October 6th, 2006


Money makes free

"I like the free feeling of the art here!" says Klara. "And I like the no rules policy!" says Jan. They're from the Czech Republic, and they're visiting the Design Festa Gallery in Harajuku, Tokyo. Other gaijin, from other countries, are impressed too. Many of them have read about this place in their Tokyo guides.

"It's great to be able to wander about the various rooms so freely!", says Karen, from the UK. Anja, from San Francisco, says "This gallery is like a big box, exploding with free expression". Eva from Barcelona agrees: "I really like how young people are free to do what they want here". Swedish Julia says the place "reminds me of Berlin - the freedom and creativity". Ed from America says "To find such a great sub-culture that is rich in expression and artistic freedom is very refreshing in a city like Tokyo". Jamie, also from the US, echoes the thought: "Free for everyone even in most expensive city of Tokyo. Love to see free thinkers. Tokyo needs a place like this. This is a heaven!"

Design Festa isn't free, though. It's a pay-to-display gallery. The fees are listed here. I've visited Design Festa's building in Ura-Hara a couple of times, and it does indeed look like a funky Berlin squat on the outside, covered in colourful street art and spiky scaffolding. It's hardly a retreat from the world of commerce into a world of freedom, though. The organization behind it, like Takashi Murakami's Geisai, also organizes massive pay-to-display events. The next one takes place in three halls at Tokyo Big Sight on the first weekend of December. You can see some sample works here.

It may seem strange to find young Japanese people considerably less naive than gaijin, but the local visitors to Design Festa strike a much more pragmatic tone. They seem as interested in the cafe as the gallery -- for the Japanese, food counts for more than art, and neither are expected to be free. "Luckily, we could take part in the tea ceremony today. The macha tea was awesome! This gallery is very homey and cozy. The atmosphere here today reminds me of the milk bar they used to have here before," say Mayu, Hiroko and Sunaken. "Tomato mousse was really yummy, and having it was my first time," says Sato Kanako, adding, as an afterthought, "a variety of artwork are also inspiring me". Keisuke Sakurada doesn't beat around the bush: "This building really stands out. I am thinking of exhibiting at Design Festa, but isn't it bit pricey for a booth? Now I cannot afford it, but I will exhibit some day!" Michiko Tachimoto says: "Today, I am here to look over the room for my exhibition. It's a great opportunity to show my work for a cheap rental fee!"

The Japanese visitors all know that Design Festa is a pay-to-display gallery. What's more, they don't seem to mind. Just as you pay to eat delicious food, you pay to show your art to the world. I wonder if the Westerners would mind if they did know? Would it make them shut up about freedom? What's so great about freedom anyway?

In some ways, a totally commercial gallery system is totally liberating. The absence of gatekeepers, quality control, curators or professional art qualification requirements seems, to many, like giving the finger to the elitist art world. Anyone with $50 to spare can stick their stuff up on the walls of a room and sit there all day like a spider in a web, hoping to sell something to a "creative tourist". Take that, David Elliott! You're disintermediated!

Personally, though, I saw nothing interesting at Design Festa on my visits there, just as I've never seen anything interesting at Geisai. As a consumer of art, I actually want curators to sort the wheat from the chaff. I trust them to know, to some extent, what's good, new and interesting. I like the professional art world. And I like the idea that merit, not money, should determine what gets seen. So I suppose what we have here is "freedom through money" versus "freedom from money". But of course money also accompanies you every step of the way through the professional art world. It costs money to go to art school, and successful graduates earn money. The only difference is that they don't, generally, pay to display. It isn't money alone which determines, in the West, who gets seen. You also have to be good.

But things get more complex. It seems to me that the comments about "freedom" that we started with are part of a culture we could call "Phatic Commercial Affirmation". To know what I mean by that, think of multi-cultural Benetton ads. Think of any statement Paul Smith has ever made about Tokyo street fashion. Think of the opening exhibition at the Mori Museum in 2002, Happiness. Think of Merry, the big show and book project at Laforet Harajuku. Or just think of any TV commercial, full of stretched eyes, white smiles, and over-saturated colours. The word "free" appears in a lot of those, too.

Phatic Commercial Affirmation is an airbrushed, unrelentingly positive view of life in which, ironically, commercial logic is both nowhere and everywhere. It's a world of admirable positivity and accessibility. No matter what colour or creed you are, you too can join this world -- and, by extension, the happy, affirmative family of Man -- just by buying the required product. What it isn't is cynical or critical, although its exclusion of those things almost begs them to spring forth, roaring. For this reason, Moronic Cynicism is Phatic Commercial Affirmation's grumpy cousin.

I think a lot of the "creative tourists" who visit (and sometimes settle in) Japan are profoundly attracted by this commercial world where all conflict, all cynicism and all critical activities have been suspended. It does, after all, have a lot to recommend it. It seems free, cheerful, accessible, materialist, non-elitist. Happiness is a cake and a cup of coffee. Fulfillment is a new pair of shoes. And why not? There's the same kind of "liberation into banality" going on here that we see in the work of Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons or Takashi Murakami, the same kind of utter surrender to consumerist popular culture -- in other words, culture created by, with and from money, and money alone.

I wonder if these Westerners -- the ones who, like Bill McKible, are increasingly retreating from a frightening West into a reassuring Japan -- aren't slowly learning from the Japanese. Learning how to be non-cynical, non-metaphysical consumer-citizens. Perhaps they're currently in a transitional phase. They still want to talk about "freedom" as if it were freedom from the money system, and as if individuality were freedom from the demands of society. But, given a bit more time, they'll see liberation as being freed into the money system, and fulfillment as an utter identification with social role -- an identification that the West, with its metaphysics, its cynicism, its discrimination, won't quite allow.

I wonder if, one day, gaijin won't call Design Festa "free" because they don't know it's pay-to-display, but precisely because they do. On that day, perhaps we'll discover whether the market means quite what we do by words like "save" and "free". Personally, I hope it has some really big plans for us. We deserve them.