Three days after it opened on Aug. 1, a section of the Aichi Triennale 2019 arts festival, which is taking place in and around the city of Nagoya, was closed due to controversy over one of its exhibits and an anonymous threat.

The section is titled “After ‘Freedom of Expression?’”, which is meant to convey the idea that the 20 or so works contained therein have been removed from public display in the past due to “censorship or self-censorship,” according to the organizers. The main piece of contention is “Statue of a Girl of Peace,” a South Korean work that represents “comfort women.”

Other pieces have sparked outrage, including one that includes a burnt image of what appears to be Emperor Hirohito but, with the exception of the weeklies and tabloids, which tend to trade in sensationalism for its own sake, the overall media reaction has been one of bemusement. Here was an exhibit filled with artworks that had already caused pushback in Japan, and it was shut down for just that reason. Was the whole endeavor designed to prove its own point, an elaborate attempt at conceptual art in and of itself?

The likely truth was more prosaic. In an interview in the Asahi Shimbun on Aug. 9, sociologist Shinji Miyadai said the curator of the event, Daisuke Tsuda, was not perceptive enough to understand what he was getting into. In all the reports on the matter, Tsuda is described as a “journalist,” although he’s really more of a critic, meaning someone whose engagement with a subject is analytical rather than expository. By focusing on the transgressive quality of the art on display as a critic would, Tsuda neglected to foresee the obvious response and was thus unprepared for it, Miyadai said. If he were a journalist in the same vein as the editors of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine that was attacked by terrorists in 2015, he would have defied the vilifications. He also would have had a plan to counter both the political pressure and the security threats.

Media analyst Maki Fukasawa went further in her detailed explanation of the matter during a discussion on Nippon Cultural Broadcasting’s “Golden Radio” show. Fukasawa says that Tsuda appropriated a 2015 Tokyo exhibit called “Freedom of Expression?” (hence the inclusion of the appellation “after”), which contained many of the same works of art, for the triennale. The original exhibit was not shut down, probably because it received little attention in the media. But as Takahiro Akedo, a research associate at the University of Tokyo, pointed out on the Aug. 7 installment of TBS Radio’s “Session-22,” Tsuda included lengthy text commentary on each piece for visitors, thus fulfilling his role as a critic and drawing more attention to the exhibit.

Tsuda’s commentary also complicated the basic purpose of the exhibit. Art provides a conduit of meaning between the artist and the viewer, who must draw their own conclusions. In that regard, it is inherently political and provocative, but Tsuda didn’t fully appreciate how the provocation would manifest itself. This made his position problematic, Akedo said. When a number of politicians came out against the section, saying that tax money should not be spent on anti-Japanese “propaganda,” the organizers received phone calls in protest against the exhibit. According to Fukasawa, these calls were taken by public employees who are required by law to state their names on demand. They were now targets of ire themselves, which made Tsuda feel bad. When someone threatened to show up at the exhibit with a can of gasoline, Tsuda caved in.

As Miyadai pointed out, had Tsuda and the organizing committee, headed by Aichi Prefecture Gov. Hideaki Omura, been prepared for this eventuality, they could have addressed the physical threat by changing the venue, working with police and bolstering security. As far as the political objections go, freedom of expression is guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution. Moreover, Miyadai said, the culture and the arts law guarantees noninterference by authorities in such situations, so it’s not even necessary to invoke the Constitution. There’s a specific law governing it.

But the law, be it constitutionally guaranteed or legislatively approved, always has trouble standing up to public outrage, even if it’s expressed by a small portion of the public. In the “Session-22” discussion, Akedo mentioned that he was at the exhibit the day Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura showed up and, while Kawamura looked at all the works, he could only see the items on display from the perspective of the comfort women, which was a magnet for nationalist anger well before the triennale. Akedo, who is from Nagoya, explained that Kawamura is a self-promoter and used the occasion to advance his own populist credentials. Thanks to media exposure, this became the default conversation on the whole enterprise, replacing a discussion of art with one about public funding.

Akedo said it didn’t matter that participating artists and concerned groups complained strongly about the cancellation of the exhibit and called for it to be reinstated. Kawamura and other politicians who lobbied for its demise were louder and more direct with their rhetoric, even if that rhetoric was misleading or disingenuous and, due to their positions of power, they had the ears of the press.

As Fukasawa pointed out, however, the civic irresponsibility on display went beyond Kawamura’s self-serving indignation and Tsuda’s lack of will. By demanding that a public function be shut down due to a threat of violence without expressly condemning that threat, the authorities, inadvertently or not, send a message that says violence could be an acceptable means of protest.

Wading into the controversy, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that such threats are wrong “generally speaking,” suggesting that in this case they were perhaps justifiable. Suga may not know much about art, but he knows what he doesn’t like.

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