Nicholas Gamso, “Art After Liberalism”

“It is increasingly clear that these common-place liberal conceptions have failed to improve life in any lasting way. In fact, they conceal fundamental connections to enslavement, conscription, colonization, moral debt, and ecological devastation. Now we must decide what comes after.”

So announces author and academic Nicholas Gamso, on the back cover of his book Art after Liberalism. From the outset, it is clear that Gamso takes a far-left position, namely that liberalist democracies are playgrounds for capitalists. This position is not too dissimilar to that of the reactionary right, namely that liberalist democracies are playgrounds for corporatists – but that corporatists owe their success not to capitalism but to cronyism and the state-corporatist complex. As James Burnham explains, capitalism is actually a system that decentralises, diffuses and undermines central direction; corporatism relies on lawmakers and civil servants forming stable networks of power and money, with service providers (acting on behalf of the state) exerting control over society at multiple levels.

Gamso suggests that artivism is one route to social justice. “How to wrest control of institutions, to redistribute their resources, or to leave them behind? How to decolonize museums, repatriating their fortunes and recovering the land beneath them? By marshaling the transformative capacities of art and aesthetics, by refusing neoliberal professionalization, by joining with social movements, by creating political community – by living in the world, in short, and not outside of it.” As I explain in my forthcoming book Artivism, social activists are already aided by institutions and already have allies high up in organisations, ones who are rapidly converting art-historical bodies into political centres. Now, whether these allies intend to follow through with activist talk or whether they are simply co-opting activists remains to be seen. However, Gamso takes the usual line that institutions are opposed to radical change, contrary to what I see as the truth – that the elite caste which runs these institutions uses radicals as a vanguard for its progressivist values, which the elite holds in opposition to the majority population.  

Gamso cites examples of curators proposing ways of undermining tradition. “In laying bare the colonial origins of modern museums, and thus framing culture and creativity as historical ideas grounded in European supremacism, such recursive curatorial practices highlight and challenge the frames of complicity (genocide, colonialism, and patriarchy) that subsequent modes of collective cultural work can more fully dismantle.” We might frame this argument as, “You only got what you have because you used unfair methods, so we deserve to take it back.” This sounds a variant of political arguments used to justify appropriation of property in socialist and nationalist revolutions. Rather than a rational argument, this seems to be a backward justification: we resent your power and ownership of resources and wish to deprive you of both; we legitimise our position retrospectively by an appeal to fairness. It is exactly the advances that activists have made that demonstrate how institutions agree with activists’ principles.

Gramscian tactics of occupying all fields and refusing to allow exceptions is invoked. “No image shown in a museum, no pursuit of representation, can exist irrespective of these origins. A politics is always at play.” Gamso notes that institutions are part of the political landscape, not separate from it. Museums are complicit in producing “harrowing” conditions, through their share portfolios; therefore they are legitimate targets. By extension, anyone existing in the world today – who consumes fossil fuels, has a bank account, eats farmed meat, uses electronics made in China, has a pension fund – is also a target. Gamso’s logic applies to himself and his fellow activists. Every ethical individual is enmeshed in a system that is unfair, but then every system is unfair in its own ways. No society, however primitive, does not assign superior and inferior roles within its structures; each has its outcasts. Likewise, no society does not take advantage of the deficiencies of neighbouring trading partners or weaknesses of vulnerable occupiers of nearby territory.  

Gamso takes artivism made on behalf of migrants – he does not distinguish between economic migrants and refugees, strategically one must assume – and details different projects. #NotABugSplat (2014), organised by Pakistani artists, displayed a giant photograph of a girl who had apparently lost family members to an American drone strike. Less benign interventions were undertaken during the height of the European migration crisis of 2015 onwards. “[…] other artists have turned to satellite technologies in order to lend practical and legal support to migrating populations. Targeted projects like the cell phone app Transborder Immigrant Tool, conceived by the cyber-activist-artist collective Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT), combine GPS with performance interventions to contest sovereign border regimes.”

Gamso writes of indigenous European populations resisting mass migration in unsupportive terms; yet, when he writes of Western intervention in Asian and African countries, he is scathing about colonialist interference. What distinguishes the values and right of self-determination of a Western nation from those of a non-Western nation? The social cost to, and suffering of, native Europeans caused by the process of mass migration is downplayed.

