The start of Kids' Guernica by Tom Anderson
Note: This article was first published under Anderson, T. 1997, Art, Education, and the Bomb: Reflections on a Children's Peace Mural Project. Journal of Social Theory in Art Education 17, 71-97.
It is posted on this website again with the permission of the author to document his involvement from the start of the Kids' Guernica project.
Tom Anderson organised the Kids' Guernica Exhibition and the Symposium about 'Art Education for Social Justice' held in January 2010 at the Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida, USA to underline the fact that Kids' Guernica will celebrate throughout that year its 15th anniversary.
Art, Education, and the Bomb: Reflections on an International Children's Peace Mural Project
by Tom Anderson, The Florida State University
On August 6, 1945, at 8:15 A.M., an American bomber dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, instantly incinerating about 70,000 people, killing another 100,000 or so by the end of 1945 (Weale, 1995). Three days later, another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, killing another 40,000 or so people. Shortly thereafter, on August 14, Japan surrendered, ending World War Two. If dropping the bomb was not the most significant event of the twentieth century, it's a contender. Certainly, it changed the face of war forever. The New York Times declared that one "cannot understand the 20th century without Hiroshima"(July 6, 1995).
About the Idea
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and the end of World War Two, Abe Toshifumi of Osaka Women's College contacted me about developing an international children's peace mural exchange. Professor Abe's idea was to "build a bridge of peace" between the United States and Japan through this project. My first thought was that it was a wonderful idea. My second thought, trailing immediately on its heels, was how does art education, however well-intentioned and sincere, begin to address what has been called the defining moment and event of the twentieth century?
As a community muralist and contextualist, I believe that the purpose of art is communication from one human being to another about things that count. This does not mean that I believe the aesthetic component -- the "wonder" -- in artworks is to be disregarded. Rather, it implies that the aesthetic almost always does or can serve an extrinsic function (Dissanayake, 1988), beyond being for its own sake. That function, which is usually both prosaic and symbolic, is to serve as a marker that in some way defines the people who make, use, and view the artwork or aesthetically framed object (R. Anderson, 1990) . Art is something people do to give them a sense of themselves, not only as a fete accompli/as display, but also as process. Thus, artworks may be used as a vehicle for understanding human nature through their displayed visual qualities, the forming process, and their social context (T. Anderson, 1995). The structure of this paper follows from this premise.
About the Bomb
It may be appropriate in the postmodern age to begin this account by describing an absence of presence and then attribute to that absence the project's ultimate power. The raison d'être for this project is the bomb. Yet there is no depiction of the bomb in either the American or Japanese children's murals. This was done consciously, to accentuate the positive. But the fact that it's not depicted doesn't mean it's not there. It has the weight and mass of a black hole not only in this project, but in life on Earth. And like a black hole, the gravity of the bomb affects the way all things look and act within its sphere. It is the bomb that can take all life, thus in some sense defines life on this planet. We live in the nuclear age, the age of the bomb, and it is the bomb itself that gives this project its guts.
The bomb has had an effect not only on those against whom it was used but on everyone, everywhere. For example, at that developmental point in life when kids fear ghosts and monsters, I and many of my friends feared the bomb. But we didn't like to talk about it. It was too overwhelming; a faceless anonymous threat that couldn't be handled: no switch to turn it off, nothing even your parents or the president can do to help you. Like one of those bad dreams where you sink in quicksand or can't run fast enough to get away, the omnipresent power of the bomb seemed inevitable.
With increased temporal distance from Hiroshima and the lessening of East-West tensions in recent years, it's my perception that children have gone back to worrying about monsters. The problem, however, with forgetting the bomb in favor of the monsters is that monsters aren't real. The bomb is. And though (or maybe because) it has sunk to lower levels of consciousness, it's still dangerous. It needs to be remembered to be diffused.
About the Process
Professor Abe in partnership with Yasuda Tadashi of Art Japan, an arts and culture network, initiated the project, and asked me to collaborate on the Project Statement. In it, the project team stated its hopes that through remembering the horrific results of the atomic bomb, such devastating warfare can be avoided now and forevermore. The means to achieve this end was the development and exchange of children's peace murals. Each mural is executed on canvas the size of Guernica (about 25 by 12 feet). These murals were developed in children's mural workshops in which the concept of peace was explored, not only in abstract universal terms, but also in concrete, specific, and universal terms. Children were asked to envision how they can promote peace as citizens of their country and the world, in a locally and culturally specific manner.
