Dialogue on corporations and cultural activities

Dialogue: How graphic art elevates corporations above the pursuit of profit

Mr. Shu Yamaguchi, left and Mr. Eishi Kitazawa

Ginza Graphic Gallery (ggg) in Ginza, Tokyo is unrivaled in the field of graphic design. We invited Shu Yamaguchi, known for his versatile talents as a knowledge curator, to ggg for a conversation with curator Eishi Kitazawa of DNP Foundation for Cultural Promotion, the gallery’s operator. Yamaguchi is on the judging committee for the Mecenat Awards which are handed out by the Association for Corporate Support of the Arts to corporations committed to promoting culture and arts. The dialog covered topics ranging from graphic art and aesthetic consciousness to corporate cultural activities.

Mr. Shu Yamaguchi (photo, left)
Independent researcher, author and public speaker. Born in Tokyo in 1970, he obtained a bachelor of arts in philosophy from Keio University’s Faculty of Letters and a master’s degree in aesthetics and science of art history from the university’s Graduate School of Letters. While working at companies such as Dentsu Inc. and Boston Consulting Group, he gained insights into cultural policies and organizational development. He has written many best-selling books emphasizing the importance of reading and using knowledge from philosophy, the arts and science for business, while sharing know-how he gained while working at foreign consulting firms.

Eishi Kitazawa, DNP Foundation for Cultural Promotion (photo, right)
Kitazawa joined Dai Nippon Printing Co., Ltd. (DNP) in April 1980 where he was in charge of planning and making catalogs, calendars and PR magazines at the company’s Creative Design Center (CDC). Since 1990, he has been head curator at ggg while also being committed to the work of DNP Foundation for Cultural Promotion since 2008. He has planned and organized more than 300 exhibitions of artists and organizations in Japan and abroad to date.

“Graphic art shrouded in exoticism”

Kitazawa: Graphic designer Ikko Tanaka, who proposed the idea of setting up ggg and served as its first supervisor, once remarked that “ggg is like a ‘windhole’ that connects a company with the public.” He meant it was a window through which the wind blows in briskly. Our gallery is small in size, but what is your impression of this space?

Yamaguchi: If I describe the gallery in English, I think “intimate” is the appropriate term. It is not distant, but approachable. It allows us to connect to the artist’s spirit, if we try. There is no match for this place.

Kitazawa: We use “graphic design” as a general term to mean visual art expressed mainly by using printing technologies. “Graphic art” is embodied by artists themselves using graphic design. What do you think graphic art means to people in general?

Yamaguchi: Fine art*1 has the impression of being distant. Graphic art, on the other hand, has a wider range of expressions: It can make people chuckle or relax their shoulders, while it sometimes can raise acute awareness of an issue. Fine art tends to show each artist’s individual traits, but graphic art tends to carry the scent of where it hails from; a kind of ethnicity, I believe. If I look at pieces by Northern European artists, I instantly know they are the works of Northern Europeans. In works by France’s Raymond Savignac, I can sense the Paris esprit. Many graphic art pieces are exotic, aren’t they? This aspect piques my curiosity and makes me admire the artform. I think graphic art carries the scent of its birthplace because it penetrates people’s daily lives. By “scent,” I mean aesthetic consciousness. I feel attracted to graphic art because its themes are closely linked to people’s livelihoods.

  • *1Fine art: Pure art which distinguishes itself from popular art and other forms of art that are the applications or extensions of pure art.

The 299th exhibition titled “Raymond Savignac Exhibition” in 2011

The 299th exhibition titled “Raymond Savignac Exhibition” in 2011

ginza graphic gallery (photo, left),
The 299th exhibition titled “Raymond Savignac Exhibition” in 2011 (photo, right)

Kitazawa: When did you first encounter graphic art?

Yamaguchi: I developed my interest in graphic art when I was young. When I was a student, I used to look at catalogs of graphic art pieces each priced at several tens of thousands of yen, which I bought by saving up my allowances.

Kitazawa: DNP makes and sells digital books, but I prefer paper books when I look at catalogs of art pieces. I am thrilled to turn every page.

Yamaguchi: It is a headache to find a place to store books that I care most about because they tend to be thick. I had treasured several books I bought with my allowances, but I had to give them up against my wish when I moved my house. I regret that I did such an irreparable thing.

Kitazawa: One shortcoming of paper books is that they occupy large spaces.

Yamaguchi: In Japan, the smallness of houses is an unexpected enemy of the publishing industry. Recently, working from home has been embraced by the wider population. According to a newspaper survey, about 60 percent of workers in Tokyo are working remotely. I hear people are moving out from urban areas to the suburbs. If people have more space than when they lived in urban areas, they can have more book shelves. So, the publishing industry is facing a once-in-a-lifetime chance to revive its business.

“Disposable” adverts go down in art history

Kitazawa: So, you encountered graphic art when you were still a student. When you worked for an ad agency, you dealt with graphic art, didn’t you? Could you tell us your experience at the agency?

Yamaguchi: When I was in charge of an ad campaign, I felt the futility of seeing the ad vanishing after the campaign period ended, even though the merchandize for which we launched the campaign remained. I quit the agency because it was unbearable.

