The Work of Art in the Age of Post-truth


Oxford Dictionaries announced “post-truth” as its 2016 international Word of the Year.[★1]“Word of the Year 2016 is…,” Oxford University Press, accessed May 31, 2017, According to the definition of Oxford, Inc., it is an adjective defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. It was heavily used in criticizing Brexit (the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union) and the birth of President Donald Trump in the United States by diffusion of information not based on truth.

However, the post-truth situation is not a particularly new phenomenon. We have been in the age of post-truth for a long time.

Hiroki Azuma, a Japanese philosopher, wrote as follows, naming geeks as Database Animals in “Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals”.[★2]Hiroki Azuma, Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, trans. Jonathan E. Abel, Shion Kono (London: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 79.

What is sought here is not the narrative dynamism of old, but a formula, without a worldwide or a message, that effectively manipulates emotion.

Database animals are not seeking the only and true story. However, they are seeking what moves their emotion or “Moe”. What they need is just a database. The database of Otaku or Database Animals was what Azuma called “Moe element”.

After the Internet has become popular, a database for the public has appeared. Now the information on the World Wide Web is retrieved like a Moe element and arbitrarily arranged in the timeline for their own social network account. Then, the timeline becomes true for them. In the present age, the timeline appears as a true story.

Not only Otaku, but also artists have made works that responded to this situation from early. The most radical one is Cindy Sherman’s real works against the truth. Hal Foster wrote that Cindy Sherman’s aim was to tear the screen between the gaze and the subject of representation, citing Lacanian theory.[★3]Hal Foster, “Obscene, Abject, Traumatic,” OCTOBER 78, (FALL 1996): 110

I want to suggest that much contemporary art refuses this age-old mandate to pacify the gaze, to unite the imaginary and the symbolic against the real. It is as if this art wanted the gaze to shine, the object to stand, the real to exist, in all the glory (or the horror) of its pulsatile desire, or at least to evoke this sublime condition. To this end it moves not only to attack the image but to tear at the screen, or to suggest that it is already torn. This shift from the image-screen, the focus of most postmodernist art in the 1980s, to the object-gaze, the focus of most postmodernist art in the 1990s, is registered most clearly in the art of Cindy Sherman.

As symbolized by Cindy Sherman’s work, Foster says that real things have changed from “representational effects” to “trauma events” in contemporary art. In the world where there is only simulacre, it is natural to return to real things because the truth can not be believed. Cindy Sherman photographed the trauma by dressing as a film cast or a victim of a disaster or by shooting a grotesque doll. However, not everyone has the technique to handle cameras like her.

The desire for real things would be witnessed as psychotic trauma. Especially in Japan, many young people began self‐injurious. The purpose is not suicide. They cut the wrist to confirm the real through their body. They self-injured roughly with calling it “Wrisca” in abbreviations of “wrist cut”.

Another psychotic solution that fills the desire for real things is dissociative identity disorder. Let’s go back to Azuma’s book once more.[★4]Azuma, Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, 84

However, postmodern individuals let the two levels, small narratives and a grand nonnarrative, coexist separately without necessarily connecting them. To put it more clearly, they learn the techinique of living without connecting the deeply emotional experience of a work (a small narrative) to a worldview (a grand narrative).

By becoming dissociative like this, people who got a technique to survive the real are called Otaku.

Both Foster and Azuma are based on the Lacanian theory, the postmodern era emerged as an era of psychosis mildness and rapid increase in patients. After the United States as pioneer, the consumption of psychotropic drugs has expanded sharply in the world including Japan. In this way, even if desire for the real which has never satisfied appears as psychosis, it has become possible to be paired for the moment.

In other words, gaps in dissection were filled with psychotropics. At the same time, gaps between the gaze and the subject of representation were filled. After that, the only thing left is the screen. In the present age, neither the subject nor the gaze preceding the subject is there, only the screen exists.