There is a chapter on Forensic Architecture’s activities documenting the action by Israeli security forces against Palestinian protestors. Triple-Chaser (2021) is a film about the use of crowd-dispersal material manufactured by American company Safariland, which was deployed against on protestors. This is cited as an example of documentary social practice. One is left with information that does indicate clearly what happened in political terms. “The act of “reporters, activists, inhabitants of Palestine and Ferguson [Missouri, 2014] picking up empty tear gas cannisters with their hands and looking for a corporate logo” was a collaborative form of reconstructive world-making at a global scale with a large number of participants.” And what about same tear gas used against the gilets jaunes in Paris and the anti-lockdown protestors in Victoria, Australia? Do social documentarians treat all protestors even-handedly or do they display implicit support for corporation-aided state violence against acceptable targets?

German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans (b. 1968) is given as an example of artist-as-citizen-of-the-world. “For three decades, the photographer Wolfgang Tillmans has personified a prevailing liberal ideal: free movement across national boundaries at the pace of creative innovation. He describes himself as a “product of the European post-war history of reconciliation, peace, and exchange,” having lived and worked between Germany and the UK for his entire career. Tillmans’s early work documents the casual social observances that sustained his own life and the lives of his friends and romantic companions as they shuttled between Berlin, London, Barcelona, and the Canary Islands. His photographs and curatorial projects  visualized public culture, not in cafés and town squares but in postmodern spaces like clubs, alpine cabins, and gay bars.” Tillmans is the archetypal cosmopolitan globalist, unrooted from nation and people, flitting between nodes of universal world culture, surrounded by likeminded “anywheres”. Unsurprisingly, Tillmans was strongly against Brexit and produced posters urging British people to vote to remain in the EU.

Gamos blithely writes of Tillmans’s allegiance to a global civil society. Can’t Gamos see disadvantages to this set of values? So critical of American neo-liberal intervention abroad, can Gamos not recognise that a creed of a global civil society being applied across all peoples might be considered colonisation? What about the unrooted globalist elite not being held responsible for the cultural erosion it not only produces but imposes on poorer people? All of which leaves us to wonder, why is Tillmans – white Western capitalist that he is – not an international exploiter? Why is his share portfolio blameless and his jet-setting carbon footprint insignificant?

Paul Chan (b. 1973) is cited as another artivist who has addressed social issues through animation and performance on geo-political issues. One of his sculptures (Pentasophia (2006)) consists of simple nylon-sheet-forms, which act as animated personages by fluttering over fans. This seems like a creative piece with potentially aesthetic qualities and merit, which makes it stand out in this book. In another chapter, dissident Chinese contemporary art is discussed. Tania Bruguera and others are considered in relation to oppositional activism in Cuba. It is better to pass over without comment a chapter discussing Basquiat, which makes claims of disproportionate suffering of black Americans, except to note that Gamos does not provide a single statistical source for claims of systemic injustice. Gamos does not expect to be called to account by reviewers, just as few will question the motives of Black Lives Matter, the activities of which Gamos seems to regard as incontestably beneficial. Likewise, Gamos does not appear to consider that artivism may have potentially disastrous consequences for public fine-art funding, which relies on consensus.

Art after Liberalism concludes with a transcription of a discussion between Gamso and Nitasha Dhillon and Amin Husain, two activists who have disrupted museums in New York for political purposes. Art after Liberalism does not present a united thesis or plan of action, which might have been inferred from the rousing introduction and cover text. Instead, the author assesses different strategies and figures within the artivism movement, with some of the texts having appeared previously elsewhere. In that role, the book does a good job of summarising trends and describing intentions of social documentarians working in the art field, with a useful range of photographs. Overall, this book would of use to students and academics researching artivism and politically driven art in the current century.  

Nicholas Gamso, Art after Liberalism, Columbia Books on Architecture and the City/Columbia University Press, March 2022, paperback, 232pp, col./mono illus., ISBN 978 1 941 33 2689, $20/£14.99  

© 2022 Alexander Adams

To view my books and art, visit

UbuWeb: Culture meets the Internet

“Founded in 1996, UbuWeb is a pirate shadow library consisting of hundreds of thousands of freely downloadable avant-garde artifacts. By the letter of the law, the site is illegal; we openly violate copyright norms and almost never ask for permission. Most everything on the site is pilfered, ripped, and swiped from other places, then reposted.” So Kenneth Goldsmith describes the website he started in 1996. It has survived copyright claims because it is non-profit, so it does not extract financial gain from its appropriation.

