Japanese art has two compartments. First, there is the art that exists largely within a Japanese context. Then there is the art that, somehow or other, finds its way onto the international stage, and, by so doing, becomes representative of the country. Interestingly, much of the art in the first category consists of a slavish though skillful cribbing of foreign styles, as well as traditional art created with little thought for a wider market.

Japanese art that has been able to transcend the narrow confines of the domestic market and achieve a wide foreign audience has also usually been traditional: Hokusai and Hiroshige for example. But in this category you can occasionally find examples of non–traditional art that, for one reason or another, has managed to make the transition from local to international.

Chief among these rare success stories is Takashi Murakami. Running to May 2009, "© Murakami," a major retrospective of his work is now touring the US, with further stops scheduled in Germany and Spain. This exhibition will further strengthen the impression that here is a Japanese artist with mass overseas appeal who isn't some 18th–century woodblock carver in a kimono.

A lavishly illustrated book–cum–catalog has been published to accompany this series of exhibitions. The five lengthy essays included in the text are designed to help you understand why Murakami has succeeded where so many others have failed, but only if you read between the lines, because exhibition catalogues are hardly disinterested and impartial documents.

This makes this book a delight for those who like deconstructing their language and looking for hidden subtexts. As with much art writing, there is plenty of impressive–sounding, but vacuous, open–ended language. The Director’s Foreword for example invokes the usual adventurous clichés about art that goes "beyond its traditional boundaries," and praises Murakami for being "revelatory" and "transformative," without bothering to hint at what he might be revealing or transforming.

Such laudations might prompt you to take a look at the art itself. As the pictures show, Murakami creates large cartoonish canvases in acrylic and plastic sculptures, both of which have a pristine manufactured look, as if the products of some Disneyesque production line.

This is no accident. One of the points made in the far–ranging essay "Flat Boy vs. Skinny: Takashi Murakami and the Battle for Japan" by British media theorist Dick Hebdige, is that Murakami has taken Andy Warhol's concept of the 'art factory' and made it a reality. According to its website, Kaikai Kiki, the art production company that executes Murakami’s artistic visions, employs roughly 50 people in its Tokyo headquarters and 20 people in its New York office and studio. This has enabled Murakami to extend his 'Business Art' into many areas, including the manufacturing and marketing of figurines based on his art and designs for the international luggage brand Louis Vuitton.

But if Murakami's art operates on an industrial scale that has more in common with Disney than Warhol, there is certainly nothing 'Disneyesque' about the centerpieces of the exhibition: the otaku–influenced "Hiropon" (1997), a 71–inch tall acrylic fiberglass figurine of a naked young girl, squeezing what looks like a skipping rope of milk from her enormous breasts, and the host–boy–inspired "My Lonesome Cowboy" (1998) a male equivalent that creates a lasso from his ejaculate.

In his essay "Making Murakami," the exhibition's chief curator, Paul Schimmel draws an analogy between the dynamic liquid aspects of these works and that of Hokusai's "Great Wave" from "The Thirty-Six Views of Fuji."

One of the problems of contemporary art is that it demands to be judged on its own terms, without any transcendent standard of excellence or taste. The problem becomes more pronounced in the case of an artist like Murakami as we are thrown off balance by its strangeness or get caught up in the enthusiasm with which it is treated by critics reluctant to tackle the complex interlinked phenomena of his ouvre by imposing familiar standards that might backfire. In essence, this is Orientalism applied backwards and often gives Murakami a critical free ride.

Murakami's art may be 'kawaii' (cute), amusing, and even occasionally breathtaking, but there is also much to criticize in its artificiality, repetitiveness, smugness, and its distasteful reliance upon 'otaku' (geek) culture. The fact that it largely escapes more rigorous censure is a testament to Murakmi's ultimate skill in understanding and manipulating the international art market and its intelligentsia. The key in this is his concept of "Superflat," a variable concept that serves to mystify his creations and protect them from normal Western art criticism.

But just what is "Superflat"? Dick Hebdige's essay nails down its defining characteristics. These include: (1) the flatness found in traditional Japanese painting; (2) "decentering decorative" effects, also from traditional Japanese art; (3) the lack of Western distinctions, like art/craft or high art/ low art; (4) the flatness found in digital imaging; and (5) "the ground-zero flattening of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the nuclear strikes of 1945."

The last aspect is of particular interest. As we learn form Paul Schimmel's essay, Murakami’s mother was living in the Western Japanese city of Kokura in 1945 when a B-29 bomber set out to obliterate it with the second A–bomb of the war. Only an accident of weather deflected the bomber from its original target to Nagasaki.

Looking at Murakami's "Superflat" as Hebdige does, by specifying its salient features, is revealing. The demystified concept loses its power and we realize that it lacks any real aesthetic or philosophical merit. Instead, it emerges as a connotatative system designed to evoke a tolerant or even apologetic response from liberal Western collectors, curators, and art critics. It certainly has this effect on Hebdige himself. Despite providing a useful dissection of Superflat, his essay eulogizes the artist. But Hebdige does enough to show us how the machine works. 

My Lonesome Cowboy

Points (1) and (2) arouse the veneration due to any traditional ethnic art style, but, as "My Lonesome Cowboy" so blatantly shows, this is not a veneration that Murakami himself shares, as this work would clearly horrify or embarrass any traditional Japanese artist. Point (3) makes a claim for moral superiority by contrasting the elite categories imposed by past systems of Western art with Japanese art's apparent democratic lack of them. But the truth is that the Japanese arts have their own labyrinthine grades of distinction, forms of snobbishness, and exclusive in–groups that more than make up for the simple absence of a craft/art distinction. Point (4) makes the point that Murakami's art is somehow cutting edge and futuristic by linking it to Japan’s high tech industries, although what exactly is high tech about acrylic paint and plastic is hard to see.

Point (5) is the most interesting, both because it is the most potent in its effect of creating an aura of critical invulnerability around Murakami’s art, and because, once looked at, it turns out to be artistically irrelevant. Like a quickly mumbled absurd non sequitur, it is slipped in, in the hope that it won’t attract too much direct attention. But Murakami comes back to it a lot.

In paintings like "Time Bokan – pink" (2001), one of many variations of a death's head mushroom cloud 'sampled' from a 1970s anime series, Murakami is clearly invoking the spirit of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By doing this he seems to be addressing the West's art intelligentsia thus: "Oh yeh, and your lot almost dropped an A–bomb on my mum, so cut me some slack, okay?"

Decoded in this way, "Superflat" is revealed to be a paper tiger protecting a lot of badly conceived and highly overrated art.

Kansai Time Out
March, 2008

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