The initial concept was that the mural exchange would be between the United States and Japan. The first mural would be executed by American children. That mural would be sent to Japan where it would be seen by Japanese children who would execute a mural in response. Then the murals would be displayed together in both Japan and America. As the project evolved, however, it became apparent to all of us that peace in the world is not simply a Japanese-American1 issue. Consequently, Professor Abe and Arts Japan brought France, Korea, Papua New Guinea, and Nepal into the project and I was able to convince a team in Kuwait to participate.
The first mural was executed in Tallahassee, Florida, in July, 1995. It had an opening exhibition at Space Gallery in Tallahassee and then was sent to Japan as a stimulus for the workshop there. Then both murals were displayed at the Tokushima Museum of Modern Art before being sent on to Korea where they were used as stimulation for a third workshop. All three murals were displayed in Korea, then sent on to Nepal, and so on. In the end, at least seven murals will be displayed, first in the Hiroshima Museum of Modern Art, then in the Florida State University Museum of Art.
As articulated in the Project Statement, we believe in spite of the fact that the children and sponsors of this project are of different cultural backgrounds, certain human drives and concerns are universal, such as the desire to live safely in peace, free from war or the threat of war. We also believe that since art is at root an instrument of culture, the children of different countries participating in this study will express these universal concerns differently, each according to their own locally specific needs and criteria.2 Finally, we believe that the power and potential of the project lies in this idea of unity of purpose and diversity of approach. Through seeing the multiple paths we all take to reach common goals it is our hope that understanding, tolerance, and respect one for another will grow. This, indeed, may be a path to world peace.
Cooperative community mural making was determined to be a natural vehicle for this project since community murals are instrumentalist in nature, focusing on social or community related issues to be addressed and/or acted upon through aesthetic means (T. Anderson, 1983, 1985). Of particular significance for this project is the fact that community murals emphasize group identity and cooperative problem solving. This factor was to become even more significant than I first suspected as the project progressed as I examined how the forms and processes of the workshops in America and Japan reflected similarities and differences between Japanese and American society.
To execute the Tallahassee mural, I recruited an adult mural team consisting of artistic director Linda Hall, an established community-oriented muralist, and four undergraduate Florida State University art education majors. The children's team consisted primarily of fifteen mural painting veterans recruited from the Fourth Avenue Cultural Enrichment (FACE) program directed by Jill Harper. These children, between the ages of nine and fifteen, had executed several inner city murals already. Completing the core team were five children representing socio-economically privileged lifestyles. With the cooperation of Director Gay Drennon, we were also able to tie into the week-long Very Special Arts Florida festival at the 621 Gallery, where the mural was painted. Thus, about 75 to a 100 Very Special Arts participants also contributed to the mural. In this sense, the Tallahassee workshop was consciously inclusive, community-based, locally specific in its design, and directed to socially instrumental purposes. We wanted to provide empowerment and validation to as many types of children as possible through this project. To borrow a bad cliché, it was our philosophy to think globally and act locally.
The workshop began with a presentation to the core mural team about World War Two and particularly about the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Beyond the obvious point of wanting the children to know what we were doing and why it was important, the secondary point was to let them know who else was participating, to whom they were sending the mural, and for what reasons. Toward that end, Maruyama Yasushi, a native of Hiroshima, told the children about the effects of the atomic bomb and about Hiroshima then and now. Ide Kumiko, a native of Tokyo, told the children about what it is like to be a child in Japan, and particularly what the children to whom we'd be sending the mural are like. There was discussion about war and peace and their causes, what Japanese children like to do, how they spend their time, and so on, which led to an impromptu lesson in which most of the children learned to fold an origami crane.
At that point, through cooperative interaction, the theme of the Tallahassee mural began to crystallize. What could we do to help the children of Japan understand who we are and what we like to do? We decided we could symbolically send gifts to the children in Japan that would help them understand what we value and who we are. We decided to paint self portraits holding the things we care about most. These would be our gifts of peace. A Gift of Peace became our theme and title. Another discussion generated a list of possible gifts that describe the American character, particularly through objects and activities valued by the children. Further discussion centered on how we would get these gifts to Japan. One adult team member suggested that the children could fly, like in the book Tar Beach (Ringgold, 1991). Many of the children knew this story and agreed enthusiastically. Children then rendered themselves on paper, taking off and flying, carrying gifts which included, among other things, peace signs, fried chicken and French fries, a chocolate milk shake, skateboards, a rap C.D., kittens, American flags, sports equipment, Nike tennis shoes, and a Sweet Valley Twins novel.