The website was named after Alfred Jarry’s anarchic protagonist Ubu Roi. The website contains avant-garde artistic and cultural material such as verse, prose, audio, video and images. The site hosts little-known side-projects of major artists, such as Salvador Dalí’s film Haute Mongolie – hommage á Raymond Roussel (1976) and Richard Serra’s Television Delivers People (1973). Goldsmith is a poet and so there is a particular emphasis on poetry and spoken poetry, including concrete poetry and sound poems. UbuWeb is a resource replete with ephemeral material, side projects, creative dead-ends, aborted forays and one-off collaborations. It does not host mainstream music, video or texts. The material sometimes comes from official releases; other times it is recorded (with varying degrees of competence and fidelity) from radio or television by private individuals. Sometimes it is bootleg or clandestine. UbuWeb is the sort of place a person can spend a whole evening following a meandering trail through the cultural jetsam of the Twentieth Century.

Goldsmith explains that he uses basic coding and simple systems that have not changed in over 20 years. The relative crudity of such procedures makes the website robust, as well as charmingly old-fashioned. Without relying on cloud data storage or specialised database systems, Goldsmith has (so far) avoided the dangers of redundancy or dispute with programmers, which could have taken the site offline. “Don’t trust the cloud. Use it, enjoy it, but don’t believe in it.” He warns, “don’t bookmark. Download. Hard drives are cheap. Fill them up with everything you think you might need to consult, watch, read, listen to, or cite in the future.” We live in a time of encroaching censorship, when cloud/online access is at the mercy of increasingly censorious governments and overbearing social-media websites. Organisations make themselves vulnerable to pressure from activist lobby groups and Twitter mobs of a few hundred ill-informed virtue-signallers.

Pirating is a compliment, as Goldsmith views it. “If your work is well regarded enough to be pirated, that means you have achieved some level of success that most artists will never have. When we decide to pirate an artists’ work, it means that we think that work is worth knowing about and worth preserving.” The diffuse, unregulated distribution of material increases the chance of preservation and transmission. However, technological obsolescence has rendered some formats more inaccessible than some dead languages. Do you know anyone who has the technology to read a floppy disk or Betamax video cassette? The technology exists but it is rare, specialised and diminishing yearly. This will inevitably apply to digital files also.

Goldsmith calls the guerilla collaborative project of UbuWeb the product of “folk archiving”. “[…] we’re no fans of licenses of any kind. We’d prefer the materials be used without any restrictions whatsoever.” Fine in itself but beside the point because the material is not produced or owned by UbuWeb, as Goldsmith freely admits. He is applying his principles to the products of others but yields ground when challenged by rights holders. Sometimes artists submit material or make arrangements with their agents to permit material to remain on the website.

UbuWeb falls into an ethical grey area, even if the legal situation is fairly obvious. The UbuWeb modus operandi is to post first and wait for artists or representatives to react. Strictly speaking, the fact that UbuWeb is not monetised and is a non-profit body does not take precedence of copyright violation, which is a matter of intellectual property rather than income claiming. Copyright strikes come from those copyright holders important and financed sufficiently to pursue take-down notices. UbuWeb does accede to requests from copyright owners. (Search for the films of Francesca Woodman on UbuWeb and you will encounter the message “These films have been temporarily removed by request of the Marian Goodman Gallery.”) However, much of the work on the site is so gloriously shoddy, awful and poorly recorded – or simply obscure – that it is not material that could generate income worth claiming.

Goldsmith explains how automated notices triggered by file titles – often filed by bodies with no authorisation to do so – claim copyright and demand compensation. As UbuWeb gains no income from the material, there is no gain to be paid. (Legally, the issue is deprivation of benefit and unauthorised use of protected material.) These automatic copyright claims are now commonplace and even inhibit legitimate criticism and educational use permitted under law. Among ISPs, rights holders and pirates, there is recognition that digitisation of data and the advent of the internet has meant that copying and distribution are beyond complete control.

There are odd cases when works are caught in limbo: not financially viable enough to license and release and still restricted by copyright. This means that non-profit file-sharing is the only way to make (unofficially) available material of documentary, historical or cultural value. In the case of artist videos, the material is seen so rarely and in specific locations that – unless one happens to have access to a specialised university library – one can live a whole lifetime without seeing pieces. The stills reproduced in monographs or old magazines become the entirety of one’s understanding of the videos. Gallerists consider UbuWeb a competitor, which devalues the rarity if their commodity, although it is possible to view UbuWeb as a promotional channel, exciting and stimulating viewers and collectors, especially with regard to lesser known artists. The often poor quality of the videos on UbuWeb (compressed, pixellated, muffled, samizdat) means that ardent collectors or enthusiasts seek out high-quality versions they have pre-viewed on UbuWeb. Some creators offer material to Goldsmith and use it as a channel to reach an audience, although Goldsmith notes that UbuWeb is a repository for material already existing rather than a channel for new work.

