Where is the floating girl when you need her?

Yesterday I visited the Studio Ghibli Museum for the first time. It’s in Mitaka, Tokyo, close to my home, and is a museum about the development of animation in Japan, through the eyes of Miyazaki Hayao and the Studio Ghibli team. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Ghibli, they are the creators of Japan’s most-loved Anime movies, including Nausica of the Valley of the Wind, My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Miyazaki Hayao has had huge artistic and cultural influence in Japan and was also a big influence on industry practice, and is genuinely a household name in a way that I think even Disney would admire. His movies (at least, the earlier ones) are amazing and well worth the respect the Japanese public offer them.

The Ghibli museum is set in a smallish building on the edge of Inokashira Park in Mitaka, about a 10 minute taxi ride from Kichijoji Station. The building itself is designed to resemble the classic style of the houses in many of Miyazaki’s movies, but is set slightly back from the road in amongst trees, to resemble a house in a forest. Inside it is built on three levels, with the Laputa robot on the roof, exhibition spaces on the bottom two levels and a shop and children’s play area on the third floor. The children’s play area is, of course, a Cat Bus. The building itself is small, and admission has to be booked up to a month in advance because of the limited number of people who can enter, but is itself cheap (¥1000). For the price of admission you get access to the museum and one-time admission to the movie theatre, which plays a different short film every month. Sadly only elementary school children can play in the Cat Bus (hrmph!)

The bottom level of the museum has the main exhibits, including a room containing a very brief history of animation, all expressed through Ghibli characters – this has an excellent example of strobe-lit animation using extremely cute Totoro characters, showing the basic process by which animation works. The next level contains an example of an animator’s studio, perhaps modeled on Miyazaki’s studio back in the day, which is very interesting. You walk through a room furnished as if it were a studio, with storyboards and sketches on the walls, books that Miyazaki used as sources, and examples of an animator’s workbench or the types of texts and background material he or she might draw upon – whole scrapbooks of pictures of plants, crystals, planes or animals cut from magazines and books, for example, or textbooks full of scenery from around the world. It gives an insight into how the animator develops their work from idea to final production.

The museum also contains a library of children’s books from around the world, all translated into Japanese (some of which can be purchased), and is constructed with bridges, nooks, crannies and mysteriously-placed windows designed to make it explorable for children – and certainly children were going crazy exploring the building while we were there. It also has a cafe, which I’m sure is very cute, but it was so busy we didn’t dare go near it. Finally, it has a cinema. The ticket to the cinema is a framed clipping of a couple of cells from a film reel, and can be kept as a souvenir. Our film was Chu Zumo, “Mouse Sumo,” which was a cute adaptation of an old folk tale, the story of which (in Japanese) is here.

Mouse Sumo

The basic story of this 13 minute film concerns an old couple who live on a steep mountainside. They are poor and have to work hard, and every day is spent farming on the mountainside with no break. Nothing interesting happens. One night, however, the old man goes outside to take a leak, and sees a bunch of mice sneaking off through the grass into the forest. One is carrying a firefly light, one is carrying a leaf as a penant, and the rest are wearing little sumo thongs. He follows and finds all the mice of the surrounding area gathered around a sumo ring to watch a bout between the mice of his house and the mice of a neighbouring area. These mice are bigger and white, and they wipe the floor with the mice from his house.

Horrified, he returns home and the next day he and his wife set about making the mice into great Sumo Rikishi. While she makes dango powder, he goes down the mountain to get some fish; when he returns they bake Tofu Dengaku (YUM!) and sanma dango, stitch together some better quality sumo thongs, and leave them out for the wrestlers. The mice come down to eat the food and put on the thongs, and immediately become stronger and bigger.

Soon there is another match, and of course the mice from the old man and woman’s house win in a tense battle, because of the strength they gained from the food and support of the old man and woman.

It’s cute for the simple fact that it involves mice, doing sumo, with a frog judge, and mice watching in the crowd, in a classic Japanese image of classic Japanese countryside. The old man and woman are done in classic Ghibli style: the old man’s brow is so furrowed that you cannot see his eyes, and have to read his expressions entirely in his pursed lips. They are, of course, sweet and kind and happy, as befits the classic Japanese stereotype of old people. So it’s a cute, sweet story with lots of funny moments (the frog referee, particularly, is hilarious), and a fine showcase of Ghibli’s talent and style. Screenshots can be seen here.

