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January 18, 2006

Superflat society

While wandering around the internet, doing research for a silly book that I'm writing, I've come across two interesting people. The first is Takashi Murakami (not dead yet), a Japanese pop artist and the second is Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), a Danish philosopher.

At first glance, these two people don't have a lot in common; Japan and Denmark have completely different traditions and have played very different roles in world history.

Where they converge is on their perception of the societies that surround them...

Takashi Murakami is the creator of art that most readers of the Gray Monk would probably think is silly and quite frankly, it is. Japan is well known for it's obsession with cartoons and this obsession has spread to the West and even to some of my sensible friends.

Murakami's work parodies aspects of Japanese cartoon culture, sometimes in a grotesque way, because his point is that Japanese culture has become flat and meaningless. In a country where even police stations have life-size models of cartoon characters on their doorstep as mascots, he's trying to turn the obsession on it's head and say "grow up!."

The response from the art world is predictable: galleries and museums all over the world wax lyrical about his creations and can't get enough of the merchandise. His work is idolised in Japan and has been turned into toy figurines, wallpaper, posters and various other commercial items. He also designed the colourful Louis Vuitton bags that are so popular in knock-off market stalls all over Europe.

The irony is that he is one of a group of artists in Japan who call their art "superflat". To quote from BT Monthly Art Magazine (found at http://www.imomus.com/thought280600.html)

"Superflat is a concept being proposed by artist Takashi Murakami, whose paintings deal with two dimensional spatiality rendered somewhere between traditional Japanese painting and modern anime. The phrase, though coined by Murakami for his art, has recently drawn attention from young scholars due to its connotations: 'devoid of perspective and devoid of hierarchy, all existing equally and simultaneously."

Murakami also has an interesting habit of only giving a small part of his theory at a time to anybody who tries to interview him, so the interviewer who managed to track him down for a documentary that was shown on UK TV recently had to be persistent to get any more of the superflat theory out of him. He seems to want to avoid becoming a leader of a counter culture.

In that he is similar to Søren Kirkegaard. Kirkegaard not only published several books under his own name, but also published books that contradicted him under pseudonyms. He wanted to avoid anyone turning his ideas into a "philosophical system with systematic infrastructure." (taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S%C3%B8ren_Kierkegaard)

Now lets look at what Kierkegaard wrote well over a 150 years ago:

"The present age is essentially a sensible, reflecting age, devoid of passion, flaring up in superficial, short-lived enthusiasm and prudentially relaxing in indolence. ... whereas a passionate age accelerates, raises up, and overthrows, elevates and debases, a reflective apathetic age does the opposite, it stifles and impedes, it levels. In antiquity the individual in the crowd had no significance whatsoever; the man of excellence stood for them all. The trend today is in the direction of mathematical equality, so that in all classes about so and so many uniformly make one individual.... For leveling to take place, a phantom must first be raised, the spirit of leveling, a monstrous abstraction, an all-encompassing something that is nothing, a mirage — and this phantom is the public..."

Another way of describing superflat culture, n'est pas?

And now, because I'm an intellectual omnivore (I'll devour any old rubbish), let's skip to a recent Western animation: "The Incredibles"

For those of you who have missed it, the idea behind the film is that all of the superheroes have to go into hiding, because people keep suing them for injuries sustained while being saved. This results in super people trying to raise their children to be ordinary.

Son: I thought you said I was special!
Mother: Everyone's special...
Son: That's just another way of saying everyone's the same.

To me, that exchange sums up the thoughts of Kirkegaard and Murakami quite nicely. It also explains why we will never have another Leonardo Da Vinci in this day and age.

Posted by The Postulant at January 18, 2006 12:29 PM

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Welcome back to the Blogosphere, and with a very interesting and perceptive piece! I shall look forward to more.

Posted by: The Gray Monk at January 19, 2006 09:44 AM

UPDATE: I tried to explain Superflat theory to my sensible friend and even mentioning that he parodied manga/anime upset her, Apparently I'm better at writing than speaking! (and even then I have doubts about getting my point across)

Posted by: The Postulant at January 21, 2006 01:23 AM

hi gray monk- it seems you might be a little ill informed about murakami. firstly he has written extensively on his 'superflat' theories and even given lectures on them, where he in no way avoids answering questions.
your quote:
"He seems to want to avoid becoming a leader of a counter culture."
is really misleading. this is his sole aim! he even lives in a little out room on his factory grounds with only a sleeping bag. he lives for sole aim of being the leader.

Posted by: nada at March 2, 2006 04:33 PM