The execution of the mural itself took place over the course of about a week, during which time children with special needs visited the 621 Gallery workspace, engaging in mural making and in other activities. Inspired again by Faith Ringgold, the adult mural team decided to use her quilting device as a compositional structure to give everyone equal access to expressing themselves in the mural and to still execute a product, overall, of high aesthetic quality. The solution was to give each special arts student a square of his or her own which together formed the border around the primary composition. Many of the exceptional needs children executed symbolic gifts to send to Japan including peace signs, a steel drumin [sic] C.D., kittens, American flags, a lizard, flowers, and so on. Many others were not able either to integrate the concept or to execute it, but painted freely in their designated square nonetheless. Frequently it required either fairly careful adult supervision or a little adult retouching to keep border painters' images within the own squares.
The American mural process, then, was one in which an adult mural team provided the content and broad theme of peace, as well as the conceptual foundation and compositional structure. Children, in cooperation with the adults, developed the specific theme and title, A Gift of Peace, and specific content and imagery fitting the theme.
Finally, the opening exhibition at the Space Gallery was accompanied by West African drumming and dancing, celebrating the FACE team's African-American roots. All in all, the American mural workshop was a process celebrating the multiple identities, abilities, and subcultures of America, and the empowerment of each in the pursuit of the universal theme of world peace.
Professor Abe came from Japan to videotape almost the entire Tallahassee workshop for his research. In addition, Art Japan hired a professional video crew from Florida-based Seminole Productions to provide raw footage for what is to become a documentary on this project. I slowly became aware during the course of events that this desire for documentation was a much higher priority for the Japanese than for the Americans.
At the invitation of Art Japan, I took the American children's mural to Japan, where I was privileged to take a small part in and observe the Japanese children's peace mural workshop. The workshop was held at the Tokushima Museum of Modern Art. The facilities and resources mustered by the Japanese for this project made me feel like the Tallahassee mural was executed in third world conditions. The working spaces in Florida, a classroom at FSU and the non-air conditioned space at the 621 Gallery in Tallahassee's Railroad Square art district, paled in comparison to workshop and display space in the gleaming, almost new Tokushima Museum of Modern Art.
The Japanese support for the Children's Peace Mural Project was remarkable. An air conditioned, 40 by 80 foot workspace was provided. Three museum staff members, a full time curator and two assistants, were assigned to the project. The entire floor in the Tokushima Museum workshop space was covered with blue plastic tarp, the cost of which no doubt exceeded the entire budget of the Tallahassee mural. The museum supplied a canvas that was cut and professionally sewn to the right dimensions at the factory, and state of the art brushes and supplies. Sakura Corporation supplied paint for the entire project. This compared to the Tallahassee experience, which many American art educators will recognize as typical, of scrambling for everything and working on a shoestring. In short, the resources directed to this project, and to the arts and culture in Japan, are from what I could tell, phenomenal. I had to keep asking myself, "Where do they get all this money?"
The process of the Tokushima workshop also was different than the Tallahassee workshop in interesting ways. The relative time spent in consultation and achieving consensus among mural team members was an obvious difference as was the manner in which decisions were made.
In Tallahassee, Linda Hall and I met a couple of times before the children's workshop to talk about format, theme, and strategy. We discussed the mural a couple more times on the phone. We assigned the rest of the adult mural team, consisting of the Japanese presenters and four art education students, their tasks. Working from a bare-bones conceptual foundation, we made many decisions about content, form, and strategy spontaneously and "on the fly" during the course of the week-long workshop. The fact that choices were made in a spontaneous, open-ended manner meant that the final form and content of the American mural were not finally known until the mural was done. The process also was open-ended and somewhat divergent in terms of participants' roles. Certain members of the adult mural team were more interested and involved than others and took on more central roles as a matter of course. Likewise, children became more central or more peripheral depending on their level of participation and interest. This fluid definition of who would do what and how much also affected the outcome. For example, the borders that we had saved for the exclusive use of Very Special Arts students were partially painted by core mural team members who wanted to do more, and the primary composition was partially painted by special students who had the skills and the desire. This open ended and divergent process at times resulted in a rather chaotic process, but we believe that it also gave everyone an equal opportunity to contribute, to take ownership to the extent they wanted to and were capable of.
