There once was a seemingly natural train of thought that ran through Western aesthetics; it suggested that the distinction between high and low art distinguishes what is and what is not ‘fine art’. In Japan, however, there has always been little distinction made between fine art and decorative art.

The difference between the words ‘fine’ and ‘decorative’ is crucial for our understanding of why this happens to be the case. Whereas in fine art the creative expression is a quasi-transcendental end unto itself, decorative art exists as an appendage to a physical object—whether it happens to be an intricate piece of furniture design, or the purchasing of soap.

But this kind of aesthetic demarcation has failed to persuade Japanese aestheticians, who have preferred the utility of ensuring that things are done as expressively as possible, whatever the endeavour. Critics have called this the ‘bilateral capacity’ of Japanese arts to appeal to both audiences; whether they happen to be interested or disinterested in high culture.

The technological and social changes during the last two hundred years have led to a proliferation of art forms and genres, from Ukiyo-e prints to radio soap operas to horror movies and rock recordings. Daido Moriyama and Nobuyoshi Araki, who both feature in our current exhibition, have contributed to these popular forms of culture in significant ways. Araki has left an indelible mark on fashion designers and photographers worldwide through his incorporation of sensual and erotic subjects. Lady Gaga, one of the most famous examples of an artist who skirts the borders between high and low art, has already been photographed by Araki in a manner reminiscent of his portrayals of Kaori, his most intimate sexual subject.

fine art decorative

Amongst Araki’s earliest works were Sentimental Journey (1971) and Yoko My Love (1978), which depicted the photographer’s private life with his first wife: “As to my honeymoon, I started taking photographs right away, beginning with our train ride, and then having sex. That is what everyone does on a honeymoon, so it is nothing special.” His approach to photography blurred the line between high and low art, incorporating elements of the everyday into his work in order to disrupt received notions of aesthetic hierarchy.

Araki discovered Moriyama through the radical photography journal Provoke, at which time he was working for an advertising company called Dentsu. Moriyama likewise was interested in depicting the ordinary, and has claimed in a recent interview that:

Photography has changed and has entered the field of art, but there aren’t many people like me who are strictly doing street shooting now… I think the secret to taking interesting photos is to realise that there is no such thing as an ordinary day. Every day is different and everything is extraordinary. I was hoping I could encourage more young people to follow my path, but unfortunately it hasn’t happened. I suppose people today prefer to do something that’s more fancy or trendy.

Moriyama’s desire to motivate a new generation of street photographers may stem from his own introduction to the art world through the works of the American-born French artist William Klein, a photographer famous for visualizing the extraordinary in the quotidian. At the age of 17, Moriyama was already confident in his artistic ability, something that was confirmed by a brief engagement in the field of commercial design: “But once I was inspired by photography,” Moriyama comments, “I just didn’t want to do anything else.”

Moriyama’s ‘Accident’ series has strong affinities with another ‘pop’ American artist: Andy Warhol, specifically his ‘Death and Disaster’ series, with both artists showing a profound interest in the gaze of the detached voyeur. The perspective of the photographer in Moriyama’s photographs is most often that of detachment and observation, as he photographs Tokyo’s bohemian Shinjuku district. The character that comes through from the photographs is more the sort of person who is stuck on the side rather than in the thick of it.

It was not until after World War II, however, that Japan’s art photography came into its stride. Unlike photographers in the United States and Europe, who were focused on limited editions of high-quality prints, such photographers in Japan continued to rely on publication for their livelihood. This had a major impact on their technique, and, similar to the ukiyo-e print designer, their aesthetic input had to be tangible in the composition and exposure of the image, rather than in the details of the printing process. This has changed over time, but it has meant that Japanese photographic imagery is often visually arresting.