Shut-down time

by Satoru Nagoya

By the time this essay is published, Tokyo will have a new governor, someone from six viable candidates - of whom all but one had conservative platforms. According to polls conducted by the media beginning of April, maverick Shintaro Ishihara was leading the race with a considerable margin over runner-up Kunio Hatoyama, recommended by the Democratic Party of Japan.

Whoever has become the new governor, he will face pressing challenges like tackling financial difficulties, taking precautions against major earthquakes and creating an ideal welfare system for the aged - as most of the candidates actually suggested during their campaigns. For the time being, however, there will be little chance for the governor to show his wisdom in dealing with cultural policies, but depending on the election's outcome Tokyo's art people will be affected by this nevertheless.

As shown in his polemic book co-authored 10 years ago, "The Japan That Can Say No," Ishihara, a writer and a former transport minister, has a leaning toward nationalism. Since his days as a Lower House member, he has been regarded a hero of patriotic right-wingers who would like to see the Yokota (U.S.) Air Base located on Tokyo's western outskirts returned to the Japanese.

Ishihara campaigned 24 years ago for the gubernatorial office but suffered a dramatic defeat by leftist Ryokichi Minobe. In line with the liberals, Ishihara lately said, he would hand over many city-run enterprises to the private sector, because private initiatives can handle business often better than public officials do.

In terms of art enterprises this translates to whether the present state- or city-run museums should become private organizations or not.
Museums under the auspices of the Tokyo metropolitan government, such as the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (MOT), may already be anticipating the possible loss of public support in the near future. This could take place after the planned "privatization" of state-run museums by 2001 (as I wrote in the February Issue of PLANT).

Fears peaked when Chinpei Nozue (he withdrew his candidacy for governor in early March) said he would shut down MOT if elected, an institution with an annual deficit of nearly 2 billion. But not only candidates like Nozue oppose the way how city-museums are run nowadays. When I asked some art critics how they felt about his proposal, they categorically said: "Oh, I hope they will shut down MOT immediately!" (probably disapproving MOT's curatorial policies).

If Ishihara was elected, the drive for privatizing MOT and other Tokyo government-run museums will continue as it would with candidates like Yoichi Masuzoe (a liberal) or Yasushi Akashi (a conservative.)

Eventually, the new confrontation in the art world will be over whether the general public and government should protect art or if art should be left to the goodwill of limited individual supporters. In the meantime, where is art heading these days anyway? Bad examples have been seen in exhibitions on feminism and the environment, where art was taken hostage and misused under social and political pretexts.

I personally hope Ishihara will have won the race when you read this column. He may do justice to the arts - more than Hatoyama, who put forth this shameless slogan about a "romantic revolution for Tokyo."
What art today lacks is absolute individuality, independence and strength - enough to keep itself free from yardsticks of a public easily attracted by mediocrity.

(Ed. note: Ishikawa won the election handily)

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