In Tokushima, the process was much more formalized and deliberate. Overall, it seemed, too, that both adults' and children's roles were rather more fixed than in Tallahassee. Everyone seemed to know what their roles were coming in, and there didn't seem to be much flux on the issue. The process of consultation was almost ritualistic. The mural team met frequently, and at some length, every day before the children came and after they left, allowing everyone to speak, and reaching consensus on all significant aspects of the project before any action was taken. The children were also integrated into the consensus building and decision making process in a much more formalized manner than in the American workshop. Unlike the workshop in Tallahassee, there were formal sessions that began and ended each studio experience in which the children were asked to express their opinions about what the content of the mural should be and how that content should be expressed. In short there was an attempt to gain consensus from the workers at each stage of the process. Only later would I understand just how important these meetings and everyone's attendance and consensus are in Japanese society.
Further, the Japanese children's mural appeared to proceed in an exceedingly orderly fashion. In spite of my language handicap, I have the distinct impression that the major structural components as well as the processes were all formulated in advance. Very little, if anything was left to chance. It seemed that spontaneous decision making in the heat of the process was neither desirable nor even accommodated. Surprises in form or process were unwelcome. Innovation during the mural making process seemed to require group consensus. The Japanese children and adults seemed to be more conscious than the Americans of how one change affects the whole.
It also became apparent that the Japanese children had a much more cooperative tendency than the American children. They had much more inclination to work in groups than the American children, who tended to work singly, or at most in pairs. The American sense of individual ownership was expressed by one child when she said to another child about her self portrait, "This is my picture, don't touch it." Again, my language skills limited my ability to know for sure, but I did not detect this attitude at all in the Japanese children, through their postures or interactions, or through my interpreters. Although individual Japanese children did initiate images and ideas, it was the norm during the actual painting process for kids to be working on components of the mural together. The only time this happened in the American process was in painting the background, a task it seemed that the American children recognized as a sort of bothersome necessity to be dispensed with before they got to the "real stuff" -- their own individual expressions of self.
Another marked difference between the American and Japanese mural projects was media coverage, which seemed to be much more important to the Japanese team than to the American team. My perception, in fact, is that in the Japanese project the media coverage was as important or possibly more important than the event itself: almost as if there were no point in doing it if weren't covered by TV. There was also a different attitude toward the media: a sincerity and earnestness that is unlike the more manipulative American commercial soundbite-and-visual-overload strategies of minimal substantive content. At times, it was almost like the reason for the project was the desire for documentation. In Tokushima, three network teams were there for the entire workshop over a period of a week. There were so many cameras and media people that sometimes that I was surprised they could take video of the event without getting each other in it. Every nuance was filmed and refilmed. Everyone who could possibly be interviewed was interviewed. Every angle shot that could be dreamed up was utilized. And it was Arts Japan who orchestrated it all, and to whom the commercial media had to come for permission to access the imagery they apparently found so irresistible. I sensed a real power that Art Japan held not only over the other media but over the project itself. The media coverage was, in a sense, constructing reality not only in the ephemeral world of electronically produced light and sound, but in the real temporal and spatial world of people and canvas. It almost seemed that the videotaping proved that the experience did exist.
About the Products: Content, Forms, and Composition
With the exception of the continent of North America and the islands of Japan, the largest and most dominant elements in the American mural are the individual children's portraits. These portraits, flying in formation, serve as the compositional focus of the mural. Many are life-size, and through their very size, dominate the area around them. Overall, the mural gives a sense of being one composition, tied together by the horizon line, contracurved banner, figures flying all one direction from right to left almost as though in formation, and quilt-like frame.
The Japanese mural consists of five dominant compositional elements: a half globe, a giant rainbow repeating the Earth's curve, a partial red sun, an immense tree with its roots extending down into the ocean, and a hot air balloon with an Asian and a Caucasian child in it, and an large yellow banner with a message of peace in Kanji script. There is no empty space anywhere in this mural. Every inch is jam-packed with imagery. There is a sense in this mural of multiple foci, compositionally created by repeating curved structural components that center the eye alternately in different areas of the composition, none of which dominate the others long enough to hold the eye indefinitely. There is not one line of movement or one primary area of focus that stands out above the rest. The content of the mural reinforces this, providing the eye with many, many choices. The overall sense is one of density that doesn't allow for any one individual image to stand out above the others. The sense of unity in this piece, then, comes from the fact that the multiple images seem almost seamlessly to mesh into one highly decorative design.