The movie is also an interesting allegory for common Japanese attitudes towards the state of modern Sumo. Here we have 5 small, weak mice who have to take on 5 bigger, more skilled white mice, from a foreign mountain, who always win. However, the story has us believe that if the wrestlers are supported by the locals, and given a bit of special Japanese magic (in the form of food and support) and just try a bit harder, then they will triumph. Of course, this isn’t happening in real Sumo. The big foreign mice are dominating the sport because all the local mice would rather not enter a sport full of bullies and old-fashioned training methods, which requires years of devotion and suffering for little gain. The local mice are already trying as hard as they can. What’s needed is a change in how they try, but this means changing the hidebound traditions of a near-mystical sport. It would all be so much easier if they could take a few performance-enhancing drugs and, with just a bit more support from the local old people, throw the bigger and tougher foreign mice. Sadly, that’s not how sport works. A change in organization style, structure and training – as well as recruitment practices – is needed before the local mice can beat the big foreign ones. No matter how much support the old locals give them.

The Studio Ghibli museum is smaller than expected and a little crowded, but it contains some interesting insights into the animation process and is very pretty and well laid out. It also comes with a movie that can’t be seen anywhere else. I recommend a visit to this place if you are coming to Tokyo. But remember to book ahead, or you will be disappointed!

A Damsel, not in Distress

Today I visited the exhibition of Ukiyo-e prints by Kuniyoshi, at the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills. Kuniyoshi is apparently one of the less famous of the Ukiyo-e artists, but his work has been coming back into vogue lately and the exhibition was staged to mark 150 years since his death. For those who are unfamiliar with it, Ukiyo-e, or “images from the floating world,” is a style of print-making and art work dating from pre-Meiji Japan, that focuses on “impermanent” themes detached from the everyday world. It has been credited with influencing the European impressionists, and also was probably the earliest example of mass-produced art. The Mori Art Museum introduced Kuniyoshi as “probably Japan’s greatest graphic designer,” which is an interesting way of thinking about ukiyo-e, and a sign that Japan was quite ahead of the west in this area: I don’t think anyone would really make claims to the existence of graphic design in the West before the 20th century. I think that the ukiyo-e artists were also influential in the development of manga (but don’t quote me on that). I think a lot of ukiyo-e in the later period also served an advertising role.

In Kuniyoshi’s case, images that are detached from everyday concerns seems to have meant that he produced fantastic stories, a smattering of horror, a range of prints on classical Chinese mythological themes, and lots of pictures of actors. The fantastic stories included 108 images of famous warriors, usually in battle or getting up to mischief. The print on this post is an example of his horror, and he also has fantastic themes: a classic adventuring scene of a warrior entering a dank cave on the slopes of Mt. Fuji (through a waterfall curtain – pictured below); Matsumoto Musashi slaying a whale on the open seas (in full battle gear); and various demons in combat with mighty champions. The fantasy and horror images were largely in the middle section of the exhibition, and there were quite a few.

Best not fail this stealth check

Some of Kuniyoshi’s later landscapes were apparently influenced by Dutch masters, and led him to break with some of the contemporary artistic traditions of the time to create a more naturalistic style, and these pictures gave a very nice combination of western aesthetic with classic ukiyo-e colours and imagery. But ukiyo-e is best on its own terms, and best when it is depicting the slightly fantastical. Its slightly strange perspectives and vibrant colours, combined with vaguely (or obviously) supernatural elements, give rise equally well to stunning scenes of battle or quirky re-imaginings of the ordinary lives of the Japanese of the era. I think Kuniyoshi was probably not a master of the style like some of his slightly later colleagues, but he had the ability like them to use patterns of the weather and the landscape, or slight changes to the ordinary perspective of the setting, to turn even something trivial like a couple of peasants walking through the rain into a magical, slightly surreal scene.

Much of Kuniyoshi’s artwork was driven to surrealism by another, more mundane element of life in pre-Meiji Japan: censorship. Banned from depicting the lives of courtesans, entertainers and rowdies directly, he began painting pictures of foxes, monsters, or even goldfish engaged in these activities. There are a whole series of images of cats doing slightly night-lifey things, and also of various supernatural creatures up to no good. The cats are very lifelike and entertaining, and he must have been inspired by this type of satire to simply experiment with the style: there is one picture of cats curled up and bundled together to look like blowfish that is extremely clever, and another idyllic country scene of two goldfish punting their way downriver on a raft, looking for all the world like fishermen returning home at dusk. These images are both surreal and beautiful, and I can’t imagine they have any satirical or political meaning – they’re just examples of the artist experimenting with a style he developed to escape the censor.

