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Herald Tribune asahi
Japanese People Do Not Know Japan
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Confusion in art market
The art market, including painting, arts and crafts, antiques and contemporary art, is in chaos over the world now. A cross-border influx of financial capital, inflated by illusion and speculation, into the art market is causing the chaos, like the "bubble economy" in Japan about 20 years ago. This "hot money" does not pursue art itself. It is only speculation, without appreciation of beauty.
 
Investments on a worldwide scale by Chinese and Russian money, or by investment funds, bring waves of speculation one after another, and recently numerous art works have been traded at high prices far from the reach of proper collectors and museums, which is reminiscent of the bubble economy in Japan.
 
Some 20 years ago, due to changes of Japanese financial policy in accordance with international financial capital, prices of art increased several fold in parallel with real estate price increases, and later they fell below the pre-bubble economy prices after the collapse of that economy. Skyrocketing prices of art works drove out genuine demand for beauty and the following slump eroded public trust in the art market.
 
Of course, from the perspective of capitalism, it is quite natural that a person who purchases at the highest price has a right to own the work. And wild ups and downs of prices are essential to make a profit. However, I wonder if such "economic fundamentalism" is applicable to painting and art works, which are shared assets of all humanity.
 
Outline of the fifth series
Not all art works are expensive or priceless, although, generally, antiques and art works are thought to be expensive, and sometimes indeed priceless. It is true that some works may sell for several billion yen, like a Buddha statue by Unkei that was sold in an auction recently, but genres of the art market are wide-ranging and run the gamut in quality and price. Even fakes exist.
 
This does not pertain only to art works. How a person feels about prices of goods and services depends on his/her sense of values and concept of money. Once there was a famous advertisement of an auto-maker; "There is an expensive million yen, but also is a cheap million yen." Depending on our sense of values, we find different worth, even if the price is the same. Likewise, depending on knowledge and awareness of art works, we see different values in the art works.
 
During the bubble economy period, a foreign customer said to me: "Japanese people are poor. Many of them can buy expensive European cars, but only a few people are aware of the value of Japanese art works." As a Japanese, I felt ashamed. Unfortunately, it seems that Japanese people find higher value in foreign designer bland goods than in art works made in Japan.
 
Needless to say, art works may be nothing but useless for those who are short of daily foods and in need. We should thank God that we were born in a country where we can appreciate and enjoy art works, while countless people lack even minimum food and medicines in many countries.
 
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, demand for art works and artistic surroundings have changed during the past 20 years. I have been writing the column entitled "Japanese People Do Not Know Japan" (back numbers are available at fuji-torii.com) since autumn 2006. In the fifth series which starts with this article, I wish to write on "the mechanism of the art works market," "values and price standards of art works," "framework of art works," and "raison d'etre of art works" as well as the fundamental theory of what comprises the concept of beauty, comparing the Japanese art market to that of the world.
 
Useless for life
Art works are originally useless for survival instinct and species preservation, which are fundamental aspects of human nature. However, appreciation of and desire for beautiful things may be a proof we are human beings, in a sense.
 

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Behind such activities, we can catch glimpses of human's complicated consciousness and desires.
 
At the present time when everything is evaluated according to monetary values, even art works that are the reflection of the human heart have become objects of speculation and are losing their original meaning. Moreover, behind the scenes, systems and mechanisms are devised to inflate prices, without any regard to appreciation of beauty, which sometimes destroys the worth of the art work itself.
 
I believe the 20th century was an era of material culture and the 21st century will be an era of spirit. As the capitalist system degenerates, I can't avoid the feeling that the world is becoming some sort of dark and inorganic place. Under this chaotic situation, I believe that appreciation of art works is one key whereby people can live human lives.
 
Please send your comment or opinion to hadv@asahi.com
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