About Being American and Japanese
At the risk of lapsing into the realm of cliché, the most obvious difference reflected in the imagery and compositions of the two murals is what might be described as a Japanese collectivist versus American individualist sensibility.
John Dewey described an American sense of society when he said, "society is an organic union of individuals" (McDermott, 1973, 445), and said in that context that "the individual to be educated is a social individual" (p.445). Embedded in this outlook is the Cartesian, Humanist notion that the rational individual is the center of social authority (Bowers, 1987); is (or ideally should be) free to make choices in the personal and social spheres according to his or her own inner, felt, rational decisions; and should remain uncompromised by external social restrictions. It is within this philosophical context of Liberal Humanism that centers American society, that Dewey states "the child's own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting point for all education" (McDermott, p.444). Although he recognized that we are social animals, he believed, and American society and its educational institutions have largely integrated, that education should begin with the individual, and that individual must be educated with an eye to his or her personal development in the crucible of a social context, rather than through "forced and external process" that subordinates the "freedom of the individual to a preconceived social and political status"(McDermott, p.444). The welfare of the group is best served, according to Dewey, not by the application of external social convention on the developing individual, but by the application of that individual's freely developing powers to the problems of society, as chosen by the individual's interests and proclivities.
I think the American children's mural and the process whereby it came into being reflect this very reality. In the American mural, each representation was chosen and executed by an individual and represents that person's content choices, stylistic sensibility and level of skill or talent. Likewise, the theme itself is very individualistic in sensibility. The idea of consciously framing the mural's content to present personal, favorite items that help someone else understand who we are at an individual level, and by extension understand our society, is probably even egotistical from a non-American point of view. Visually, the individual portraits which dominate the image are all separate and distinct, one from another, standing out starkly against an otherwise almost empty background. Yet collectively, in their individuality, they define a group sensibility. Individual expression is highlighted while still adhering and contributing to the collective theme and composition. Overall, then, this mural has the spirit of its being done by a collection of individuals cooperating within a loosely agreed upon structure.
This sense of individualistic treatment is enhanced by the varying levels of talent and differing developmental stages in evidence. Some sections, particularly some of the border squares, may even be judged as being not very good. It was determined by the adult team that, to the greatest extent possible, children's individual expressions should be allowed to stand, whatever their quality or talent level. The assumption undergirding this position was that each child was doing his or her best (possibly a naive assumption, but typically American), thus the image represented the child's participation and empowerment as an individual. Unless it was severely detrimental to the mural's final form and spirit, all sincerely executed images were allowed to stand as that individual's freedom to express what he or she will, unaltered and undiluted. The resulting unevenness, rather than being seen as a detriment, was viewed as a charming validation of child art accounting for multiple developmental and talent levels. It was also seen as somehow less directive and restrictive in nature, representing a democratic process in which each child had the right to participate no matter what their level of talent.
Helping children recognize the global concept of peace through understanding was a goal that seemed to be achieved. But the individual and local outcomes were just as valuable. In spite of the analysis above, among the most important of these was that inner city kids, privileged suburban kids, and kids with all sorts of special needs were all empowered by the act of executing an international peace mural... together. They learned to work with each other as a team, and with the adult team, learning individually about the cooperation, difference, and compromise that is so critical to individual relations as well as peace between nations. Artistically, the children learned to make design and color choices reflecting their intended communication, and to alter those choices when and as appropriate in the context of a public group expression. That, in fact, may have been the most difficult lesson for many of the American children involved: the occasional sublimation of their own individual creative and compositional drives and choices for the overall good of the group. So the notion of rugged individualism as personified in the children's mural only holds to a point, beyond which it becomes a caricature or stereotype, and breaks down.
Conversely, my first impression on seeing the completed Japanese mural was that it was in fact a stereotype: too cute, too conventional in its images of balloons and flowers and wide-eyed, Keene-like children swinging from rainbows and holding hands, and too evenly controlled to be very interesting. To my American eyes this was conventional in the manner not well appreciated by those of us who like to think of ourselves as discriminating. Further research, however, has led me to modify my position. It has led me to understand, for example, that from the Japanese perspective, convention is a highly desirable quality, the result of doing something correctly, according to form. An analysis of form and the process of forming, in fact, can serve as an instrument to illustrate the heart of what is different between the Japanese and the Americans.