The pictures, then, are excellent, and there are a lot: I think there were over 400 on display, so you get to see a lot of work for your 1500 yen. The exhibition was very busy when I went, so you have to line up and move slowly along from picture to picture – the pictures aren’t big enough to take in from a distance, and the Japanese looking at the pictures obviously found a lot to take in that I didn’t – reading the text within the pictures, or picking out various iconography and classic symbolism that I would have missed. In combination these queues for this many pictures make the exhibition a slow and absorbing process, well worth taking your time on. It’s laid out well in sections, so you can understand what the theme of each section is and where it fits in Kuniyoshi’s career. There are also brief English explanations on each picture, which is good because the language of 150 years ago is well beyond my ken. Indeed, if I have any complaints about this exhibition it’s that there is just too much to take in, and you start getting the urge to skip bits (I skipped the “beautiful women” bit). Other than that, though, I would say that this exhibition is worth the money and well worth hiking to Roppongi Hills for. If you’re in Tokyo before February and looking for a decent retrospective of a single influential artist from the ukiyo-e period, I recommend visiting this exhibition.

The Guardian has 6 pictures from an early collection of Tolkien’s sketches for the Hobbit, that were apparently discovered recently. I particularly like number 3, which despite its roughness gives the sky and Smaug a certain vitality.

On the same day it considers banning facebook for children, the Australian Federal Government has agreed a deal to implement an “R18+” category for computer games. This category brings computer games into line with videos, and has long been sought by the game industry – the alternative method used by the censorship board in Australia has been to refuse very violent games a rating (as happened with, I think, Grand Theft Auto) or to get the company to reduce their content to M15+ level. The game industry has long seen this as a commercial problem, since it introduces considerable uncertainty into Australian business models.

Australia doesn’t have a censorship policy that’s particularly friendly to “creative” industries, in my opinion – the government can be quite ferocious in its censorship if it sees community concern (or a chance at votes) connected to an issue, and particularly where children are involved the censorship rules can be ridiculous. The most famous example of this is the Bill Henson furore. The sometimes political nature of government actions can be seen in the way this deal is reported: the federal government has stitched up a deal with all the states except New South Wales (NSW), which has a long-standing fringe-right religious party and movement that has strong views on censorship, and which the (quite new) Liberal party[1] probably wants to court support from. Also, the NSW state Liberal party has a bit of a history of extreme-right christian shenanigans, and probably doesn’t want to upset that particular apple cart. In any case, the deal is going ahead without the agreement of the country’s most populous[3] state, which may lead to the ludicrous situation in which R18+ games can be bought in any part of Australia except … Sydney! Brilliant.

Still, it’s an advance on the current situation, where game companies have to second guess the whims of the censorship board because there is no category beyond M15+ that they can put their games into. This isn’t to say they won’t still be denied a rating (this has happened to a few movies in history, and famously a pair of movie critics were almost gaoled for playing one of those movies, I seem to recall). But It’s a lot easier to release a game in Australia that was designed for an overseas market if you have an R18+ category than if you don’t. Hopefully this will lead to more diversity of computer games – and more violence!

Incidentally, I should add that I’m not opposed at all to this type of censorship system, though I don’t like the part where some movies are refused a rating – there should be a new category of “Don’t watch this” for such movies, and people view them at own risk. But censorship-as-labeling seems a fundamentally sensible idea and, Metal Militias’ historical rage against Tipper-stickers aside, I think it helps rather than harms the ability of the community to judge what it wants to watch and indeed, gives some ability to identify what our own standards are. There is, of course, a bigger debate on free speech between Australians (or antipodeans generally) and Brits on the one side (who generally seem to see all “freedoms” as contingent to some extent) and Americans on the other (who seem to have elevated “freedom” to the level of a false Idol). I of course find the antipodean approach best, but I think that sometimes Australian governments of all political stripes can be too conservative and restrictive when it comes to free speech, and could do with a few drops of American medicine. So this is a good step forward, in my view.

fn1: As Australians never tire of observing, our “conservative” party is called the “Liberal Party,” because we’re in the Southern Hemisphere and we’re backwards[2]

fn2: Which isn’t to say there isn’t some value to this nomenclature; a great many US “liberals” would probably be considered too conservative for the Australian Liberal Party.

fn3: And possibly most politically corrupt, to boot[4]

fn4: Though I’ve never lived in Queensland, so I could be wrong about this.

