'Authorized' Pop Culture?

Machiko Kusahara
Kobe University

The Charamix.com Special Exhibition was held concurrently with the exhibition of award-winning works from the 4th Media Art Festival in March 2001. A number of events were held around the theme of manga and anime characters, including a DJ/VJ night at a club featuring a variety of images related to the theme.

Garden Hall is a fashionable new shopping plaza in Ebisu, Tokyo. passers-by must have been rather surprised by what they saw through the glass. A giant plastic balloon sculpture depicted a young lady in short pants, bent over double and looking back upside down through her boldly spread legs. The sculpture was so large that her back almost touched the ceiling.
A poster at the doorway announced that this was a special exhibition as part of the Media Art Festival, sponsored by the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan. People could well ask themselves what had happened to such a staid organization. They might be even more surprised to learn that the artist responsible for this rather startling work is in fact a perfectly respectable young woman.

There were three events in the Media Art Festival: the special exhibition, a virtual talent "audition", and the Media Art Festival itself, which was open to entrants from anyone who creates works using media technology. The three together seem to express the relationship between media art and culture in Japan.

The Media Art Festival started as a separate version of the Arts Festival. The Arts Festival already has a long history of supporting established artforms, such as traditional culture and theatre or broadcast programs.
In most countries, mass contemporary popular culture and pop culture - from manga to club culture - tend to be ignored by governments. By giving public endorsement to this sort of culture, the new Media Art Festival aims to support its vitality.
If we look at the United States, it is possibly the film that has developed as the biggest form of popular culture. In Japan, the forms of culture with equivalent vitality and international competitiveness are manga and anime, along with the digital culture such as computer games and virtual characters that manga and anime have spawned, All of these media are a part of Japanese culture, and they took shape and gained acceptance in an entirely Japanese context. Indeed, the very idea that the Agency for Cultural Affairs would promote culture that can be marketed overseas seems to be extraordinary Japanese.

It is worth remembering that art appreciation in Japan has developed from different values to the "high art" of the West. We can see this in, for example, woodblock prints and screen paintings. Also, the division between art and entertainment is rather different in Japan to the traditional division in the West.
In this country, computer games, manga, and animation are not just geared toward children. These media often have the same sorts of themes as long epic novels, educational novels, or experimental films. This is evident in the works that have won awards each year in the Animation and Manga divisions of the Media Art Festival.
While it may be true that manga and anime are the fare of 'otaku' (stay-at-home geeks), such people are a minority. International recognition has been growing in a recent years that many manga, depicting serious subjects and psychological detail, are actually high-quality works for adults.
The Virtual Talent Audition this year, and the Special Robot Exhibition last year, took notice of these trends, and they put forward new types of art, formed out of pop culture, commercialism, and technology.

Media Art and Japan

It is important to develop new styles of media art. We also need to nurture media art that appeals to both the general public and to the younger generation.
However, there is a danger that artists will overemphasize "Japaneseness" in their works, and become fixed in the idea that Japanese sensibilities and the entertaining feature are sure-fire keys to success.
Real art is much broader than that. Artists often raise questions by visualizing the trends of the times, and from there they generate new expressions; pop art expression itself is not the goal. In other words, there may be artistic meaning in a provocative sculpture created by a young female artist. Awareness of gender in Japanese media culture is astonishingly rare, and she is using her work to challenge people's awareness. But if viewers see it as just another sculpture, it can't be called provocative.
A game winning a Grand Prize at the Media Art Festival , or a Virtual Talent Audition, have meaning as art in that they can both function to question established ideas on art. However, if things like this become a fixed pattern, they loose all meaning.

International exchange in this field is still weak in Japan.
In Europe, cultures are regularly mixed by artists invited to participate in artists-in-residence programs or art institutes, regardless of nationality. Soon after the Berlin Wall was torn down, artists from Eastern Europe and Russia were provided with Dutch and Austrian servers, and innovative net art projects they launched were extremely stimulating. Japan is indifferent to these experiences. For Japanese artists, as well as for general public, there are not many chances to be exposed to different ideas on art and culture.
The Media Art Festival will continue. One might ask, though, whether just focusing a spotlight on alternative art will really allow media art to enjoy greater vitality. It might be a right moment to think about the nature of alternative art in the information society we live in today.

(Published on NOKIA Online Magazine, 2001)