The birth of digitisation and the internet has revived the readership of concrete poetry. Now original books and journal pages can be copied and shared accurately, allowing readers access to visual-verbal poetry that is not financially viable to publish conventionally. Kurt Schwitters is a favourite of Goldsmith’s. He discusses the importance of words to Shwitters the artist and how his writing overlaps with his celebrated reading of his Ursonate. All of this maps neatly on to UbuWeb’s capacity to store examples of visual, verbal and aural art. UbuWeb contains scans of every page of Aspen, RE/Search and Fuck You, famous channels for the counter culture. Likewise, the 27 Tellus audio cassettes of music, poetry and sound are available complete on UbuWeb.

The book ends with 101 of Goldsmiths favourite gems of UbuWeb: Céline singing his songs accompanied by accordion, Don Cherry and Terry Riley playing live in Cologne, a rare very early Steve Reich tape piece taken from secret recordings, Captain Beefheart reciting his verse, Alice B. Toklas reading Brion Gysin’s recipe for hashish fudge.

The author is generous in his appreciation for the countless donors who have sent files and physical material and he tells the stories of some pioneers – poets, collectors, fans, obsessives (or an admixture) – with whom he has interacted. Some wish to remain anonymous, concerned about stigmatisation as pirates or the threat of legal action. Their enthusiasm is infectious and we can well imagine the excitement of discovering troves of material – some of it considered permanently lost.

Goldsmith makes a common error of writing of material being “excluded from the canon”, which is an impossibility, as the canon is not exclusionary. No material can be excluded from a canon, only included or omitted and is a corporate effort; the canon cannot be imposed or enforced, hence exclusion is impossible.

Goldsmith has a lively and informal style and a lithe mind. He blends erudition and irreverence. Although the writing style is witty and readable, Goldsmith does include some footnotes. Duchamp is My Lawyer would prove a valuable book for law students and jurists as it explains how copyright works in practice not just law and how “folk law” tends to regulate copyright disputes through give-and-take personal interactions rather than court rulings. Interested parties reach informal, cost-effective, non-arbitrated understandings through negotiation in cases regarding material of little monetary worth.  

Duchamp is My Lawyer is an approachable and even-handed discussion of UbuWeb and issues regarding copyright in the digital age. It also provides an insight into the evolution of the counter culture in the internet age and the practical, legal and financial issues of producing and consuming art today. Well worth seeking out.

Kenneth Goldsmith, Duchamp is my Lawyer: Polemics, Pragmatics, and Poetics of UbuWeb, Columbia University Press, paperback, 2020, 318pp + x, $26/£20, ISBN 978 0 231 18695 7

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit

H.G. Wells:Nightmares of a Better World

GK Chesterton’s most famous analogy is that of a walker finding an ancient fence in a landscape. Chesterton suggested that while one might not understand the fence’s purpose, one should still respect it, because it had at one time served a function and it might still perform that function. Tearing down the fence out of impatience or impetuosity was reckless, Chesterton suggested, because through simple ignorance one might be destroying a potentially useful construction. Such was the situation in which modern man found himself.

“HG Wells (1866-1946) – the prolific fiction and non-fiction writer, best known for his early science fiction – never encountered a fence that he did not do his best to pull down. Family, marriage, religion, nationhood, custom and class – all were subject to Wells’ ire and mockery. He felt it his duty to remake the world according to science and rationality. The sight of old fences was a provocation to him.

“Many today underestimate the enormous influence of Wells. Not so Sarah Cole, who seeks to retrieve something of Wells’ importance in Inventing Tomorrow: HG Wells and the Twentieth Century. As she points out, Wells’ work has sold millions of copies, and has been translated into multiple languages…”


Read my full review on Spiked website here:

History of Art in Japan


[Image: Unkei, Asanga (1212), carved and painted wood. Source: Wikimedia]

The scope of this volume is extensive. The author intends to outline the main features, persistent ideas and developments in Japanese fine arts, crafts and architecture from pre-history to today. Tsuji outlines the development of Japan’s culture through artefacts from its early eras of Jōmon, Yayoi, Kofun, Nara, Heian and Medieval. The subsequent Edo and Modern periods are much more familiar to non-Japanese readers and these are covered in more detail because of the complexity and large amount of documentation and artefacts from this time.