Discussion of whether Jesus was a Vampire has taken an inevitable turn towards discussion of the Big J’s phylactery, the piss-christ. Now, I’m not a big fan of the piss-christ, I haven’t seen it in person but it doesn’t seem like good art and it doesn’t seem like a good contribution to the debate about christianity. I’m also sympathetic to the view put in comments that modern christianity has been defanged, and it’s no longer particularly brave or radical to take the piss out of it (haha). What I’m not so sympathetic to is the view that the modern art scene has an unacceptable anti-christian bias, or that the current crop of artists should be focussing on a wider debate about all the different religions. This is because:

  • The main thrust of modern conservative debate about identity in the English-speaking world claims that we are a “christian” society with a “judaeo-christian” heritage. See, e.g. this repulsive tweet – by a christian – on Anzac Day. You can’t claim that we’re a christian society and then complain that people who want to criticize their own society’s morals and social structures lay into christianity.
  • Most of the modern crop of artists didn’t come of age in the post-9/11 world, and the context they grew up in was a vigorous and sometimes violent fight against a christian movement not yet in full retreat. In the era they grew up in, Islam and Hinduism were non-events, non-issues, they probably neither learnt about nor knew about them. It’s rich to expect them to change their angst in late adulthood because a few western leaders decided to start a war with a previously largely irrelevant religion

I’m not going to talk about the first problem (reaction against claims of judaeo-christianity) here, but I do want to talk about the context of the artists’ upbringing, because a) it relates to role-playing and b) Paul in comments has suggested that the reaction to the Satanic Verses is indicative that actually Islam was a big issue in the 80s (the fatwah against Rushdie occurred in 1989). I don’t think this is true – I remember when the fatwah was issued, and it came as a complete shock to Westerners – and I want to do a quick scout through the main pop cultural movements I’m familiar with from the 70s and 80s, to give a highly biassed account of how completely irrelevant Islam was in the development of the sensitivities of the current crop of “elder” artists.

And Serrano is an elder. The piss-christ was made in 1987, suggesting that he “matured” (in physical years, if not in artistic merit or sense) before 1987. In fact he’s in his 60s now. So is it reasonable to suppose that he should give a drop of piss about Islam or Hinduism? He was raised in New York by a strict catholic family, so it seems like popular culture in the 70s and 80s is more relevant to his development and his perspective on art than, say, Osama bin Laden.

New York, Islam and the Debates of the 80s.

So what was going on in New York in the 70s and 80s? I don’t think we can say that Islam was a big issue in the melting pot of 70s and 80s America; this site suggests that today in NY there are 160,000 arab Americans, who came in two waves, the first of which was in 1925 and was largely Christian. This is not exactly a big population for New York, and a lot of them aren’t even Muslim (and probably the descendants of the 1920s migrants don’t even think of themselves as Arab-Americans, after 3 generations). The second wave of migrants in the 1960s may have raised some issues about settlement, integration etc. but this needs to be seen in context – 1 million Vietnamese moved to the USA in a few years after 1975, and Chinese migration was an ongoing process in the US. The debates in the western world about migration in the 1970s and 1980s focussed on Asians, not Muslims, and really the issue of “Islamification” only came up in the 1990s, after the collapse of Israel’s war in Lebanon and the camp David peace accords, the second intifada, etc. – i.e. in response to the growing presence of Islam in western news reports, and corresponding waves of refugees fleeing those countries.

If you look at some of the pop cultural stuff specific to New York or the Eastern seaboard from the 70s and 80s – things like the work of Brett Easton Ellis, movies like Heathers and the other teen-movie stuff of the time, Wall Street etc, they’re much more concerned with debates about in- and out-groups in New York, as reflected in class and some regional or christian-specific categories (like WASPs vs. nerds, or simliar) than they are about Islam. I remember watching 21 Jump Street and Cagney And Lacey, and episodes about migrants and discrimination were rare, and primarily focussed on Asians. 21 Jump Street had a few episodes about e.g. abortion, HIV/AIDS, etc. but the background of political trouble to these was always christian. As an outsider looking at NY, I don’t see much evidence that Serrano would have been growing up in an environment where other religions were much of a significant factor.

The key issue in the west in the 70s and 80s was the uneasy relationship between christianity and civil society as envisaged in a modern liberal democratic state. There was a low-key conflict going on between popular culture and christian sensibility, that occasionally exploded in controversy, and this conflict provided fertile soil for the imagination of budding artists. I don’t know much about art, but there were some pop-cultural movements at that time that I understood, so let’s look at them.

