March 10, 2006

Art and the Everyday

In a previous post there was a discussion about the purpose of art and whether it still reaches for transcendence or is entrenched in the mundane. Nadine Wasserman defends the mundane, offering the argument that art as an expression of everyday things is, in other words, art inseparable from life, a tradition that reaches back into tribal cultures.

She posits that 20th century art has been preoccupied with “the collapse of the boundary between art and life.” And yet in ancient cultures there was no boundary, art was a part of life and every member of the group took part in the arts of making music and decorative art. I find this especially fascinating because in the Japanese language the words used to describe the fine arts, 芸術 or 美術 (geijutsu or bijutsu)、are relatively new to the language, not an inherent part of the culture, having been introduced after the exposure to Western cultures.

Wasserman goes on to talk about the language of art and how it attempts to convey what is completely subjective, “as a form of interpretation of lived experience,” which is something Aaron was touching on in his comment to the previous post. Wasserman points out that the problem with trying to convey a subjective experience in this day and age is that

...communication is complicated further by an ever-expanding global community in which people encounter a multiplicity of cultures, a multiplicity of values…

In many ways, however, marketing has overcome these difficulties through the use of brand recognition (check this link). Of course advertisements aren’t trying to get across any tough or sublime concepts, but perhaps this is our common experience, a way of bridging those gaps of communication and culture.

Much of the art that fascinates me, particularly coming from Japan, embraces the methods of mass-marketing in order to appeal to a broad demographic, whole-heartedly accepting, albeit consciously, the commodification of their images and icons. Artist Takashi Murakami, creates characters with the intention of rivalling the brand recognition of Mickey Mouse.

This is a blatant disregard for the boundaries of art, those entrenched values that uphold that art should be separate from life and society, somehow untouched and transcendent. Wasserman talks about an “optimistic cynicism” that many artists have toward the hyper-realist, media saturated world we live in. This type of art, indistinguishable in its method and use of media from mass-marketing, shows a further breakdown between art and life, reality and illusion.

January 27, 2006


momotaro and me
Originally uploaded by nattynattyboom.

What is kawaii? And why are the Japanese so obsessed with it? They are obsessed to the point that virtually every corporate logo, every product, and every event is accompanied by a “cute” mascot. One encounters kawaii packaging from delivery services to mobile phone companies, from pharmaceuticals to toilet paper. Kawaii is a cultural institution—even the municipal and prefectural governments each have a kawaii character that graces the pages of their tourist brochures. While grocery shopping one will encounter various portable stereos blasting looped “cute” theme songs for different departments, featuring children singing songs like, “Niku niku niku” (meat meat meat) over a background of pop synthesizers. The “cute” industry is booming and expanding globally. Kawaii is ubiquitous. And irresistible.
I’ve never been the kind of girl who could be entertained by browsing in gift shops, “oohing” and “aahing” over meaningless minutiae. Nothing usually catches my eye. I first realized this when on a class trip to Washington, D.C. After every museum it seemed my friends would get caught up for what seemed like hours inspecting and commenting predictably on every little plastic souvenir.
In Japan this behavior has been refined and spread, until it seems to be a national syndrome. I participated in a kimono festival in Nagahama last year, and from what I observed it could have been subtitled Let’s-Get-Dressed-Up-in-Kimono and-Then-Go-Shopping! Day. After the laborious process of putting on the kimono, all we did was wander around the shopping district and murmer, “ah, kawaii…” at every little Totoro or TarePanda.
It seemed that I was impervious to all these kawaii knick-knacks until now. I’ve always found kawaii fascinating as a cultural phenomenon, but never been driven to actually buy any of it. But last week I bought a stuffed raccoon with a big round head, no neck, tiny ears, no mouth and little bead eyes. He is so impossibly…cute.
The reason I bought him was because of heartache. In the period between leaving Japan for vacation and coming back, I lost many things—my home, my friends, and my boyfriend of four years. My heart was absolutely shattered. On the plane ride back to Japan, my twelve-hour flight was spent feeling like a used tissue, drinking red wine and indulging in the adolescent sentiment of the Shangri-Las and other teenage girl groups from the sixties. Purchasing the stuffed raccoon also had a calming effect. Every time I squeeze him or look into his vacant expression, I forget a little.
Could this in some way explain the kawaii craze that has gripped this nation in its post-war years? In an interview, the executive of Sanrio, Tsuji Shintaro, revealed something terrible. Speaking about conflict in Kosovo he said, seriously, “If only I could come up with a Hello Kitty smart bomb.” As if an expressionless, two-dimensional kitten could help the soldiers cope with the stress of blowing stuff to smithereens. Perhaps this is the dark side of kawaii, a way of forgetting, a way of preoccupying oneself with adorable yet meaningless tchotchkes, thereby freeing oneself of the burden of introspection and analysis.     

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