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Editorial: Questions yet to be answered about art festival in Hiroshima

“Hiroshima Triennale 2020 in Bingo,” an international art festival scheduled in Onomichi and other locations in Hiroshima Prefecture this autumn, has been canceled.


Organizers cited the new coronavirus outbreak as the reason, but that is not convincing. The decision has left important questions unanswered and could cause serious problems in the future.


In late February, the Hiroshima prefectural government decided to assign an outside panel to check the planned exhibits in advance, provoking criticism and concerns within the art community. Critics said the move was tantamount to “open censorship” by authorities.


The art director resigned in protest, while many of the artists planning to show their works decided to withdraw.


Hiroshima Governor Hidehiko Yuzaki defended the move, arguing it was not censorship because the checking was done not by the prefectural government but a newly created independent panel.


But the panel was composed of people representing various areas including the tourist industry and the local business community. And the rule was that no exhibit should be allowed, in principle, without the consent of all the members.


This is an unacceptable approach because it is not suitable for an art festival that should serve as a cradle for diversity in artistic expressions.


The prefectural government’s abrupt decision to have the exhibits checked in advance was apparently prompted by a flood of criticism that was triggered by a previous event. The event featured the works of artists who participated in a special exhibition at the Aichi Triennale 2019 international art festival that caused a big stir last year.


The controversy over the special exhibition for the Aichi Triennale raised many issues, such as the importance of freedom of expression, the powers and responsibilities of the art directors of art festivals and what administrations should and should not do in their involvement in such events.


It seems that the Hiroshima prefectural government has failed to learn key lessons from what occurred at the Aichi Triennale and instead acted in a way that runs counter to the lessons, thereby derailing the plan for its own event.


Art festivals have proliferated across the nation to attract tourists and revitalize local communities.


That is, in itself, not necessarily bad. But art festivals that exhibit only works in line with the widely accepted values and norms so that they can attract as many visitors as possible and avoid any controversy cannot contribute to creating new cultures.


Even more worrisome is the Hiroshima prefectural government’s decision to check the planned exhibits in advance in what borders on censorship. Such an approach by authorities, if widely adopted, would effectively choke the freedom of expression that is a foundation of democracy and ruin the credibility of “international art festivals” in Japan with the international community.


In recent years, there has been a marked increase in attempts to put pressure on events to promote artistic expressions, such as art exhibitions and film festivals. We can understand the challenges local governments have to tackle in sponsoring such events in dealing with all kinds of opinions and complaints from the public and ensuring security.


But resorting to the policy of “Don’t rock the boat” in the face of all these challenges would only lead to a society and local communities without liveliness or creativity.


The controversy over the Aichi Triennale produced positive effects as artists listened directly to criticism and protests, creating a new channel of dialogue over issues involved.


Hiroshima still has a chance to correct its mistake and contribute to the cause. It should change its stance toward this matter so that it can host a truly beneficial art festival after the coronavirus outbreak is brought under control.

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