As far as I can determine, the Japanese and the Americans hold almost opposite views of the relationship of the individual and society. As in most traditional/indigenous societies (Bowers, 1987), the ultimate source of social authority for the Japanese lies not with the individual, but with the group. Of course the Japanese can hardly be said to be a classic indigenous culture in the anthropological sense. In spite of a feudal history that ended only 50 years ago (DeMente, 1993), Japanese culture is highly articulated in social roles, hierarchy, specialization, and is complex by any world standard. On the other hand, due to their geographical isolation and separatist proclivities, they are the largest homogenous culture on Earth. In this sense they are a tribal international power. Maybe Japan is one of the most interesting anomalies in the world: a complex, modern, world class society permeated by the conservative, authority-oriented and tradition-driven values and mores of indigenous societies. Which lens should be picked, then, to understand this further?
A useful perspective is represented in the "shikata," one of the most important concepts in Japanese culture. Shikata, or kata for short, literally means "way of doing things" (DeMente, 1993). It refers to the proper form and order of doing things with a special emphasis on people serving and supporting one another, particularly as determined by hierarchical social structures that have been in place since feudal times. As novelist Abe Kobo puts it, "Obligation is a man's passport among his fellow men" (p.127)3 . While it has been claimed that the Japanese do not have a philosophy in the Western idealist sense (Bouvier, 1992; DeMente, 1993), shikata might be likened to the Japanese equivalent of epistemology. The inner order (the individual heart) and the natural outer order of the cosmos are connected in Japanese metaphysics through appropriate form or actions on the part of the individual. This form, the kata, then, is the means through which individuals connect to society. According to DeMente, the challenge for each individual is to know one's true heart, or "honshin" and to act in accordance with it through following the kata to keep in sync with society. Over the centuries doing things the right way, utilizing the various kata as guides, has been sanctified, ritualized, and even equated with morality. Being out of kata is a moral offense against society. Form thus becomes ethics and policy( ways of doing things) becomes principle (DeMente, 1993).
Education, then, centers on the primacy of the group, not the individual. The Japanese word for child rearing and early training is "shitsuke," which refers to the passing of customs and correct behaviors (Hendry, 1986). Interestingly, also embedded within the Kanji character designating this concept is the idea of the human body and of beauty, the aesthetic component implying that one's correct action or form is a thing of beauty. This attention to aesthetically framed form as philosophy is the quality that makes some observers think of the Japanese as the most aesthetic people in the world (DeMente, 1993). This beautifying of both the body and the heart through correct action also signifies the valuing of mutual dependence ("amae") in Japanese society and education, as opposed to the Western push for independence. The most highly prized qualities for students to attain are compliancy and harmonious behavior. Overall, shitsuke embraces the belief that the child is to be shaped in the way of society's expectations, and that the individual is to serve and be subservient to the group rather than vice versa. Thus the goal of education in Japan is to bring children up to be ordinary or average, just like other people. The Japanese have an adage that illustrates this: "A sticking up nail should be knocked in and a bent one straightened" (Hendry,1986; Tames, 1993).
This same tendency is seen in art. Mura (1993), in critically analyzing Japanese Noh theater, makes the observation that one element does not stand out above the others, and in fact presents it as a generalization that "Japanese culture eschews a center of focus. The Japanese mode of perception is more amorphous, more intuitive than that of the Westerners, fluid, not fixed..." (p. 209). This avoidance of a center of attention in the arts and in education seems to reflect a general cultural tendency in Japan. It is very important to be a part of the group, to not stand out above the others.
Finally, an emphasis on form has resulted in what many Americans see as Japanese aestheticism, what Mura (1993) describes as "an aesthetics of surface, of outside appearance"(p20). "[The Japanese] place far more value on surface beauty and appearance, than the depth seeking and morally conscious Americans"(p35). It must be understood, however that this emphasis on form does not imply a lack of rigor or depth, only a different focus. It is not a shallow and superficial concern with form as might be interpreted from a Western perspective but a deep and abiding sense of form as substance (DeMente, 1993). In addition, the traditional concern with form required that each vocation or skill was reduced to basic elements that were classified or labeled in relation to their role in making up the whole. Learning, then, consisted of incorporating the mastering of basic components in a codified order and manner. In this kata the goal is not minimal functionalism, but absolute perfection.