Thrash Metal and the Christian Revival

The shock-troops in this conflict with christianity in the 70s and 80s were undoubtedly heavy metal, who took up where punk’s guerilla warriors left off at the end of the 70s, and mobilized an army of disaffected young men against the religious imagery of the time. This wasn’t equivocal, either – heavy metal hated christianity and christianity hated metal. Islam and Hinduism didn’t figure in this, and in fact it took the generals in this movement – Metallica – 10 years to finally write a song about a religion other than Christianity. When they did, it was a hate-filled screed about alternative religions, telling the very personal story of James Hetfield’s own family life. No interest in the large international religions at all. But before then, Metallica wrote songs like Leper Messiah and Creeping Death that were highly critical of christianity; Slayer were using and abusing christian imagery as much as they could, Testament wrote whole albums about the hypocrisy of christianity (albums like The New Order) and the more skatey/speedy metal bands like Suicidal Tendencies were laying in with criticisms of religion as a prop or crutch, and direct criticism of the new wave of televangelists (with songs like Send Me Your Money). Tellingly, the christian response at the time wasn’t to accuse them of bias and Islam-loving. No one demanded that Metallica write Leper Prophet, or that Slayer’s Expendable Youth be rewritten to include lines about muslim martyrdom. No, instead, they accused these bands of being satanists and wanting children to go to hell. Other religions didn’t enter into this debate at all, and in fact to the best of my knowledge the only song written in that time about islamic countries was Iron Maiden’s Powerslave – which was about the Pharaohs.

The christian response to this was organized and serious. They first tried for censorship, introducing the PMRC (a censorship committee beautifully attacked by Megadeth’s Hook In Mouth), they invented the concept of back-masking and made videos about how AC/DC were satanists who believed they were channelling their dead singer through their new singer; they did speaking tours and later Tipper Gore introduced those abominable censorship stickers called “Tipper Stickers.” At no point did the issue of bias come into it, because religious groups in America in the 70s and 80s hadn’t registered Islam, it was irrelevant. They directly accused their enemies of attacking christianity within a christian framework, i.e. of being satanists. The relative sophistication of the “why don’t you criticize Hindus too” victimization complex is very new.

So, Serrano grew up in an environment where all of the extant good music (i.e. heavy metal) was at war with christianity, and neither side was talking about other religions at all. This isn’t reflected in just the good music either…

Pop Music, Blasphemy and Smut

Madonna exploded onto the pop scene in the early 80s with a huge sexual energy and a lot of catholic angst, and was immediately targeted by religious campaigners. She wasn’t targeted by Muslims or Hindus, but by Christians – and they fed off each other for years. This came to a head with the highly emotionally charged Like A Prayer, where she has sex with a child Jesus[1], but she had already managed to offend with Papa Don’t Preach and, well, pretty much everything else she ever did. Compare the lyrics and imagery of songs like hers with those of Lady Gaga, and you can see that it’s a lot harder to offend anyone now than it was in the early 80s. Madonna used blatant christian imagery in her work, and got a lot of flak for it; but christian imagery wasn’t just used negatively in the 80s  – it was heavily present in the work of bands like U2, Terence Trent d’Arby, the New Romantic movement, The Cure, etc. Through the entire opus of New Romantic work (and there is a lot!) you’ll be hard pressed to find any reference to any religion except Christianity and maybe a touch of Buddhism. Sure, the Cure sing about killing an Arab, but they’re quoting Camus; the Bangles Walk Like an Egyptian but they don’t talk like one, and again when speaking of a North African country they explicitly skip the 800 years or so of Islamic history and go straight to the Pharoahs. Nik Kershaw mentions “a lone man of Aaron” in The Riddle, but that’s pretty much the only reference to Judaism in 10 long years of make-up, military jackets and spikey hair. Meanwhile the christian imagery comes thick and fast, and again much of it positive as well as negative. Particularly Gospel Singers, crosses, kneeling in prayer, churches as symbols of mystery, decay or (generalized) faith. You won’t find a mosque or a Hindu temple as an image of any of these things, though they may be visible in the odd place here and there as a homage to exoticism or the Orient.

So where do we think we can find the most obvious evidence of “alternative” religions being presented? Perhaps in a musical movement symbolized by the Ankh, a distinctly non-christian symbol…?

