I’ve had a question about Yayoi Kusama’s work for a long time and the new survey publication Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now (2023) has finally resolved it.
In short, the answer is money, but I’ll back up a bit.
The volume features a roundtable discussion between notable curators and museum directors, and quickly, the topic of Kusama’s marketability comes up. The argument presented is that the mass production of Kusama merchandise — Kusama coffee cups, Kusama figurine keychains, and so on — has accelerated the democratization of art.
“We couldn’t have invented a better artist to be a kind of banner artist for the transnational and the transhistorical, and for improving gender balance,” Tate Modern Director Frances Morris says in the featured roundtable.
That is, the commercialization of Kusama herself is not presented as a “necessary evil,” but instead as an opportunity for a positive step toward equality. This is an interesting framing that I generally agree with.
But what is left unsaid is that 1945 to Now is itself part of an attempt to “invent a better artist” — a version of Yayoi Kusama who used her art to aid in racial solidarity.
This “Kusama” does not exist. In a 2017 article for Vice News, I pointed out that in her autobiography Infinity Net, originally published in 2002, Kusama consistently wrote about Black people as primitive, hyper-sexualized beings. But the part that most confused me was a blank space on the page.
In her original Japanese edition, Kusama refers to the area in New York where she used to live transforming into a “slum,” with real estate prices “falling by $5 a day.” She attributes this to “black people shooting each other out front, and homeless people sleeping there.”
When the English translation of Infinity Net came out in 2011, this sentence was missing. It was not a mistranslation. The rest of the paragraph was intact; only the sentence about Black and unhoused people was deleted.
At the time, I was unsure what to make of this omission. However, after reading 1945 to Now, I’m starting to think that this was an early sign of a strategy to subtly sanitize Kusama for Western audiences, reinventing her so as to improve her marketability.
In the very first essay of 1945 to Now, we are shown a picture from 1964 of Kusama being physically carried through Washington Square Park in the arms of a bare-chested Black man. Above this, a clip from a Japanese magazine depicts Kusama reading a newspaper, as a Black man angled below her stares blankly at the ground. He is unnamed, and in the original quote from that magazine, Kusama refers to him not as a collaborator, or even as a human being, but instead speaks of “The head of this Negro.”
On the page that faces these two images, curator Mika Yoshitake writes that Kusama used her work “as a means of communal healing, to radically connect those who experienced being on the margins of life, especially hippies, gays, and people of colour.”
It’s not clear whether Kusama is meant to also be a “person of colour” in this construction. But by beginning the book with this framing of Kusama as an artist who was intentionally producing art that would be inclusive of and “healing” for Black people, the authors have papered over a clear pattern of banal racism in Kusama’s work.
Instead, in nearly every instance that Black people appear in works referenced by the compilation, they seem to mainly function as tools to provide shock or story development. The Hustler’s Grotto of Christopher Street (1984), her most critically acclaimed novel, is brought up throughout the compilation. But nowhere is it mentioned that this book is full of grotesque and voyeuristic depictions of Black characters’ smell and genitalia (White characters are not treated this way).
This trend is present even in one of the rare works exclusively available in this compilation: a partial script for a 1971 play titled Tokyo Leee. Most of the characters are described by their personalities, or at most, as “good-looking,” or having “blonde hair and blue eyes.” But Kusama’s one Black character is described as a “WILD-looking, hairy, coal-black savage.”
Perhaps it is relevant to mention here that I, the writer of this review, am also Black. I would also like to say, however, that I don’t think it’s productive to be offended by these works or to refuse to buy or look at them. I only want to say that it is disingenuous to suggest that Kusama has done anything radical in terms of race, especially compared to some of her peers who deserve this recognition.
For example, Ariyoshi Sawako’s novel Not Because of Color (非色; 1964, untranslated) made a wholehearted effort at connecting Japanese and Black people, with a much more sympathetic and realistic depiction of Black life in New York. Yoshida Ruiko, a Japanese photojournalist who was living in New York around the same time as Kusama, later published Hot Days in Harlem (ハーレムの暑い日々; 1972, untranslated) which shows, through images and words, Black Harlem in all its complications. We see Harlem’s joys and sorrows, and notably, we see Black women. Kusama generally does not speak of or depict Black women, and instead focuses on Black men, their lips and genitals, slyly bragging about the orgies she says she saw in Harlem.
