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2015, Dec 23
Japanese photography moves the needle

It’s winter break, which means that I have a little bit more time to spend on this blog, which does still occupy some corner of my mind. Last year I did not (could not) take any classes on photography, but the time off served me well; it was useful to learn about completely different things. This year I have photography classes right and left, and it has been nice to get back into the swing of things. I’m starting to do research about Otsuji Kiyoji, who could easily become a dissertation topic if I were so inclined—but then it’s more a question of whether Otsuji’s work itself suits my own goals as a scholar.

Otsuji, in any case, is at least tangentially relevant to an essential (not comprehensive) article that came out last week, “Japanese Photography: The Birth of a Market.” 1 And by “market,” of course, we really mean “the European market.” Here is the thesis of the article:

Western collectors’ newfound curiosity about the Provoke artists follows a concerted campaign by a handful of players that demonstrates both how changing tastes alter markets, and how markets can change tastes. That campaign’s success so far rests on a confluence of trends.

These trends are the elevation of once-marginalized photography into the space of contemporary art, various museum exhibitions of Japanese photography, and, naturally, the desire of dealers “to find new sources of affordable material.” In a sense, it is refreshing to see this cynical calculus laid out so clearly, though I suppose one should expect this from a trade publication like Blouin.

There’s a lot to say about what (or who) this article does not address. Still, it’s nothing if not a lesson to anyone ostensibly working outside of the market that your activity is always being watched, and will be snapped up if and when it becomes profitable to do so. By “activity” I’m thinking mostly of writing, whether in blog or scholarly form, but this of course also includes curating, publishing, translating, and so on. I have tried to keep my own activity separate from the art market, but I can’t at all claim a kind of purity here! Even leaving aside the minor success of Daisuke Yokota’s zines on PH, this blog is full of free tips to the enterprising gallerist.

Hester Keijser recently woke her excellent blog up from its long slumber. In her eloquent return to blogging 2, she writes about this very issue of co-optation, which she says was at least somewhat responsible for her break. Hester tells us: “I still have no answer how to pre­vent oth­ers tak­ing advan­tage of my writ­ing — unless per­haps by pro­duc­ing only what is of lit­tle value to them.” This seems like a place to start, or a goal to keep in mind. In the field of scholarship on art, though, what kind of work produces little economic value while also contributing to a broader dialogue? It is easy to see how writing a dissertation on a lesser-known artist creates a new market, but perhaps there are ways to work against that. I’ll dig into this a little more over break if I can get myself back in the blog habit.


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