Goth, Punk and the Wyccan Impulse

Goth music draws heavily on the twin themes of religion and death, and was at its peak during the mid-80s under the guiding influence of bands like Sisters of Mercy, Christian Death[2], Bauhaus and the like. Christian Death spent most of their lives ranting against christianity exclusively, in strong and uncompromising terms; but the other bands in this genre were much more eclectic in their tastes. The Sisters of Mercy are a good example, using a lot of christian imagery but also drawing on the magical (in songs like Floodland) and expropriating middle eastern musical forms, particularly that amazing wailing woman in Temple of Love. But when they took this music, they took it in purely aesthetic terms – the political and religious context was stripped out. It’s as if the cultural background was irrelevant to the Western world, so strange and mysterious that it could not influence thinking beyond the aesthetic. And indeed, when we see groups like Inkubus Sukkubus or Garden of Delight searching for mystical inspiration, do we see them drawing on the extant religions of their day, which they could easily turn to for inspiration were those religions omnipresent in their cultural life? No, Inkubus Sukkubus turn to Wycca and varied notions of pre-Christian witchcraft; Garden of Delight construct a strange personal religion based on the ancient Sumerian angels and Cthulhu. Sure, Garden of Delight have a song called Sharia but the lyrics are completely unrelated to Islam. They have a lot more songs about fallen Sumerian angels than they do about any extant religion.

The efforts of Goths and punks to revitalize Witchcraft, Paganism and Wycca are particularly illustrative in this light. In the late 80s and early 90s there was an interesting blend of hardcore punk that attempted to sing about paganism, and which drew on pagan ideals and mythology; at this same time witchcraft and paganism were beginning to be accepted as a religious theme or ideal for people seeking a new type of religious outlet, and I think even were accepted as one of the religions the US Army allows one to worship (by the end of the 90s). However, in reconstructing these religions the people involved were heavily influenced by a christian context, and thought only of investigating the paganism destroyed by christianity. Had they known anything more about the wider religious setting of the modern era, they could have taken a quick trip to Japan and explored a currently existing pagan religion practiced by 120 million people. They didn’t though, because the context for religious thought in the West is so heavily dominated by christianity that the concept of an animist religion that never came into conflict with christianity doesn’t exist to most of us; the idea of animism living in harmony with modern society is anathema to our concept of religious progress because we see religious progress through the prism of christian conquest. Where non-christian religions entered the popular mind in the 80s they did so only in as much as they were perceived to have a relationship to christianity, or stripped of all context down ot the purely aesthetic.

Context-free Islam in Cinema

Islam was barely relevant in cinema in the 70s and 80s, but where it was shown in movies it tended to be presented as the backdrop for western stories, its own history and culture irrelevant. So we see at the beginning of The Exorcist that the original source of the demon is dug up in Iraq, but the demon itself is christian and Iraq is just an empty backdrop, a series of bazaars and the call to prayer as culture-free exoticism to define the origin of the demon as the middle east; islam is here only as historical fact. In the first Indiana Jones the Holy Land serves only as the colonial setting for the conflict of western powers – neither Judaism nor Islam have anything to say about the expropriation of an object that is sacred to both of them, and all the non-white characters are incidental (or mercenaries to be shot). It’s the same old adventure in a different setting. In A Passage to India we have a love story in a colonial setting, but that’s all it is; even the Zulu movies give barely a moment’s time to elucidating the religious and cultural details of the enemy, which is jsut a black African mass. It’s as if there is not even an awareness of the possibility of other religions, or they’re discounted immediately as irrelevant to the Western story.

And this is the key here – irrelevance. It’s not that people wish to deny the existence of other religions in the world, they just don’t figure into the Western cultural context. Religious representation in the West in the 70s and 80s occurred entirely within the Christian framework.

Role-playing and Christian Censorship

This is also clear in the christian response to fantasy RPGs, which was to accuse them of satanism or idolatry, and to campaign for censoring them. This campaign had partial successes, resulting in schools banning gaming clubs and even a 60 minutes “documentary” on how dangerous these games are. But again, the christian response to these games was not in terms of the risk of allowing other religions into schools, or of the game being disrespectful to religions generally – the only concern was about christianity and satanism. And the games themselves were largely bereft of non-christian religious influences when they started – the Cleric character’s spells are clearly inspired by images of the Priests and holy men of the western religious canon, and about the only non-western monsters are the Rakshasa and the Djinn. Even the conception of Hell is heavily inspired by Milton, Dante etc., rather than drawing on those of other religions (such as the Bhagavad Gita). Campaigns set in middle eastern or Asian settings came much later as “alternative worlds,” and the two key settings right up until 3rd edition were Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms – pantheistic but clearly European and feudal. Warhammer was explicitly christian-themed. The main departure of role-playing from the common themes of religious context we see in other cultural works of this time is its adoption of pantheism. But this pantheism doesn’t change the backdrop from its European feudal setting, and it only provides colour to a character class obviously based around western, christian notions of what a cleric can do. And you won’t find many islamic or hindu objections to RPGs in the western world – when a generation of young nerds grew up in the 80s, they knew that they only had one religious enemy, and it was christianity.

