Thinking about Diversity in the ArtsForum to Support Art by Persons with Disabilities – Art should be for everyone

A “Forum to Support Art by Persons with Disabilities – Thinking about Diversity in the Arts” was held on September 9 at the Roppongi Hills complex in Tokyo. The forum was jointly organized by The Nippon Foundation and the organizing committee of the Forum to Support Art by Persons with Disabilities. Ahead of The Nippon Foundation DIVERSITY IN THE ARTS Exhibition – Museum of Together, to be held at the Spiral building in Minami-Aoyama, Tokyo, from October 13, the forum brought together experts from the fields of the arts and social welfare to discuss how best to promote art created by persons with disabilities.

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Panelists at the first symposium (left to right): Masato Yamashita, Hiroshi Imanaka, Chizuru Azuma, Hiroaki Nakatsugawa, Tadashi Hattori

The forum included two symposiums that together lasted almost three hours, and was attended by roughly 600, mostly younger, people.

Reconsidering the term “art brut”

The Nippon Foundation’s Toshimichi Takemura, of the Domestic Program Development Team, opened the forum with remarks to welcome the attendees. Mr. Takemura introduced the DIVERSITY IN THE ARTS project, which was launched this fiscal year to promote diversity in the arts, noting that the project seeks to introduce the varied, diverse world of art by persons with disabilities to all segments of society, and reported on the project’s specific activities. He acknowledged that The Nippon Foundation has received criticism from the worlds of art and social welfare for incorrectly conveying the original meaning of the term art brut (French for “raw art,” also referred to as “outsider art”) and creating an impression that all artistic activities by persons with disabilities should be considered art brut. He also responded by noting, “The Nippon Foundation has proactively supported art brut as one area of artistic activity, to show people the possibilities that art represents, but we have fully supported other activities as well.” He added, “The original meaning of art brut was not in the context, or a category, of artists with disabilities, and we should reflect sincerely on that,” and declared a “reboot” with the term restored to its original meaning.

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Toshimichi Takemura

These remarks were followed by a keynote address by Tadashi Hattori, associate professor at Konan University and an authority on art by persons with disabilities and modern art. Professor Hattori discussed Kiyoshi Yamashita, an artist from the Showa Period (1926-89) who is known for pasting together torn pieces of paper to create images (known as chigiri-e), and who experienced neurological damage from an illness as an infant and spent part of his childhood in an institution for children with mental disabilities, where he took up chigiri-e. Professor Hattori posed the question of whether Mr. Yamashita’s work constituted art brut. The term “art brut” was coined in French by the artist Jean Dubuffet to recognize outstanding art that stood apart from other works of its time, without regard to whether the artist had a disability. Mr. Yamashita did have an intellectual disability and his art was extraordinary, but he also received artistic training, so Professor Hattori declared that his works do not constitute art brut. Furthermore, he added, “In Japan today, art brut has become synonymous with creative activity by persons with disabilities, but that is incorrect.”

What is art brut in Japan?

Next, the first symposium addressed the topic of “What is art brut in Japan?” For this symposium, Professor Hattori was joined by Masato Yamashita, director of Atelier Yamanami, and Hiroshi Imanaka, founder and director of Atelier Incurve, with the artist Hiroaki Nakatsugawa as moderator and Chizuru Azuma, an actress and representative of the nonprofit “Get in touch,” as coordinator.

Ms. Azuma noted that it would cause problems if everyone in Japan used the term art brut, and Mr. Imanaka pointed out that “Many people think of art brut as art by persons with disabilities. The meaning needs to be clarified, but the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare is promoting art by persons with disabilities, and we are supporting that effort.”

Mr. Yamashita added, “The government is said to be promoting art brut, and we can be said to be doing the same,” explaining, “In our case, works are displayed using the name of the artist, and selected by the organizer.” Professor Hattori explained that the “Art Brut Japonais” held in Paris in 2010, which exhibited roughly 800 pieces by Japanese artists with disabilities, received a better reception than anticipated, and this led to art brut becoming well known in Japan. He also added, however, “We cannot promote a limited understanding of art brut as simply meaning art by persons with disabilities.”

Developing artistic activities for persons with disabilities

The second symposium addressed the topic of developing a variety of artistic activities for persons with disabilities. The five panelists were Nobumasa Kushino, a curator of outsider art, Seiichi Saito of the social service welfare corporation Glow, Shino Sugimoto, president of the art sales and management consulting firm Foster Inc., the writer Randy Taguchi, and Kyoko Suzuki of the Big-i cooperative, with Mr. Nakatsugawa and Ms. Azuma again acting as moderator and coordinator.

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The stage at the second symposium (seated, left to right): Kyoko Suzuki, Shino Sugimoto, Chizuru Azuma, Hiroaki Nakatsugawa, Seiichi Saito, Randy Taguchi, Nobumasa Kushino

Based on his experience with the Japan office of the Art Brut Japonais exhibition, Mr. Saito said, “At that time we received support from Shiga Prefecture. I believe support from local governments is needed for persons with disabilities nationwide to gain support.” Mr. Kushino noted, “We try as much as possible not to use the term art brut. Negative aspects come into play. I intentionally use the term outsider art,” and emphasized, “This means outside the art community, not outside society.”

Ms. Azuma noted that problems arise because “The number of art competitions is increasing, but a balance between art and social welfare needs to be maintained.” Mr. Nakatsugawa replied, “At competitions, some works are chosen for their high quality, while others take into account an understanding of the artist’s life.”

Mr. Kushino sounded a wake-up call, pointing out, “Today, art by persons with disabilities focuses on works by people with intellectual disabilities, but this means that verbal communication is difficult. Even if the person’s face looks like they are smiling, we can’t know if they are actually crying. I want the art world to think about incorporating the lives of these artists with disabilities as background.” Mr. Saito reminded the attendees, “The opportunities to be evaluated should be equal, but we are not seeking to make the results equal.”

Mr. Nakatsugawa added, “Interest in exhibitions is growing, but there is no lateral coordination. I am concerned that the understanding of art brut will become even more distorted if the government becomes involved. We should be able to identify the aspects on which works are being recognized.” Ms. Sugimoto sought understanding from the perspective of the art world, noting, “I want people to understand that art is something that should be preserved and passed on to future generations.”

During the forum, an illustrator in a corner of the auditorium made a “graphic recording” of the remarks made, which many participants viewed as they were leaving the forum.

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An illustrator creates a graphic recording of the forum

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