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Artists Open Doors: Japan/UK    
3. Understandings of Contemporary Panel:

Junko Takekawa
Alistair Spalding
Saiko Kino
Bin Umino

Professor Bin Umino is a dance critic in Japan who reviews dance performance for Japanese newspapers and magazines. He is a professor in the faculty of sociology at Toyo University, Tokyo, where he lectures in information technology, media and communications studies. Since 1999, he has been developing Web3D motion archives for dance movement using motion capture systems. He was a visiting researcher at Laban in London from April 2004 until March 2005.

In my presentation, I will map out a general framework of 'the contemporary' from a viewpoint of sociology and media studies. The overarching question for this panel was: do we share an understanding of the 'contemporary' in an increasingly globalised arts market, or is it specific to a cultural context? As I see it, we can both share an understanding of 'the contemporary' in a globalised world, even if at the same time what is meant by 'the contemporary' is specific to a cultural context. My answer is not paradoxical, as I will go on to discuss today.

Professor Bannerman asked the panel to address four further questions which I will respond to in turn. Firstly, he asked us to describe what we perceived to be characteristic of 'the contemporary' in our society. To my mind, a work of art (drawing, sculpture, literature, music, theatre or dance) always exists in a medium of communication. From a media studies' viewpoint, communication media can all be examined from two aspects: their mode of communication; and the messages communicated. Taking this approach, what is 'contemporary' will be characterised in Japanese culture by novelty or freshness in how it communicates, and/or by a message communicated that has a commitment to, or interpretation of social issues. Please note that the novel method need not to be original, and the contemporary subject need not be intended.

The first question to the panel inevitably leads to the second: are there references that can be identified as being 'other' in contemporary work, and specifically in this context, stemming from eastern or western sources? A work becomes an art work by being distributed as such in an arts market, which also arbitrates whether a work is judged to be contemporary. The three interested parties of an art market are: the artists or producers; the audience or consumers; and the artistic agencies (from commercial enterprises through to government institutions). Until the nineteenth century in Japan, it was mainly the artist community which evaluated art works. During the twentieth century, art became more embedded in the capitalistic economy, so that art's 'consumers' had greater influence on aesthetic judgement. Nowadays, I would argue that popularity and audience are the major reference points by which 'contemporary' art is identified. I note too however that an authoritative naming as 'contemporary' for a particular art market occurs in relation to that market's size and region of distribution, domestic or international.

Professor Bannerman thirdly asked us whether globalisation is homogenising arts works and artistic practices, or whether there are local, regional or national characteristics that resist this trend. To my mind, this is the key question. 'Globalisation' is often equated with the neoliberal version promoted by the US. As you are aware, the anti-globalisation movement warns us that US national interest risks tainting the civilisation and value systems of other countries. 'Globalisation', in this version, is another name for 'Americanisation', epitomised by brands such as Coca Cola and Disney.

Yet even if globalisation has been dominated by modern western civilisation and is always a form of 'westernisation', it is possible to distinguish it historically from Americanisation. The driving power of globalisation is modernisation, a force so compelling that no country can avoid it, making a form of globalisation inevitable in every country. Sociologists from Max Weber to Anthony Giddens have analysed the process of modernisation, observing how rational thought, respect for human rights, democratic politics and free-market economics are all products of modernisation that are all rooted in modern western civilisation.

Communication media and an efficient transport infrastructure will accelerate the speed of modernisation and globalisation. In Fiji, for example, an island nation in the Pacific Ocean, there used to be no incidence of eating disorders. However, the last decade has seen many cases and a marked change in body perception by the population's teenagers, coinciding with the start of US television broadcasts to the island in 1995.

For people living in non-western countries, globalisation is sometimes experienced as an enforcement of modern western values. Yet globalisation can point not only to homogenisation across the world, but also paradoxically to a respect for the diversity of cultural identities. Globalisation does not necessarily mean the destruction of a local culture; advanced media and transport infrastructure have in fact made it more possible to understand other cultures. In the idealism of multiculturalism or cultural pluralism, all ethnic or regional groups will co-exist, respecting one another's cultures in a spirit of tolerance. In answer to the third question, then, for today's panel, globalisation produces homogenisation to a degree, yet it remains possible to maintain cultural diversity. If you accept the premise of multiculturalism, globalisation becomes an opportunity for diversity rather than enforced uniformity.

The fourth question to the panel concerned the future for art-making given globalisation continuing development. Since ‘the contemporary’ is characterised by globalisation more strongly than ‘the traditional’, I expect that artists of the contemporary will increasingly aim at a global arts market in the future. In conclusion then, I anticipate that contemporary art produced for domestic markets will become preoccupied with re-evaluating traditional arts practices and, in the wake of anxiety prompted by globalisation, with cultural identity. I anticipate that in the global arts market, contemporary art-making will also thematise cultural identity but by novelty of method or by commitment to social issues, a trend that will further multicultural ideals.

 
 
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