Rotten Roots

by Satoru Nagoya

Judging from what I have witnessed so far, 1999 could see the sunset of criticism in contemporary art. Let me explain: In May 1997, I wrote a critical review on a Chinese contemporary art exhibition for an internationally known English-language art magazine.
The exhibition, which took place at a Tokyo art space, was curated by a Japan Foundation official-turned-independent curator whose name is well known to the Japanese contemporary art world and some overseas art communities as well. A few days after the magazine came out, the renowned curator summoned me to his office in Daikanyama and rebuked me for the review. His assertion was: "With such an unfavorable review, the artist will have to kill himself back in China." (The treatment at his office was something that might anger some human rights activists: just a few pieces of the incumbent Japanese prime minister [cold pizza] during the more than three-hour trial that lasted until 11:30pm.)
In the autumn of last year, I was urged to modify some "undesirable" descriptions in my review of an exhibition held at the pompous ICC gallery near Shinjuku - a space dedicated to high-tech art. The review was for a magazine issued by a publishing house affiliated to the gallery’s sponsor and the mammoth telecommunications company NTT. The censorship was apparently ordered by some of the gallery curators who pressed the magazine’s editorship not to publish anything adverse to the gallery’s projects or the sponsor company’s reputation.
This year the situation seems to have turned only for the worse when I encountered the following disgraceful case. Three young British artists currently studying at an art university near Tokyo on Japanese government scholarships were planning a collective exhibition at a nonprofit gallery in Tokyo for this November. They asked me for a text to be included in the exhibition catalogue. After I handed in my text, however, they declined to use it, apparently because they felt in the text I did neither praise their work enough nor properly mention the ongoing "Festival UK98" - in which their show was to take part - as a significant event for cultural exchange between Britain and Japan. They said it was "very important" for them that the catalogue text promotes their activities. That’s fine. The shame is that they obviously had no restraint in asking an art journalist/critic for a text to be used as a PR material.

The first case, which involved Mr. F.N. represents an attitude typical of prestigious curatorships or officialdoms that admit no criticism in their projects under hypocritical reasons. The celebrated Mr. F.N. with his bureaucratic mind is even known as "art critic" in Japan.

The second case was a good example of what is brought about when companies sponsor art projects just to improve their corporate image.

The last case showed that the tendency of confounding criticism with propaganda is affecting artists at all levels, not only Japanese but also Westerners. It also indicates that artists these days become too timorous before their sponsor institutions - in this case, namely, the British Council. Strangely enough art is becoming servile to the cause of international cultural exchange.

In sum, these examples reflect the present-day rotten relationship between art critics and artists: Most of those who profess art criticism are becoming generous theoreticians or mere copy-writers for artists they like or for artists they are asked to write about. In effect, many "art critics" in Japan are actual museum curators, and their "criticism " is part of their promotional activities for the artists they are dealing with. So if a critic writes something really critical, it comes as a surprise to many. It also implies, that even private or public support for art can sometimes impede art criticism.

The reality is that, in a worldwide trend, many critics and even editors of some first-class art publications are serving as exhibition curators or commissioners too, incorporating artists into safety zones protected from their own critical activities. The most established Japanese monthly art magazine even assigns reviews to an actual gallerist. Thus, it’s natural that reviews become reduced to mere propaganda.

In this past October, a congress of the AICA (French acronym for International Art Critics’ Association) took place in Tokyo. Although it took up such issues regarding contemporary art as tradition, identity and high technology, the event couldn’t justify the decay of the critical roles of the participants from Japan and abroad.

It seems that the decline of art criticism, which has already captured the West, is reaching Japan. So, as a challenge for next year, I call on the few "real" critics to take a preventive step, to save art criticism and perhaps launch a new critical movement from Tokyo. To start with, let’s keep an uncompromising critical eye on the work of foreign artists who come and exhibit here at gallerists’ or curators’ - or critics’ - invitations.

Satoru Nagoya is a free-lance art journalist living in Tokyo.
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