Mason's (1994) report about art education in Japan confirms that many of these qualities are integrated into the curriculum. Standardization is institutionalized through The Ministry of Education's national curriculum for all grades. According to Mason this curriculum stresses composition in painting and the understanding of formal elements as well as observation and the proper use of tools. She also confirms that the exacting nature of studio process and level of expected technical competency are at the heart of the curriculum. Self expression is a secondary concern only acceptable in the proper form and at the proper level of skill. It's not all right in Japan to express yourself freely if that expression is technically not up to snuff. As I observed, texts describe the "right" way to do things. The very formal presentation of knowledge and skills is standard procedure. Teaching is group rather than individually oriented. Tasks are to be performed correctly rather creatively.
Seen in this context, the Japanese children's mural must be seen as an excellent paradigm reflecting the values of its genesis. In terms of its general structure and composition, it might be overstating the case to say there is greater uniformity in the Japanese mural; still there is a sense that the whole appears more homogenous, more of one collective mind than the American mural. The theme and treatment of the theme are collectively rather than individually oriented. The imagery and composition conform to the shikata. There are no sloppy passages, there is an evenness in skill and rendering levels, there are multiple, mutually reinforcing centers of interest, none of which dominate the others, and there is appropriately conventional imagery that will not call attention to itself above other elements. This is reinforced by a lack of individual portraiture, each figure being relatively generic, proportionately small, and in a sense stereotypical -- meaning that they are conventional and standardized in type, rather than individualistic. Rising from these qualities and from the density of content, one gets a sense of uniformity: a collective equality of a very different sort than in the American mural. In short, there are no nails to be knocked down. From a Japanese perspective, this is very good. The uniformity that I held to be saccharin and cute is remarkably accomplished children's art in the Japanese context. It represents a uniformly high level of skills and in its physical and procedural form follows correctly from master paradigms.
One of the paradigms used by the Japanese team was the American mural project. But with this new information I have to wonder what they thought of the pre-schematic scribbles on the borders of the American mural. The Japanese copied many qualities from the mural done in Tallahassee, but they didn't copy that.
The Japanese are probably thought of as the world's greatest imitators. It only follows that if correct form is of fundamental importance, then the ability to copy will be a highly desirable skill. But as Tames (1993) suggests, we only need to look at the uniqueness and complexity of Japanese culture to recognize the stereotype of the copycat Japanese is superficial and artificial. Not that they don't copy. They do. Several sources (Bouvier, 1992; Tames, 1993) report on the Japanese' first encounter with the Dutch in the 1500's, seeing their first gun, and having reproduced it six months later. That in itself is remarkable, but what may be overlooked is what the Japanese didn't copy. They took what they wanted, what they thought would be useful, and left the rest: leaving, for example, the Christianity that Dutch were so eager for them to have. That the Japanese freely admit to being a borrowing culture tends to overshadow the fact that they do so consciously, selectively, and intelligently. It also clouds the fact that what they borrow they make their own: Chinese characters modified to present uniquely Japanese concepts; Korean ceramics modified to become the famous Japanese pottery; and more recently German cameras and American automobiles, which the Japanese made into Nikons and Toyotas, products which are distinctly Japanese and distinctly better than the models from which they were working. In fact, as Bouvier (1992) describes it, the Japanese expansion in the Pacific, resulting in World War Two, was patterned exactly on what they learned from the colonial practices of the European powers. In an art museum in Wakayama, I pointed to a work that both Professor Abe and I thought was Futurist. When it turned out to be Japanese, I commented on the Japanese talent for copying. Professor Abe agreed, then self depricatingly said, "Like a monkey." I think this may be important in that maybe neither the Japanese nor many outside observers recognize the Japanese creativity in adapting what is borrowed and improving on it to meet their own needs. It's not like a monkey at all. Their relentless pursuit of excellence in form becomes a source of innovation, not rising from individual creativity as in the West, but as result of a collective focus on the perfection of form itself, through shikata. Their creativity as McRorie (personal conversation) stated it, lies in the refining moment rather than the defining moment.
This quality is readily apparent in the children's peace mural project. The Japanese drive to "correct" (as opposed to innovative) form led Professor Abe to have me, a mural expert according to the vita he had seen, do the first (paradigm) mural. In the workshop he directed he liberally and unashamedly copied many elements of the form and process (remember, copying is good in Japan), but also left a lot of what we did behind--notably the philosophical underpinnings and individualist approach he knew to be unsuitable in the Japanese educational context. Making the mural process and product suitably Japanese resulted in technical as well as procedural innovations, resulting in a smoother, more polished final product than the model they were working from. The technical and procedural aspects that had at first seemed to me to be superficial --"merely" form -- I now recognize as content, in fact as deep content that is both cosmology and epistemology.
About Peace and People
"The Japanese see themselves largely as Westerners see them -- polite, loyal, hard-working, conformist and not profoundly inventive" (Tames, 1993, p.1), as well as clean, kind, and with a refined aesthetic sense. They also see themselves as warm, impulsive and sentimental and Westerners as cold, calculating and unfathomable. Huh? Wait a minute, that second part is all reversed! Isn't it??? They're the coldly inscrutable, two-faced, untrustworthy people who'll tell you anything and never keep (the principle of) their word. What do you mean that they'll tell you what you want to hear to keep the wah principle of harmony? You mean there's a different principle involved? Why don't they just come out and say "no"? In the month or so I've spent in my two trips to Japan, I never heard the word "no." It just isn't done. It's improper form. But that doesn't mean your request hasn't been denied. (And how could you trust someone who doesn't even understand that much about good form?)
On my last night in Japan, the core mural team was riding the train back from Tokushima to Osaka. We were discussing what we all believed to be core differences between the Japanese and Americans. "We Japanese believe in loyalty." "So do we Americans; we also believe in honesty and integrity in keeping your commitments." So do we in Japan," and so on until we all just stopped and looked at each other. We couldn't find any deep, fundamental value on which we disagreed. Finally one of our team said, "Well maybe we're not as different as we thought." The sense of "Otherness" was gone. Having worked together for weeks for the common good, across cultures, and in spite of many false starts and misunderstandings, we really were, in fact, a team. As an accepted member of the team, separated from other Americans, from being able to retreat to a hotel room at night, from my own cultural buffers, I believe I got an insider's view that I suspect few outsiders ever get.
It would be easy here to suggest that we are all alike under the skin, but I don't want to end this paper with some sort of saccharin platitude, because we're definitely not alike. But we are all people. And we do have, it appears, some universal impulses, like loyalty to the group and honesty and integrity, and the drive to art. But like the drive to art these impulses take different forms in different circumstances and in different cultures. That's the rub. It's the form that counts after all. We take on the ability to engage in(Sarup, 1993; Wilson, 1988) and understand (R. Anderson, 1990) symbolic communication by being embedded in a particular culture. Beyond substance, it's the manner in which it's presented that allows us access to the inner life of the other. Or keeps us out.
A major difference between Americans and Japanese is in the sense of how things are done. As two of the greatest powers in a shrinking world where many of the missiles are still aimed, it's vitally important that we understand and respect each other. It is important that we recognize that we are distinct cultural types, maybe the most extreme opposites in the world. But it is also vitally important to understand that the extreme stereotypes of belief that pit one cultural group against another, tribe against tribe, are no longer a survival mechanism, but a detriment to the survival of us all. Art has been instrumental in focusing group attention through aesthetic means on those values, mores, and ways of doing things critical to a group's survival (Dissanayake, 1988). Understanding a culture's ways through making and examining artworks cross-culturally, then, may indeed be a bridge to world peace. Or maybe it's too grandiose to think of this project as a bridge of peace. Maybe it's a plank or a nail. But the idea is important enough that someone has to start somewhere. Maybe the fiftieth anniversary of Hiroshima is as good a place as any.
Jessie Lovano-Kerr Professor of Art Education
323C Eppes Hall, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL. 32306-1232
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1 I'm aware that many Americans from Brazil , Canada and elsewhere resent the coopting of the word American to represent people from the United States. However since there is no equivalent designation such as Brazilian or Canadian for citizens of the United States, I will, for the sake of expediency, call them Americans and ask my readers who object for their forgiveness.
2 Professor Abe is particularly interested in examining how the forms, processes and educational practices vary from culture to culture in pursuit of the common goal and theme of world peace, and is videotaping the workshops in each location, anlayzing the forms and processes that take place in each with this research end in mind.
3 The question I asked about where the Japanese get the money for the museums and collections becomes obvious in this context. Individual sacrifice is the root of collective wealth.