As contradictory as it may sound, I believe that the most useful thing to think or do is that which is deemed useless from a conventional standpoint, because it will truly prove that we are alive.1
During World War II, control over artistic expression in Japan was strict. Military rule permitted only paintings that glorified the war effort, and art supplies were difficult to obtain. Gutai arose from this context, and in opposition to it. In the postwar years, Gutai emphasized the importance of originality. Founded by Yoshihara Jiro (1905–1972), a wealthy industrialist and self-taught artist, Gutai embraced Yoshihara’s axiom, “Do what has never been done before!” Gutai members also advocated for the value of play, which the group considered key to creating a foundation for a strong democracy. The group believed the artist should play, and so should the artist’s audience, through participatory acts. In this way, art would encourage audiences to think and act freely.
Children were a primary audience for Gutai because they held the key to a future free of totalitarianism. By nurturing their creativity, children could be taught to think and act for themselves. Acting on this philosophy, members of Gutai were involved with art education at many levels— including teaching children, organizing an exhibition of children’s art, and contributing to the children’s poetry magazine Kirin (Giraffe). Articles in Kirin were often addressed to parents. In “To Mothers, 1956,” Tanaka Atsuko (1932–2005) counseled parents to raise children using a child-centered approach, “without pressure and constraint,” and without subjecting them to adult notions of art and beauty.2
Gutai members wanted both children and adults to play. Exhibitions staged in a park invited visitors to enter, walk around, touch, contribute to, and reflect on artworks, just as the artists had when creating them. “What I consider avant-garde is the involvement of ordinary people in the production of a work of art,” wrote Gutai artist Shimamoto Shozo (b. 1928).3
In Yoshihara’s Please Draw Freely (1956), viewers became artists. Adults and children were presented with a board and markers and invited to add their own creative marks. According to Ming Tiampo, co-curator of this exhibition, Yoshihara’s work “embraced the possibilities of collective creativity, broke down the hierarchy between artist and audience, and harnessed the creativity of children.”4
Gutai: Splendid Playground
Read the statements below to students. If they agree, they should stand to the right. If they disagree, they should stand to the left.
- Artists should make their own artwork.
- Art should be finished before it is placed in a museum.
- New artworks should never repeat what has been made before.
After each statement, ask students to back up their position.
Show: Yoshihara Jiro, Please Draw Freely (1956)
- Ask students what they notice about the photograph. What is happening in it?
- To create this artwork, Yoshihara placed a signboard and markers in an outdoor exhibition and invited people to draw. Ask students to imagine what it would feel like to participate in this artwork. What would they have drawn?
- The artist was obsessed with originality, exhorting other artists to “do what has never been done before!” Ask students how this artwork is different from other artworks they have encountered.
- Yoshihara believed that playful art could lead to a solid democracy in Japan. Do students agree? Ask students to respond to this quote by Shimamoto: “I myself wonder if good kids who always do what grown-ups tell them can lose the ability to decide right and wrong on their own.”5
- Return to the statements above. Have students’ responses changed?
- Gutai artists created collaborative artworks. As a class, experiment with simple ways to create artworks collaboratively.
1. Give each student paper and a pencil. Tell them to draw five lines, then pass their paper to someone else. That student should add five more lines and pass it to someone else. Continue this process at least five times.
2. Tell students to draw something in the room. Then tell them to tear it up into five pieces. Trade the torn pieces of paper with a partner. Collage a new artwork with pieces from both your drawing and your partner’s.
3. Tell students to sit back-to-back with a partner so they cannot see each other. Tell each other what to draw in as much detail as possible.
After each experiment, ask questions such as: Is the product what you envisioned when you started? What do you like or dislike about this kind of collaborative process?
- Gutai artists highly valued audience participation. In Gutai Card Box (1962), for instance, audience members contributed money to charity to receive an original artwork from a “vending machine” with an artist inside. In Kanayama Akira’s (1924–2005) Footprints (1956), a long canvas with stenciled footprints enjoined visitors to step on and follow its path. As a class, brainstorm more methods for creating audience participation. In small groups, create interactive artworks. Then, present these artworks in a class exhibition. Reflect as a class on how it feels to be the artist and/or the audience of a participatory artwork.
- Gutai members emphasized the importance of children. Many of the artists contributed to the children’s poetry magazine Kirin. In 1956, Tanaka wrote an article titled “To Mothers, 1956,” in which she encouraged mothers to parent in ways that would create citizens of a strong democracy who thought and acted freely. Write an article titled “To Mothers” (or “To Parents and Guardians”) that addresses the question: What should parents do to raise children for a better world?
English Language Arts
- In 1963, Ukita Yozo (b. 1924) wrote an article titled “On Being Weird.” Read students this excerpt and discuss it: “In my opinion. . . we need to be ‘weirdos’ to the very core. If a person is not a weirdo, he has no value as a human being. . . .
We are all blessed, born with something weird. Please start looking immediately for whatever is weird in you.”6 Ask students to write their own article titled “On Being Weird.
English Language Arts