One day, I was playing a musical piece composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto, which was once used for an advertisement for a vehicle, with my piano. I suddenly realized: “That car is no longer sold as a new model, but Sakamoto’s piece is still with us. If I think about it very carefully, it might be the reverse is true.” Graphic designs and musical pieces used in adverts can stay alive if they are outstanding. I realized that the stock of these pieces accumulates as time passes and eventually they become “treasures of humankind.”

There must be many forms of expressions that remain untapped. Eiko Ishioka, a globally renowned artist, reportedly referred to such form as “never seen before” arts. In the world of graphic art, it is possible to see the rise of new expressive styles that will motivate emerging geniuses, like Ishioka.

The 381th exhibition titled “SURVIVE - EIKO ISHIOKA” in 2020
The 381th exhibition titled “SURVIVE - EIKO ISHIOKA” in 2020

What inspired Yamaguchi’s best-selling book?

Kitazawa: You have authored many books, which are all attractive and easy-to-understand. Do you have any rules for writing?

Yamaguchi: I am very sensitive about what I don’t understand. I feel very uncomfortable about leaving unaddressed something that I thought I understood, but actually didn’t. So, I thoroughly investigate the issue until I fully understand it. That’s why my works are easy to understand for any reader.

Mr. Shu Yamaguchi
Mr. Shu Yamaguchi

Kitazawa: I see. So, it is important to pinpoint what you feel uncomfortable about.

Yamaguchi: Yes. I think feeling uncomfortable about something is important. One day, I found an article in a foreign newspaper which said the number of applications for MBA (Master of Business Administration) programs at traditional business schools was on the decline, while many global companies were sending their prospective executives to art schools for training. When I read it, I thought to myself, “What is going on?” I started investigating the matter and eventually wrote a book about it.

It might sound odd for Japanese business people, who lament that their busy schedules prevent them from visiting museums, to find out that prospective executives are being trained at art-oriented graduate schools. But I found that this trend had begun to emerge more than 10 years ago.

Kitazawa: You stressed the importance of honing aesthetic consciousness in your book “Sekai no erito wa naze ‘biishiki’ wo kitaerunoka” (unofficial English translation: Why are elites across the world brushing up their aesthetic consciousness?). How should business people develop their aesthetic consciousness?

Yamaguchi: To be chosen by consumers, companies have no option but to make wonderful products by differentiating their products and services. First of all, I’d like to tell people who want to make wonderful products: “You have to be a connoisseur.” To be a connoisseur, you have to envision something that captures people’s hearts. There is no other way to achieve this. So, it makes sense to study highly regarded artworks of the past and present.

Corporate value that go beyond the bottom line

Kitazawa: Corporations naturally pursue profits. But DNP is also focused on the importance of cultural promotion and gallery-supporting activities with the aim of enhancing its entire corporate worth.

Yamaguchi: I think such activities greatly enhance corporate value. Let me cite an example of a whiskey advertisement, which prompted me to take a job at the ad agency. I’ve heard that the advert didn’t directly lead to more sales, but it did serve to cultivate public affection toward the whiskey maker. So, such corporate activities can have lingering influence over several decades and those perceptions are passed down through the generations by osmosis.

Ichigaya Letterpress Factory

Ichigaya Letterpress Factory

I have a somewhat favorable impression of DNP, which I liken to a “noble student in a classroom to whom I can’t tell a bad joke.” This image can be attributable to the existence of the cultural facilities “DNP Plaza” and “Ichigaya Letterpress Factory,” both located in Ichigaya, Tokyo, in addition to this gallery.

We are now living in an era in which it is difficult for companies to differentiate themselves from others in terms of technology. Also, companies tend to avoid engaging in activities that will not directly lead to profits. But I’d like people to always think about this important question: “Aren’t companies stuck in a situation in which they can’t differentiate themselves nor achieve growth because they are only pursuing direct profits?”

Ichigaya Letterpress Factory
Ichigaya Letterpress Factory

Kitazawa: Under the motto of making commitment to long-lasting cultural activities related to our printing business, DNP plans to help foster a “culture of dialogue” through promotion of culture and art – mainly visual art that is deeply connected to printing. It is my sincere wish that more people who are sensitive to art and culture will emerge in society through the activities of the gallery. Such activities will be made in collaboration with the DNP Foundation of Cultural Promotion under the themes of “Promotion of graphic design and art” and “More contact with art.” My role at the gallery is to show the great achievements made by graphic designers to future generations, as a “missionary of graphic design.” Moreover, I’d like to shed light on not only its history but also the new direction of art, especially to young people. Both are important tasks in building up a gallery.

Mr. Eishi Kitazawa

Yamaguchi: That’s right. It is wonderful to maintain a gallery like this one. I think ggg is one of the factors that makes DNP so highly regarded in polls of popular companies. I think DNP’s cultural activities resonate with the public and that they are here to stay.

Mr. Shu Yamaguchi, left and Mr. Eishi Kitazawa
  • The photos of the 299th and the 381th exhibition were photographed by Mitsumasa Fujitsuka.

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