The cord patterning and stippling in winding linear layouts of the pot decoration in the Jōmon period (9300-500 BCE) can be seen as forerunners of Japanese fine art of our day, such as that by Minoru Onoda. Prefigured Modernism abounds in Japanese art. “[…] another dogū [freestanding ceramic figurines], discovered in 1992 at the Nishinomae site in Yamagata prefecture and designated as a National Treasure in 2012, whose legs suggest that the figure is wearing pants; the sharp drop along the back recalls the forms of sculptor Ossip Zadkine.” Debates continue about the relative levels immigration from Korea in the Yayoi period; what is not in dispute was the importance of their visual culture.

According to tradition, in 522 Buddhism arrived in Japan from China and in 538 it began to be incorporated into the imperial court. In the following centuries, carvings of the Buddha were fusions of indigenous Japanese culture and imported Korean and Chinese statuary. These were made from stone or wood, often gilded or intricately painted with paint and lacquer. Later statues showed sophisticated manipulation of pattern, emphatic volume, simplified forms and drapery, even with the loss of polychromy. Buddhist temples became more sophisticated and the Izumo-taisha (Izumo grand shrine) was constructed on giant pillars that may have been as tall as 100 metres, reached by a long straight staircase. The use of wood and paper in architecture has meant that early structures have been lost and rebuilt. At this time shōgon (sacred ornament) became a major strand in craft production. Tsuji explains the theological basis for the statues, mandalas and narrative paintings that dominate art in the following eras.

In the Middle Heian period (894-1086), isolation from the continent led to development of a more synthesised Japanese style (wayō). By this stage the main pillars of Japanese visual culture are well established. The art and craft are all recognisably Japanese, with architecture being more closely tied to Chinese models. Zōchōten (Virudhaka) (839) (carved wood with lacquer, colour and gold leaf, 182.5 cm high) has the guardian king in an imposing martial stance, the elaborate drapery and clothing emphasising rather than concealing his stature. His fierce visage is turned in profile, powerfully framed by a halo of fire. There is nothing of such accomplishment from the same period in Europe. The author comments on similarities between this group of statues and Indian carving.

Lacquer work and inlay on furniture had an established repertoire of decorative motifs by the early C12th – waves, flowers and other plants, mountains, clouds, animals. Painting was executed on scrolls, silk, fans, plaster walls, paper-panel walls and screens. Many paintings from temples or monasteries were discoloured by soot or destroyed by fire. The survival of painted screens from 1050-1100 allows us to get a glimpse of painting from the Late Heian period. Paintings at this time were religious, narrative or decorative in character; painting qua painting did not exist as a separate approach at this time. Japanese fans of the time were prized in China. The history of calligraphy is intertwined with those of handscrolls and fans. Buddhist scripture provided opportunities for imagination in the depiction of realms of heaven and hell, some of which are used as examples. Vivid scenes of suffering, famine, degradation and torture seem to be a mixture of observation of life at the time and pure imagination. The suffering of human existence is an important teaching of the Buddha, so such scenes are common throughout the region. A notable example is a grisly scene of the C13th of putrefaction and bodily dissolution, Aspects of the Unclean Human Path. In the late C13th a wave of Ch’an monks from China fleeing the Mongol invasion brought Zen teaching to Japan. It subsequently became the predominant school of Buddhism in the Japanese islands. Much of Japanese art continued to be influenced by China. One transplanted idea that the Japanese monks perfected was the idea of the dry garden, where water features were replaced by areas of raked gravel.


[Image: Great South Gate (1199), Tōdai-ji, Nara. Source: Wikimedia: By 663highland – Own work, CC BY 2.5,

The key architectural masterpiece in Japan is the Great South Gate (1199), Tōdai-ji, Nara featuring the classic double-roof, top roof steeply pitched, lower roof shallow, both with lifted corners. It houses two brilliantly expressive statues (1203) carved in wood by Unkei and Kaikei. For an analogue of great art that fuses realism and emotional hyper-expression we in the west could think of Grünewald’s Colmar Altarpiece (1512-6). Unkei’s other works display a forceful, reserved realism, including a masterful portrait of the monk Asanga (1212). Kaikei was more indebted to Song-style religious statuary. Wood carving at this time reached remarkable heights of competence and expressiveness without compromising the need to convey dignity and restraint. In contrast, painted portraits attributed to Fujiwara no Takanobu (d. 1204/5) situate the stylistic but realistic heads on bodies that are rendered geometric by their costumes.


