Subversive Swastika: Or, Is Nara's Art Innoncent?
10/12/2010 - 18:16

Years ago, on a trip to Japan, I came across a swastika.  Dozens of them, actually, in museums across the country.  I was shocked, what Westerner wouldn't be? 

No doubt this has happened to many Western travelers in Asia, and no doubt many have gotten the re-assuring answer from tour guides or friends: don't worry, it just means "good luck." Buddhists have been using it as a symbol for luck for more than 2,000 years.

So why was I still a touch unsettled by that swastika again at the Asia Society exhibit, "Yoshimoto Nara: Nobody's Fool"?

I'm still struggling for an answer.  After all, I know that Nara says he is simply using a symbol from his native Japan, where the artist still lives.  But it is hard to shake the sense that Nara, one of the leading figures in Japan's Neo-Pop movement, is entirely innocent.  His work is characterized by its subversiveness, with large, seductive, often gorgeous manji cartoons doing dangerous things: smoking, cut up, their faces laced with teenage ire and angst.

If you add to his truculence that his market is, in large part, Western (he's represented by New York's Marianne Boesky Gallery), then why cannot we ask if his use of the swastika is in some way part of subversive too?  And if so, is it in good taste?

Obviously, the Asia Society, who has otherwise put together a pleasing show, anticipated these questions.  On each of the glazed ceramic bowls where the swastika appears, the museum places a placard explaining the symbol's beneficent relation to Buddhism.  Otherwise, wall-texts are scarce.

You'd be wrong, even stupid, to call Nara an anti-semite, but you can ask whether his professed innocence should be so easily accepted.

If his art predated the Nazi's, perhaps (though I would wonder about any Western museum's decision to exhibit such an artifiact, as if explaining its origins vitiates its still noxious effect).  But it doesn't. And worse, it's based on the Pop art theory, whose central premise is the sly subversion of kitsch.  

Maybe Nara cannot have it both ways.

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Supposing - this is hypothetical, I know, but it's a good exercise in thinking, empathy - supposing that some genocidal dictators somewhere in the world, who are not even Jewish - say, the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide - had stolen and misused the Star of David as their symbol. Then of course we would have a similar dilemma: to survivors of the genocide, it would be like a knife in the face; but if displaying it were banned, Jews would, quite rightly, be protesting, explaining that it is an ancient religious symbol, and so on. Similarly, Communist countries co-opted the five-pointed star - another ancient symbol - painted it red and used it on their flags and coats of arms.

How many Jews have been killed under the Christian cross? For the 2,000 years of Christianity, I bet more than 6 million. If you can live with the cross, it's not that hard to live with the swastika.

In addition to what has previously been posted. I also think that by always questioning it's usage and limiting its view, is in effect an attempt at re-definition. In doing so, no how matter how offensive it might be for a small segment of the worlds population, is selfish and arrogant.

It propagates the idea that Jewish sensitivity is more important than 10,000 years of history.

the swastika has been a symbol of love, peace, good luck and auspiciousness, used by every culture, and every people on the face of the planet - including the hebrew people - for 10,000 years. it has been found in neolithic sites in positions of prominence all over the world, and is one of mankind's oldest symbols. it has only been a symbol of hatred and racism for less than 100 years. i realise that jews have had a rough time of it recently, but that doen't negate the fact that all asian religions still use the swastika as a symbol of holiness and auspiciousness, and nothing you can say or do will ever change that.