The Experimental Workshop), Okamoto Tarō and his influence on the Nihonga (Japanese-style painting) groups Creative Arts and the Pan Real Art Association, as well as Gutai, Informel, Kyūshū-ha, and the Sōgetsu Art Center. “Part Two: Alternative Modernities in the 1960s: Locating the Everyday” is itself divided into two parts. The first section explores anti-establishment experiments in the visual arts such as Neo Dada and Hi Red Center, as well as transcultural movements such as contemporary Hōgaku (literally “Japanese music”) in music, Butoh in dance, and Mono-ha in the visual arts. The last two chapters consider the shift from “radicals” to “realists” when art, money, and politics converge in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the build-up to the Japan World Exposition 1970 in Osaka.

As the first book since Alexandra Munroe’s Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky (New York: Abrams, 1994) to systematically survey Japan’s major postwar movements in the arts, the wide scope of Havens’s text is welcome, bringing together a range of materials previously unavailable in English. His account of the 1950s is, however, colored by the teleological argument he constructs to frame the 1960s as a radical break from previous artistic discourses and experiments. His assessments of movements in the 1950s are thus slightly unfair, resting upon the assumption that modernism was necessarily Western, and Japan’s participation in it derivative. When characterizing Japan’s complex and transnational history of modernism, Havens asserts, “Japanese embraced the techniques and movements of the contemporary West not as rebellious radicals but as part of the new accredited orthodoxy from Europe that flooded Japan during 1875–1925” (22). Not only does this perspective disregard recent studies on cultural translation and political engagement in early Japanese modernism by scholars such as Sarah Teasley on early twentieth-century design (“Furnishing the Modern Metropolitan: Moriya Nobuo’s Designs for Domestic Interiors, 1922–1927,” in Design Issues 19, No. 4 [Autumn 2003]: 57-71), Alicia Volk on Yōga (Japan and Paris: Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and the Modern Era, co-authored with Christine Guth and Yamanashi Emiko, Honolulu: Honolulu Academy of Arts, 2004), and Gennifer Weisenfeld on Mavo (Mavo: Japanese Artists and the Avant-Garde, 1905–1931, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), but it entrenches the assumption that modernism was ipso facto Western, born in the center and disseminated to the periphery.

Focusing on Jikken Kōbō in chapter 2 and Okamoto Tarō’s circle in chapter 3, Havens examines two responses to postwar Western hegemony: Jikken Kōbō’s “infatuation with the West” and Okamoto’s rejection of it (54). While Jikken Kōbō is remembered as “less anti-academic than simply filled with the creative spirit of experimentation with current techniques and ideas from Europe” (62), Okamoto is credited as being “the first major avant-garde figure in Japan to champion art that set aside the concrete universals of high modernism and sought standards that were at once contemporary and Japanese” (72).

In chapter 4, Havens frames Gutai, Informel, and Kyūshū-ha as provincial movements that helped to bring the everyday into art, paving the way for artistic innovation in the 1960s that would take the everyday to its fullest expression. Located in Kansai and Kyūshū, far from the art world’s center, neither group, Havens claims, knew “a great deal about contemporary Western art in general, because in those days information was sporadic at best” (85). He disregards their self-conscious critiques of modernism as naïve experiments, apolitical, and disconnected from Western art. However, for Gutai in particular, who critically engaged with artists based in France, Italy, Holland, South Africa, and the United States, charges of isolation and “value free” formalism need to be reexamined (88).

The cosmopolitanism of the Sōgetsu Art Centre in Tokyo and its role in internationalizing the Japanese art scene is the subject of chapter 5, the last on the 1950s. Active from 1959–1971, the Sōgetsu Art Center was interconnected with Gutai’s transnational activities, and was the site of some of the most legendary cultural collaborations of the period. The cultural creolization and hybridity that Havens highlights at Sōgetsu is an exciting moment that establishes the importance of the Japanese contemporary arts on the world stage.

The year 1960 marked a turning point in the social and cultural history of Japan. The failure of public protests to halt the renewal of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty (Anpo) publicly underscored Japan’s status as a U.S. client state. This, in combination with the rise of a generation who never knew the war, resulted in a cultural climate that viewed Japan as the victim of U.S. hegemony in Asia. It is in this context that a counterculture emerged that critiqued Western modernism, U.S. cultural and military power, and the consumer society it sponsored.

