Socially Engaged Art in Japan Overview          
by Justin Jesty           
The past two decades have witnessed a surge in artistic work that crosses the boundaries between art and social activism. Known as socially engaged art, new genre public art, social practice, et al., it involves both artists and non-artists working collaboratively towards a shared goal over an extended period of time. Their efforts may or may not yield an identifiable art object and usually take place outside established art spaces such as museums or galleries, yet such work has become one of the most hotly debated topics in art criticism, documentation of socially engaged projects appears regularly in museums and biennales, and educational programs have appeared at a number of universities. Local governments, urban planners, and activists have become intensely interested in art’s potential to galvanize or revitalize threatened urban (and in Japan, rural) communities, as well as to mitigate urgent, post-disaster needs.

The emerging field of socially engaged art is characterized by great diversity of practices. Some artwork is supported through commissions and royalties; artists such as Paul Chan or Kawamata Tadashi move between the art world and episodic moments of activism, their works leading double lives, one in its local context and one in documentation that circulates in galleries and biennales. In other cases, art projects are mobilized through public sector initiatives which can be led by artists, as with Kitagawa Furamu or Mierle Laderman Ukeles, or initiated by local governments or NGOs, examples of which include countless city-level initiatives to create innovative educational programs or revive urban neighborhoods. Others seek to avoid such systems altogether to create alternate economies, such as the Ithaca HOURs alternative currency or the network of small shop owners cum political activists in Tokyo, Shirōto no Ran (Amateur Revolt). Most art projects entail a mixture of goals, strategies, participants, and audience relationships, and as the field continues to expand and diversify it presents itself ever more urgently as something in need of theorization and study.

How can we begin to understand this field of practice? A number of researchers and artists have taken the first steps to address the new paradigms: Suzanne Lacy, Grant Kester, Shannon Jackson, Sharon Daniel, Nato Thompson, Gregory Sholette, Tom Finkelpearl, and others. Each, however, also calls attention to the amount of work left to be done. While there is always some lag between emerging practices and the methods developed to understand them, the challenges facing those who would study socially engaged art are particularly acute. First, any study needs to be deeply interdisciplinary, as the practices and their effects are relevant to fields as diverse as art, architecture, performance, public policy, political science, economics, and anthropology. Second, socially engaged art addresses itself to many of these disciplines precisely at points of disciplinary instability, as they face challenges and potential transformations to established (self-)understandings. Finally, socially engaged art is global, meaning two things: it invokes questions discussed on global scales (such as its relationship to neo-liberalism), and is, at the same time, constitutively particular, necessitating knowledge of local legal, cultural, political, and economic environments, whether the projects under discussion are occurring in Chicago, Sarajevo, the Rio de la Plata Basin, Hamdallaye Samba Mbaye, Huamulin, North Adams, Los Angeles, or Tōkamachi.

The symposium aims to address these issues by marking needs, by showcasing some of the work being done in answer to them, and by providing a context for discussion. Presentations are organized thematically, around a core of shared questions about the following: new theories of the aesthetic in relation to socially engaged art; what special potential art has in social change; institutional changes that artists and policy-makers are navigating, along with the role of social science in understanding them; the status of political contestation in relation to more ameliorative practices; and finally, the 3.11 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters as a case where we can think through the diversity of socially engaged artistic practices as well as how response to the disasters themselves transformed the field of NPO support within which many artists are working.

Japan is important to the symposium’s concept. Japan has seen a truly massive shift towards socially engaged art both in terms of art practices and art policy. Japan’s situation suggests certain questions with great intensity. As many have noted, the emergence of socially engaged art as a global phenomenon in the early 1990s is co-incident with the rise of neo-liberalism. Similarities in the discourse of the two include their common appeal to creativity, flexibility, self-reliance, local engagement, global awareness, (social-) entrepreneurship, emphasis on process over product. Yet most artists and producers are openly critical of capitalism and developmentalism and see themselves as creating alternative systems of meaning and value. Both of these possibilities become particularly pronounced in Japan as a result of two decades of low growth and an aging and shrinking population. The situation has made the drive for austerity stronger than in many places, raising the question of how reduced public and private patronage and the rise of the grant-funded art-NPO may have favored the growth of low-cost, ad-hoc, and socially-minded art projects. On the other hand, many people have come to embrace low growth as a new mode of sustainable, human-centered living. Socially engaged art rejects the spectacle of the (art) market, along with metro-centric models of value and progress. One could see it as trying to give form to an emerging post-growth way of life: rather than pretending to lead a way out of what is usually termed malaise, it proposes to discover value within spaces and activities economic logic says should be valueless, implying that the solution is not development or other forms of destructive escape, but heightened awareness of how improvements and enrichments can be seeded in the here and now. These are questions of global relevance; practice in Japan illuminates them particularly well.

By putting shared questions at the center of each panel, our ambition is that the symposium will be an opportunity for intellectual growth and learning for all participants. It is not intended as an “exchange,” where people from Japan present on things happening in Japan, while U.S. participants provide some theoretical perspectives. Rather, we hope it will give both Japan- and non-Japan-based participants an opportunity to consider and discuss some of the more challenging issues facing the field at length, bringing all participants into a real conversation: questions will be shared, but assumptions about how to address them may not. Each panel will have three 20-minute presentations, followed by a 20-minute response from a discussant. This will be followed by a full hour of discussion which all attendees will be encouraged to join. We believe this is the best way for people to form durable intellectual connections which will continue beyond the symposium itself.