[Image: Fujiwara no Takanobu (attr.), Portrait of Yoritomo (1179), ink on silk scroll, 29 x 236 cm. Source: Wikimedia]

The Nanbokuchō (1333-92) and Muromachi (1392-1573) periods brought advances in landscape painting and genre scenes of everyday life. Detached from historical and religious content, these areas allowed greater freedom for artists and patrons. (This coincides with the emergence of secular subjects in art in Renaissance Europe.) In the late C16th Christian missionaries made a few converts in Japan and some Japanese painters began to mimic Western-style painting. Most of this was later destroyed in anti-Christian riots but what survives seems to have been of more historical curiosity than aesthetic value. Likewise, periodic fires destroyed temples and cities built using wood and paper, depriving us of a clear picture of early phases of Japanese architecture.

The modern period of Japan is the Edo period, lasting from 1615 to 1867. At this time, art became increasingly realistic and secular. The spectacular sliding-door decoration of Kanō Sanraku (1559-1635) and son Kanō Sansetsu (1590-1651), incorporating exquisite depiction of natural elements against a gold-leaf ground shows the sophistication of the period and the effortless application of fine-art technique to architectural use.

In the 1680s the ukiyo-e (floating world style) was established by Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-1694). These were genre scenes of everyday life in the pleasure quarters of Edo, featuring musicians, actors, geishas, courtesans and street life. Although best known in the prints of the time, the genre encompasses art in all forms. It is during the Edo period that the classic art of the colour woodblock print was developed (in 1765, by Suzuki Harunobu (1725?-1770)) and became for Westerners the epitome of Japanese visual culture. The economic sophistication of the system combined the skills of designer (eshi/gakō), cutter (horishi), printer (surishi) and publisher (hanmoto) (not neglecting the sellers) to produce an intricate system for the mass-production of great art.

In 1854 Japan was forcibly opened up to international trade and the 1867 appearance of a Japanese pavilion at the Paris international exposition marked the end of Japan’s isolation. This would mark the boom in japonisme in Europe and North America, which came to dominate the decorative arts and influenced the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters. For better and worse, the art of the West also came to Japan, to very mixed results. Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was the most successful artist to adopt elements of Western style while remaining wedded to the advantages and traditions of Japan, working in prints. The adoption of copperplate engraving and oil paint used in conjunction with half-understood Western use of shading, perspective and so forth led to art that ranged from the beguiling to the deeply deficient. Many potentially competent Japanese artists ended up as makers of failed hybrids that seem ugly, ungainly and crude. Oil paint seems to have been disastrous for Japanese art, robbing it of its crispness, clarity, concision and planar qualities.

In 1867 Japanese society impressed Westerners as uniquely “Western” in its highly stratified social structure and very advanced literature and art, though lacking the widespread literacy and high average income that was beginning to begin standard in the West following the Industrial Revolution. Beyond less advanced societies in Asia, the Japanese were considered honorary Westerners in some respects. Even the tendency for women to paint their faces white was seen as a link to pale-skinned Westerners.

Japanese art of the Meiji and later periods is so wildly heterogeneous and mixed in character that it is hard for the author to describe or evaluate it. Making any general comments about Japanese art at this time is almost impossible and this is the weakest section of the book. Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847-1915) stands out among the printmakers, making the most of Japanese subject matter and Western style in his colour prints. It is among the artists of nihonga (Japanese style) that we find the best of C20th art in Japan. The story reaches present day with some frames of anime and manga drawings, as well as fine-art paintings.

Tsuji explains the significance of the waves of different Buddhist teaching which directed cultural production, as well as how the art of Japan relates to the social, military, economic and imperial history of the nation. The use of proper terms will allow non-Japanese readers to acquire some familiarity – as they are defined as they are introduced – but the use does not seem excessive to this reviewer. The book has numerous illustrations of key works and typical examples. Even at 631 pages (of which 150 are reference), this book does seem long or overly detailed. Readers will likely close this book satisfied and inspired to search out monographs on certain artists and periods. As a guide History of Art in Japan meets its author’s intentions handsomely.


Tsuji Nobuo, Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere (trans.), History of Art in Japan, Columbia University Press, October 2019, paperback, 664pp, fully illus., $34.95/£27, ISBN 978 0 23119 341 2 (hardback available)

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit