The UW Simpson Center for the Humanities sent out a news release Nov. 11 saying prominent Japanese artist Fram Kitagawa was denied entry to the United States.
He was set to be a keynote speaker at a conference the following day for “Socially Engaged Art in Japan.” The focus was to decipher socially engaged art in a global context, while using Japan’s history to inform that understanding.
“It is outrageous that Kitagawa, an internationally celebrated curator of socially-engaged art in Japan, was just denied a visa to the U.S. to deliver the opening keynote at our scholarly conference on art and politics,” said Kathleen Woodward, director of the Simpson Center and professor of English.
Socially-engaged art is also called new genre public art and social practice. It is an up-and-coming border-blurring art form: mixing art with social activism made by both artists and non-artists. The makers work together to achieve a goal over an extended period of time, usually outside official art spaces and museums. It’s become one of the most hotly debated topics in art criticism, according to the Simpson Center.
“Local governments, urban planners, and activists have become intensely interested in art’s potential to galvanize or revitalize threatened urban [and in Japan, rural] communities,” conference organizer Justin Jesty wrote for the symposium’s overview, “as well as to mitigate urgent, post-disaster needs.”
Ironically, Kitagawa’s entry denial is allegedly due to past involvement in student protests: protests, Kitagawa said, from more than 45 years ago when he was opposing a U.S. military base expansion in Sunagawa, Japan. He was never prosecuted or convicted of any crime.
Kitagawa supplied documents to the embassy prepared by Japan’s Ministry of Justice and the head of the National Police to prove his innocence, but he was still refused entry, according to Jesty.
“Most artists and producers are openly critical of capitalism and developmentalism, and see themselves as creating alternative systems of meaning and value,” Jesty said in his overview. “Both of these possibilities become particularly pronounced in Japan as a result of two decades of low growth and an aging and shrinking population.”
In particular, Japan uses its socially engaged art to address current and past experiences including; the 2011 earthquake, tsunamis, nuclear disasters, and political contestation.
Kitagawa’s entry denial is just one of many examples that makes the Japanese feel they receive inappropriate pressure from their officials. Socially engaged art is an outlet for the public and is a less abrasive, and thus potentially less consequential, form of protest.