An Artist of the Floating World: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Aestheticism

Kazuo Ishiguro’s second novel, An Artist of the Floating World (1986), is narrated retrospectively, from the post-war vantage of 1948-50, by the painter, Masuji Ono. Ono’s ambition caused him first to leave the commercial and auto-exoticizing “art for export” firm of Takeda for the art-for-art’s-sake milieu of Moriyama, which focuses on the ephemerally sensual “floating world” of the traditional Japanese pleasure district. Moriyama, influenced by European Impressionism just as Impressionism was influenced by Japanese prints, represents a convergence of East and West in the nation-nullifying utopian space of the painting, a space whose evanescence is the guarantee of its authority. (Ishiguro’s Anglophone audience may be reminded that Oscar Wilde singled out Japan, in “The Decay of Lying,” as the paradigm of the artistic nation, a country to be congratulated for its glory as an aesthetic invention rather than for its everyday life.) But Masuji Ono’s ambition, stoked by the tempter Matsuda, leads him to become involved in far-right politics. The novel’s culminating revelation, albeit underplayed by Ono’s diffident narration, is that Ono acted as a police informant on “unpatriotic activities,” which led to the arrest and torture of his protégé, Kuroda.

When summarized in this way, the novel sounds misleadingly like the depiction of a straightforward decline—Ono’s artistic ambition leading him first to aloof and implicitly elitist aestheticism, and then from aestheticism to overtly elitist fascism, as Walter Benjamin might have predicted:

“Fiat ars – pereat mundus”, says Fascism, and, as Marinetti admits, expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology. This is evidently the consummation of “l’art pour l’art.” Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.

But Ishiguro’s novel tells a very different story, one remarkably consonant with the philosophy of Wilde and his fin-de-siècle cohort, a story in which the aesthete becomes a totalitarian precisely because he abandons his apolitical outlook.

Ishiguro suggests as much in the novel when he presents the triggering event of Ono’s turn from aestheticism to fascism as a walk with Matsuda through a slum. This walk fills Ono with Dickensian sympathy for the suffering people and leads him to paint his first political propaganda picture, in which the squalid children of the slum are portrayed as nationalist fighters against international parasites. In other words, it is a feeling readers associate with the political left—a desire for social justice and the alleviation of poverty—that sets Ono on his road to moral ruin. The novel insists on this point when the nationalist spokesman Matsuda recruits Ono by denouncing aestheticism and dropping the name of Marx:

‘There’s a certain kind of artist these days,’ he went on, ‘whose greatest talent lies in hiding away from the real world. Unfortunately, such artists appear to be in dominance at the present, and you, Ono, have come under the sway of one of them. Don’t look so angry, it’s true. Your knowledge of the world is like a child’s. I doubt, for instance, if you could even tell me who Karl Marx was.’

Ishiguro here presents an analysis that directly opposes Benjamin’s—in this novel, the turn toward the politicization of art leads toward fascism. Or, to put it another way, the aestheticization of politics and the politicization of art amount equally to totalitarianism, and Ono would have been better off remaining in his studio, indifferent to the affairs of his country.

But Ishiguro intensifies his novel’s ironies when he hints strongly that Ono has overrated the importance of his own complicity in the depredations of the World War II era. The suspense of the novel, as it unfolds, involves the question of whether or not Ono’s wartime activities will derail his youngest daughter’s marriage prospects. The reader, however, gradually comes to understand, beneath Ono’s own awareness, that his daughter’s suitor’s family is barely aware of his past and regards him only as a harmless conservative relic.

Ishiguro warns the reader, then, that the politicized artist will not only commit evil deeds—such as Ono’s informing on Kuroda—but will also remain as ineffectual as he would have been had he remained apolitical. The totalitarian artist is therefore denied by the novel even the glamor of infamy; Ono’s actions are both vile and bathetic, which, Ishiguro implies, are all that the politicized artist’s actions could be.

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