Even her White contemporaries were doing more provocative work. The year before Kusama was releasing photos of herself being carried around in Washington Square, Norman Rockwell painted “The Problem We All Live With” (1963), in which we are brought eye-level with a young Black girl being dutifully escorted into a newly desegregated school by United States Marshals.
In her essay from 1945 to Now, curator Isabella Tam devotes pages to placing Kusama’s work in the context of ancient Chinese and Japanese traditions and forms. This is fine as an artistic or intellectual exercise, but it might be more straightforward to recognize that Kusama’s use of Black people as props also places her literature as an inheritor of a more disappointing tradition: American racism.
I’m genuinely surprised by the limited critical writing about racism in Kusama’s work. How has the art world, which is nothing if not endlessly self-critical, not had a discussion about Kusama’s use of Black people? This is especially odd considering that racism in art is a problem that Kusama herself has been vocal about. Near the end of the same 2002 autobiography in which she laments Black people driving down real estate value, she attacks the worship of White artists in her home country: “Just because their eyes are blue and hair is blonde, foreign artists’ work is sold at ten times the price of Japanese work. In any other country, this would be unthinkable, but in Japan, it is commonplace. This is ridiculous and we must raise our voices against it.”
The closest recent analogue to this discrepancy I can think of is hip-hop’s collective shrug over Kanye West. When Kanye began going on increasingly bizarre tirades, culminating in anti-semitic rants so abhorrent that he made Alex Jones squirm, just about every rapper let him slide.
Despite hip-hop being a genre that is founded on artfully attacking others for the slightest perceived offense, not a single coherent diss track from a major artist came out about Kanye (RXK Nephew’s bizarrely hilarious “Yeezy Boots” is a rare exception). How can it be that the same genre that brought us “Ether,” “Energy,” and “The Bridge is over” — songs brought about by such minor infractions as allegations of copycat lyrics, ghostwriting, and swagger-jacking, respectively — has turned the other way when an entire group of people was being attacked?
It’s worth considering that perhaps Kanye, and also Kusama, might somehow be off-limits from criticism because of their well-publicized mental illnesses. It’s certainly been enough to have put an asterisk on nearly every criticism of Kanye’s outbursts. We’ve been made to ask ourselves: Can someone be mentally ill and bigoted at the same time? Can the former influence the latter? Or is the latter a pre-existing condition, that has nothing to do with the former?
Freddie deBoer, a writer who himself has bipolar disorder, has written about this, arguing: “To say that West’s behavior might not be fully under his control is not to say that it’s not within his responsibility.” He goes on to add that we “have to be willing to both find that someone is guilty of bad things while bearing the complications of mental illness in mind.”
It is certainly worth being cautious in our criticism of both artists. But it doesn’t explain why there has been no peer criticism in the industries that both Kanye and Kusama occupy.
The only explanation for this I can think of is money.
In hip-hop, as in art, there seems to be a consensus that certain artists are too big to fail. Each of these artists has a cottage industry built around them; there are thousands of people with a direct financial interest in making sure their artistic figurehead remains commercially attractive for brand investment and merchandising. As the book asserts, Kusama is among the highest-selling living female artists in the world.
As Jay-Z said on the remix to Kanye’s 2005 “Diamonds from Sierra Leone:” “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!”
The concept of Kusama as consciously anti-racist seems to be a new, and particularly Western-facing, framework. Not all audiences have been treated this way — while the 2022 Spanish edition of her autobiography also deleted the “black people shooting each other” line, the 2021 Chinese edition left it basically intact.
I wish we had been given the same opportunity as Chinese readers: to see Kusama’s work as she herself presented it to the world; to appreciate the beautiful without ignoring the ugly.
But in this market, a collective decision seems to have been made that in order to maximize profits, not only must Kusama’s occasional racist utterances be scrubbed, but also a more palatable artist needs to be “invented” in her place. This volume is just the latest effort in this exercise.
Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now dedicates an entire essay to exploring, and defending Kusama from, charges of “narcissism.” It is thoughtful, nuanced, and convincing. I’d have happily read a similar essay that truly engages Kusama’s blithely uncreative adoption of American racism. Instead, the book pretends it doesn’t exist, and subtly attempts to convince us into seeing something that was never there.