WolfBrown: On Our Minds

The Hinomaru Variations

March 22nd, 2011

Less than 24 hours after Japan was stricken by the earthquake and tsunami, the first responses from tech-savvy printmakers began to spread through the internet. Printmaking is something of an ideal format for disaster-relief fundraising by artists, as manufacturing costs are relatively low, production is quick, and distribution is simple. Still, the speed at which these were made available for purchase is remarkable- the virtual marketplace not only gives individual artists a wider audience, it provides the audience with a wider array of choice than was possible a decade ago. The motivation to buyers is compounded, especially for those that want to donate to relief efforts (when it most matters), support visual artists, and collect an emotional tribute in solidarity with the people of the stricken nation.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for these (largely non-Japanese) printmakers is how to best symbolize sympathy and support for a culture so adept at symbolic expression. The prints designed in the aftermath of the quake are simple and poignant; many (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) are based on the Hinomaru (the official flag), which, while still a controversial emblem for some, is the best-recognized international symbol of Japan. The similarities prove that the arts community’s reactions to calamities need not be deliberate and planned, and that even visual art can convey spontaneous pan-cultural unanimity. The Hinomaru variations are an excellent example of convergent design- though the traditions and backgrounds of the artists may vary, the symbol and the intention are the same. I expect that over the next decade, the variety of visual art about the Japanese earthquake to diverge and grow considerably as the immediacy of the pain subsides. Personal memorials, political messages, comments on energy policy, and other issues are likely to supersede ‘solidarity’ as the dominant motivator of artistic expression around this event, but for now, solidarity is the only one that matters.


An Orchestral Tribute

March 22nd, 2011

On March 16th, the Tokyo-based NHK Symphony Orchestra performed a concert in Washington, D.C. At the last moment, their conductor, AndrĂ© Previn, added a movement from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3, commonly known as “Air on the G String,” as a tribute to the people of Japan. Just before the concert, the Orchestra’s Chairman, Naoki Nojima, spoke with the audience: “As we perform for you tonight we are performing for ourselves as well and for our loved ones back home.”

I found a number of things remarkable about this story: that the Orchestra chose to go ahead with their performance, despite what had occurred at home, and the choice of the piece itself, which is more tender than solemn, more likely to be heard at a wedding than a funeral. But more than anything else, I was struck by the fact that an orchestra of Japanese musicians would choose a piece written three centuries ago by a Thuringian composer as a memorial and catharsis for the great tragedy that had afflicted their nation. Rarely have I encountered such eloquent testimony to the capacity of great art to transcend time, cultures, and plight.


Responsiveness and Relevance

March 22nd, 2011

Japan is on my mind, with great sorrow. It is hard to carry on knowing the devastation being endured, and the possibility of even greater catastrophe. Of course, the specter of disaster follows us all around, especially those of us who live in areas prone to earthquake, hurricane or terrorist attack. It will be interesting to watch how the arts world engages with Japan. Ironically, or perhaps not, it was Lady Gaga who first broke through the malaise with her offer to raise money for Japan. Gaga’s monsters have a worthy idol. For years now, pop stars have associated themselves with humanitarian causes, raising awareness and funds. As the world begins to take stock of Japan’s tragedy, I am left to wonder what role our venerable arts institutions can or should play in civic or humanitarian causes of such magnitude. Do we have the adaptive capacity to help our communities fathom world events like this- when they need us? Or, are our pre-planned seasons so fixed, our finances and labor agreements so brittle, and our artistic visions so unilateral that we cannot be responsive in times of great need? Must we wait for another 9/11 or Katrina before artists and arts institutions gather around a vast public need to process issues and emotions as they arise? Of course there is a downside risk to acting too quickly and being seen as opportunistic or even exploitive. Perhaps we need to develop a new creative muscle – one that affords a higher level of spontaneity and responsiveness in times like this. Doing so would entirely recast the public value of art. We may not be able to move the masses like pop stars, but perhaps we stand to learn something from Lady Gaga.

P.S. Many thanks to all of you who contributed examples of arts programs that occur in unusual settings, in response to my last posting here. Your references will make the dialogue about “setting” much richer.


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