The Politics of the 70s and 80s

Anyone who was growing up or a young adult in the 70s and 80s will remember that the social politics was enormously conservative and heavily influenced by christian ideals; much of the pop cultural struggle in the 80s was to push christianity out of our private lives. In the 70s and 80s christian minsters and evangelists preached their bigotry loud and clear, and attempted to enforce it in ordinary life as much as they could. Homosexuality was still illegal in some places, and violence against gays was both accepted and normal (I even had a GM in the early 90s tell me casually about his younger days “poofter-bashing” on Oxford Street). HIV/AIDS was just entering consciousness and widely decried as a gay disease; discrimination against gays in employment and housing was both legal and common, and attempts to end this discrimination met organized and vociferous resistance from the church. Depending on where you were domestic violence and/or rape in marriage were considered acceptable, and it was generally not considered possible to rape a prostitute – this was theft, not rape. Censorship – in the sense of book burning – was advocated by all major christian groups, and attempts to decriminalize prostitution or drug use were met with extremely vocal christian objections. The police were free to beat, rape and torture members of the underclass, and in the 70s in Australia, the US and the UK political activists were still murdered by their opponents, or the police. In America Irish catholics were raising funds for Irish catholic terrorism in the UK, and christian extremist survivalist groups were establishing arms caches in advance of the coming race war. The doctrine of “blood in the face” and white supremacism were intimately connected with religion in a way that they aren’t now – it was inconceivable that a member of the far right could be openly gay in 70s and 80s Europe, but now their leaders are, and even atheism and vegetarianism are tolerated amongst their ranks – this was impossible in the 80s because fascists were universally christian. The catholic church openly supported, or later tacitly condoned, fascism, torture and mass murder in latin America and the Phillipines. Abortion was still illegal and extremely hard to get in many countries – in Ireland even into the mid 90s children who had been raped were prevented from leaving the country to get abortions by mobs of christians. Even women’s shelters and domestic violence programs were opposed by christians on christian grounds. The numerous victims of child abuse in the church were still either too scared to come forward, or their cases were failing, or their lives were destroyed when they did; and the catholic church was still openly involved in destroying evidence, hiding crimes and moving accused priests to other states and countries.

This was all unique to christianity in the west, though no doubt in Hindu countries there were hindu scandals, and in muslim countries muslim scandals (e.g. Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia). But the central angst of the western world and of artists, musicians and large slabs of what was to become “Generation X,” the central threat to the freer, more open way of life we could see coming was the christian right. Islam wasn’t complaining about Roe vs. Wade; Hindus weren’t objecting to Slayer; Buddhists weren’t trying to ban AD&D or stop the sale of morning after pills to raped teenagers. You didn’t see Shintoists protesting in front of abortion clinics or African animists rampaging through Soho smashing gay bars. They may have been doing that in Egypt, India and Japan; but we didn’t even know what was going on there, or even really care much what religions were practiced where, because we were told every day in no uncertain terms that we lived in the christian west, and that game we liked was an offence to christian values; those people coming here from Africa would dilute christian English blood; those women gyrating on the stage were offending christian values of chastity and modesty.

Conclusion (at last)

By the time the Satanic Verses came out and Islamic engagement with western art exploded centre stage, Serrano was 39 years old and had been making art for 6 years. He was raised a catholic in New York during a period of history when non-christian religions were not a big part of either our cultural sensitivities or our cultural fears – and particularly when Islam and Hinduism were simply considered to be colourful parts of the backdrop of our colonial history. At the time he was creating his work there was an intense cultural conflict playing out, especially in America, between christianity and secular culture, and this conflict probably played a defining role in the development of the artistic sensibilities of Serrano and his peers. It’s highly unlikely that he would have even thought about Islam in his attempts to explore “the relationship between beautiful imagery and vulgar materials.” Somewhat perversely for the christian advocates of the “Judaeo-christian society” they claim is the status quo for the English-speaking west, until they allow other religions to share an equal part of that status quo, both in practice and in rhetoric, it’s unlikely that artists like Serrano will ever spare much thought to making art that criticizes those other religions. This isn’t a sign of the shallow obssession of people like Serrano with attacking a weakened and fading christianity – it is, instead, a sign of the way christians have been able to reserve a special place for their own religion in the ostensibly secular west, whose cultural underpinnings they jealously claim as their own. Until they give up the one, they can’t expect to see much of a reduction in the frequency or intensity of the other – which, on a charitable reading of its value as art, might explain why the piss christ remains a popular artwork 20 years after its creation.