That screen is a smartphone. In the age of post-truth, both the subject and the gaze, the truth and the real are all on the smartphone. A smartphone is an object seen from us. It is also a subject that sees us from the insight camera. Furthermore, it can be said that smartphones filled with personal information are idenfied with our own identities. That is not all. The important thing is our physical behavior. When we use smartphones, we are literally integrated with the smartphone’s screen. The distinctive feature of a smartphone is to touch the screen directly. Here, the visual which was the representative champion is dragged down from its seat, and the sense of touch changes for that position. The characteristic of tactile sense is that it has no distance, unlike vision. The screen between the gaze and the subject is identified on the contact surface between our smartphone display and our skin. The display of the smartphone is a screen and it is our skin.
There is nothing more real than the skin. And the timeline flowing to the smartphone as skin is received as a feeling filled with truth. However, the information flowing in each timeline is different. Therefore, the truth will be multiplied. Hence, the post-truth will also be called an alternative fact. The truth has also been made plural so that the body exists individually as each reality.

In the age of post-truth, artists standing on cutting edges are trying to regain our skin, which is deprived of by the smartphone. Take the screen back.

Art group “Japonica” is also one of them. The most symbolic artwork is “FUKUSHIMA Crappy Collage”. Ei Arakawa, Japanese artist living in New York, distributed vegetable soup made from Fukushima vegetables for free in Freeze Art Fair in 2014. After they got that information, they spread the image of drinking soup at the art fair wearing protective clothing worn by the nuclear power plant workers to protect themselves from radiation on Twitter. They did not really go to the site. They just edited the images. However, in Japan, it burst into flames that Japonica was causing problem behavior. Although it turned out that it was an image that was edited right away, but their concept was that the lie came out. There is no longer a lie in the age of post-truth. Like the Nanjing Massacre, which is being discussed extensively between Japan and China, the lie for one is the truth for the other. The age of post-truth is the age to disappear not only the truth, but also the lies. For that reason, Japonica pushes information that is just a lie for everyone to the timeline. We can get away from the post-truth for the first time when we abuse the image uploaded by Japonica as a trashy lie and throw the smartphone on the wall. By that distance, it will be possible to see the truth for the first time. At the same time, the subject appears as a real body.

Japonica 《FUKUSHIMA Crappy Collage #1》

Japonica 《FUKUSHIMA Crappy Collage #2》

Let me introduce two tendencies of Japanese artists corresponding to the age of post-truth.

Nobuaki Ito and Fuyuhiko Takata, whose looking are hard to be said good, always show their own (sometimes naked) appearance in the video work. In many works, they use selfie sticks without photography staff. The important point is that distance. Instead of touching the screen, they take halfway distance of the selfie stick from their body. This exquisite distance is their strategy.

Fuyuhiko Takata 《Afternoon of a Faun》2015-16

Nobuaki Ito 《A-to (Japan Ver.)》 2015

Yusuke Suga and Houxo Que make the screen itself the medium of the work. Suga, who produces displays with woodcarving, scrapes the polished surface like a cracked smartphone. By cracking the display made of wood, he changes the screen to real one. Houxo Que rubs the paint directly on the display and stimulates the tactile sense visually by lighting the myriad colors in excess. They are trying to transcend not only the truth but also the real by using the light organic.

Yusuke Suga 《Black Display_#01》 2017

Installation View, Houxo Que and Yusukesuga “Windows” 2016, Gallery OUT of PLACE TOKIO

I don’t know which method will work. Non, everyone will fail. Only the mistakes are registered in art history. In the age of post-truth, artists compete for mistakes. Only the mistake is true.

First Japanese edition published by Japonica 2017
This paper edition published by HANAFUSA Taichi 2017
Translation ©HANAFUSA Taichi
First published as “ポスト・トゥルース時代の芸術作品”
All Rights Reserved


1 “Word of the Year 2016 is…,” Oxford University Press, accessed May 31, 2017,
2 Hiroki Azuma, Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, trans. Jonathan E. Abel, Shion Kono (London: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 79.
3 Hal Foster, “Obscene, Abject, Traumatic,” OCTOBER 78, (FALL 1996): 110
4 Azuma, Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, 84