Havens explores this period in the second part of the book. His thesis about the 1960s—that artists from this period articulated a “post-Western,” postcolonial critique of modernism—revives and reevaluates for the English-speaking world an important historiographical trend in Japanese art criticism. Building on the work of Miyakawa Atsushi from the 1960s as well as voices such as Chiba Shigeo from the 1980s, Havens rethinks the claim that Japanese contemporary art was “in full flight from the European notion of a work,” articulating a position independent of Western contemporary art (137). Using postcolonial theory to examine this flight, Havens refutes neo-traditionalist and essentialist interpretations of the period and insists on the hybridity of the movements he examines. Although Japan’s complicated status as a postcolonial nation could have been further theorized and the very possibility of the “post-Western” interrogated, Havens’s treatment of the 1960s is an even-handed narrative of the period’s most exciting cultural figures that characterizes their work between global awareness and local engagement.

Chapters 6 and 7 introduce art movements connected with Anti-Art and Conceptualism, contrasting what Havens sees as formal experimentation with a real critique of Japan’s administered society of the 1960s. In chapter 6, he characterizes both Neo Dada and the artists of the Yomiuri Independent Exhibition as “artistic rather than political rebels” whose critiques of capitalism were blunted by their participation in the corporate-sponsored Yomiuri Independent Exhibition (143). The following chapter addresses artists that in his view went beyond formal experimentation to define an “alternative modernity of the local and the everyday” that “ridiculed the homogeneity of middle-class existence” and even in some cases “attaining outright political heterodoxy” (164). Focusing on the subversive performances of Hi Red Center and in particular of Akasegawa Genpei, this chapter discusses artists such as conceptualist Kawara On, environmental artist Yamaguchi Katsuhiro and architect Isozaki Arata, Fluxus artist Ay-O, printmaker Noda Tetsuya, as well as sculptor Okazaki Kazuo.

Chapters 8 and 9 regard the hybrid languages of expression pursued in contemporary music and dance, as well as by the art movement Mono-ha. He argues that the Goat Society and contemporary Hōgaku, like Butoh and the performance art group Zero Jigen, “staked out a forward path beyond the concrete universals of modernism, toward the local” (175). Similarly, Havens argues that Mono-ha used local contexts and materials because of their commitment to the relationships between people and their natural environments. Eschewing neo-traditionalist interpretations of these groups, Havens asserts that they “tended toward a new, post-Western position” that emphasized the here and now against the universal and modern (200).

Havens brings the curtains down on the anti-establishment of the 1960s with two chapters that lament a conversion from “radicals” to “realists.” Faced with the possibility of popular attention, higher production values, and funding, almost all artists accepted the invitation to present at Expo ’70. Given his obvious sympathies with anti-establishment practices and his desire to believe in their sincerity, Havens is disappointed. The story he tells of ex-radicals after 1970 who used their political knives to whittle rather than hack should not, however, be a story of failure (220). It is a period that, beginning with the 1970 Tokyo Biennale at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, promises to yield a rich and interesting history of engagement, resistance, and artistic production.

Radicals and Realists is a book that challenges the reader to think of the “nonverbal arts” in Japan between 1945 and 1970 as an interconnected assault on modernism that provides the foundations for a “denationalized, post-Western realm of creative activity” in the arts today (135). It is a book written by a historian whose disciplinary perspective was perhaps necessary in enabling him to engage with such a wide range of cultural production in one volume. Art historians may, however, take exception with certain aspects of the book. Havens’s analyses of works of art are mostly inadequate, as images are primarily used as illustrations rather than as evidence. The lack of images would also make it difficult to use this as a textbook for undergraduates. Given its wide scope, some discussion of craft, design, and photography would also have been appropriate. Scholars in the field of postwar Japanese art who have been working collectively to standardize naming practices of artist groups may also find Havens’s departure from those conventions a step backward.

Arguing that the Japanese nonverbal arts in the 1960s articulated a “post-Western” and postcolonial response to modernism that was neither neo-traditionalist nor essentialist but grounded in the local, Havens makes a powerful claim whose ramifications go far beyond the boundaries of postwar Japanese art history, making this book a useful case study for students of non-Western contemporary art. Havens does not, however, go far enough in questioning the post-Western and postcolonial claims of his interview subjects, nor does he adequately theorize either term. In the context of Japanese studies, the term postcolonial in particular needs to be reexamined, perhaps turning back to the work of Takeuchi Yoshimi and Oda Makoto, who theorized colonialism and imperialism as systems in which Japan is both colonizer and colonized, victimizer and victimized.

Unlike most publications in this field, which until now have been connected to exhibitions and therefore limited in scope or page length, Havens has used the monograph format to explore an extensive range of cultural movements within the context of a sustained argument. Radicals and Realists is a significant contribution to postwar Japanese art history, and marks an important step in the maturation of the field.

Ming Tiampo
Assistant Professor, School for Studies in Art and Culture, Carleton University