fn1: Thus ticking all the boxes!

fn2: Need I say more?

Japanese people in general seem to have excellent skills in data visualization, as well as quite advanced mathematical ability and a robust approach to science. Japanese appreciation of data visualization, particularly, seems to exceed anything similar in the West (at least, that I’m familiar with). In my favourite magazine, Tokyo Graffiti, for example, ordinary people are regularly asked to describe their hairstyle or their favorite shoes in terms of spider charts, a form of data visualization also used to describe the fruit and vegetables at my local supermarket. The local guide to hot springs in Steamy Beppu contains a chart that plots key ingredients of the hot spring water on two axes, and then clusters the data into areas through different coloured data points so that you can easily judge which tourist area to visit depending on your health needs. Most pamphlets about health issues in Japan include a brief description of the epidemiological evidence, and usually a chart or two that lay out the data in a visually attractive way.

Of course it’s not the case that these representational methods are unique to Japan, but what is unique is their degree of dissemination, with ordinary shops using them to depict basic information about their products, and information that would be reserved for the fine print (or not presented at all) in the UK or Australia being given front page, graphical representation under the assumption that even the most ordinarily-educated of individuals is capable of understanding it. This is both a refreshing assumption about the mental capacity of the average consumer on the part of ordinary companies, and a huge bonus for your average statistician. People not only understand the basic idea of what I do, but they appreciate it and think it’s cool. This is, to say the least, a novelty.

Of course this has come to the fore in the last week, when the nuclear “crisis” hit. The Japanese media have been very quick to present detailed diagrams of the nuclear plants, and used all sorts of cute charts to give clear presentation of the risks of radiation, in a refreshingly straightforward and unpatronizing way that assumes the best of the audience. The channel I was watching in Beppu, NHK, even had a guy whose official job was “Explainer” (説明者)。They also presented a variety of basic charts and pictorial representations (especially the triangle describing risk) clearly and directly. But the best example I’ve seen so far of presentation of this data is this visualization, which unfortunately for most of my readers is in Japanese. Here is an explanation:

The visualization has 12 little pictures in 3 lines of 4. The top 4 show (left to right) the world average hourly exposure; the upper limit for a worker who deals with radiation; the amount required for a 0.5% increase in cancer risk; and the amount at which you should run for the hills. The next 8 boxes (left to right, top to bottom) are places in Japan. The first (left-most of the middle row) is the Western edge of the Fukushima exclusion zone. To its right are three towns heavily affected by the Tsunami. On the bottom left is my colleague, Ms. Middle-of-the-River’s hometown of Saitama. Next is my friend Miss Wisteria Village’s workplace of Chiba; then is an area near me; and lastly is a town near Yokohama to the Southwest of Tokyo. These places are all in the Greater Kanto area so some distance from the plant, but as you can see from the falling dots, they have a similar amount of “rain” to those in the area around the plant.

This is classic visualization material, giving an engaging presentation of key facts in such a way that visual comparisons are easily done without losing key basic information. It’s also done with the classic Japanese minimalist aesthetic, and somehow manages to produce an overall calming image, while giving a clear sense of panic to the danger zone image while smoothly contrasting it with the reality that surrounds it.

I don’t know why the Japanese are so good at and familiar with visualization, but I think that their writing system, being pictorial, must be connected in some way. Is this also true of China and Korea? They are also countries with world famous mathematical education, and a pictorial writing system, but I don’t know enough about them to judge. I am, however, confident that less foreigners would have run away from Tokyo if the English-speaking world were more comfortable with this sort of representational style.

They are not coming for a bath...

Revealed through a friend, the Don Kenn gallery of monsters drawn on post-it notes. They have an Edward Gorey-meets-Where the Wild Things Are feeling about them, along with a childhood nightmare atmosphere. I like them! Especially the floating baloony ones, and the child’s cthulhu imaginings.