The Cultural Affairs Agency recently decided not to pay a promised ¥78 million state subsidy to the Aichi Triennale 2019 art festival in Nagoya, which hosted a controversial exhibition titled “After ‘Freedom of Expression?'” What the government should have done is defend the art festival rather than cancel the subsidy, as its decision is likely to have negative repercussions for future art festivals in Japan.
In April the agency chose Aichi Triennale as a recipient of the subsidy. Then last week it suddenly announced it would not pay the grant as it was not informed in advance that the exhibition, which included a statue symbolizing “comfort women” and a burned image of what appears to be Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, could trigger an outcry that would jeopardize the smooth operation of the event. The section was shuttered three days after the art festival opened on Aug. 1. Festival organizers cited security concerns after they received multiple threats.
Last week, the committee established by Aichi Prefecture to look into the issue proposed in an interim report that the exhibition should be reopened once certain conditions, such as the implementation of risk-prevention measures and improving ways to display the exhibit, are met. Aichi Gov. Hideaki Omura, who is the head of the Aichi Triennale Organizing Committee, also expressed hope that the section would be reopened. But soon after that the Cultural Affairs Agency announced that it would not provide the subsidy after all.
The agency insisted the decision was based on procedural inadequacies rather than the content of the show. But it would have been difficult for the organizers to have predicted the barrage of criticism and threats in advance and to raise the issue in its grant application. In addition, the agency’s timing for announcing the grant cancellation raises questions.
The subsidy is part of the agency’s drive to utilize local cultural assets to promote Japanese arts and boost inbound tourism. It would be wrong to assume that public subsidies will be provided for any artwork under the banner of “freedom of expression,” and it is possible that the government will choose not to provide funds for certain works of art. But canceling the already approved subsidy over security concerns may be perceived as a shield behind which the government hides its censorship intention. The reason given by the government is not convincing; it should present the public with a better explanation.
Meanwhile, Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura expressed concern about reopening the exhibit, saying, “It’s outrageous to showcase political works in an art festival hosted by the city (and other public entities), which is an act that would be taken as endorsing the concepts of the artworks.”
But the government’s provision of funds is a separate issue from whether it endorses the concepts of individual works of art. If the opinions of the sponsoring governments and companies influenced each piece of art, the resulting art festivals would not be authentic.
The organizer’s original intention behind making the exhibit “After ‘Freedom of Expression?'” part of Aichi Triennale appears to have been to present rejected artworks from various past exhibitions to the public and shed light on discussions on freedom of expression. It is very unfortunate that the exhibit was labeled as “anti-Japanese” and a “hate” message by some people.
World history shows that works of art depicting controversial concepts or were perceived as highly political have often been condemned or censored by the authorities. In the modern world of art, however, especially in the United States and Europe, such works are classified as “socially engaged art” and are widely accepted as part of the role played by artists to challenge conventional ideas or the social order. Such artworks sometimes involve radical messages or unpleasant subjects, such as depictions of Nazi atrocities or the plight of refugees in Europe. What happened to Aichi Triennale may have revealed the fact that Japan has yet to embrace such a progressive form of art.
This week, organizers of the controversial exhibition finally agreed with the hosts of the Nagoya arts festival to reopen the collection sometime between this Sunday and Tuesday at Aichi Triennale, which is slated to end Oct. 14. In reopening the section, the organizers must reflect on their failure and clearly explain their intentions in a careful and faithful manner.
On the other hand, rather than announcing the cancellation of the subsidy, what the government should have announced is a strong message that threats and acts of terrorism must not be tolerated. Otherwise, it may send a wrong message that such threats can be an effective weapon to censor freedom of expression. If the government fails to show such strong determination, many artists from both Japan and overseas may decline to participate in future art festivals here.