The deepest desire of Masuji Ono, protagonist of An Artist of the Floating World, is to be an acclaimed, significant artist. But while Ono is technically adept as a painter, his understanding of the world—and art’s role in it—is unsophisticated. Lacking a strong personal vision for his art and its message, Ono switches from one artistic movement to the next in pursuit of a style that will earn him acknowledgement as a great artist. In tracing Ono’s trajectory from commercial artist to high-brow artist to nationalist artist and propagandist, the novel shows a man who spends his life congratulating himself for his bold breaks from his teachers and for his much-needed artistic contributions. At his life’s end, however, it is clear that Ono has only followed in others’ footsteps, making uninspired and unimportant art, or art which reflects and amplifies his society’s worst impulses. In his quest for relevance and significance, Ono produced work that could not stand the test of time, but became irrelevant along with each passing fad, after the world which he painted had “floated away.” The novel suggests that the “relevant” artist, who reacts to the commercial and political currents of the time, may be acclaimed for a moment but ultimately prove insignificant outside of the time in which he or she works.
Ono has ambitions to become a great artist, but no idea what kind of art he should produce towards achieving this end. Despite Ono’s description of himself as someone who courageously follows his convictions and talent, the actual events of his life suggest a man who follows others opportunistically instead of thinking for himself. Ono’s early works as a teen are paintings of landscapes. He has an incredible facility for capturing the way a specific place looks. Throughout his later career, however, Ono’s work focuses on other subjects, suggesting that he may have abandoned his true talent, simple and familiar as it may have been in the eyes of others. Ono’s first paid work as an artist is producing stereotypically Japanese paintings that are exported to foreigners who exoticize the Japanese tradition. Ono is initially pleased that he is earning a living as an artist, defying his father’s predictions that he would live in squalor if he pursued art as a career. He is also glad to be one of his firm’s leading artists. Gradually, however, Ono comes to feel that this commercial work at Master Takeda’s firm is beneath him, and he leaves the firm. Ono spends the next six years at the villa of Seiji Moriyama, or Mori-san. There, Ono paints in the style Mori-san advocates: paintings of geishas from the “floating world”—or pleasure districts—depicted in a more Western style called . Mori-san urges his students to live among geishas, drinking late into the night and painting scenes from nightlife, but Ono struggles with doubts about whether this lifestyle is really the path to greatness. His father, after all, predicted that he would spend his life living in squalor if he pursued a career as an artist. Once again, however, Ono earns acclaim. He becomes Mori-san’s favorite student and is allowed to exhibit his paintings alongside his teacher’s. After conversations with the nationalist art-appreciator Matsuda, who teases Ono for being naïve and having a “narrow artist’s perspective,” Ono leaves Mori-san’s villa and begins to create paintings with political messages. While Ono portrays this, in hindsight, as another moment in which he took a courageous risk to follow his artistic convictions, he is once again merely exchanging one person’s doctrine for another. He eventually rises to prominence as a nationalist painter in his city. A cohort of younger artists consider him their teacher, and he wins prestigious awards. However, after Japan’s defeat in the war, the culture of militant nationalism is reviled, and prominent nationalist artists commit suicide. Ono is forced into retirement, which he takes as a sign that his work had an important—albeit now-discredited—impact on his society.
As he relates this story of moving from artistic movement to artistic movement, Ono repeatedly claims to be proud for having struck out on his own, following his convictions, even if they proved wrong in the end. He says that this is a quality an artist can be proud of, even if his work does not stand the test of time. But, in fact, the story of Ono’s career shows that he opportunistically sought relevance and recognition by following other’s ideas, and cannot point to any unique contributions of his own. When describing his time painting at the Takeda firm to his proteges, Ono says that what he took from his experience at the firm is the need to “rise above the sway of things.” But Ono left the Takeda firm to go to another place where he was expected to closely adhere to another person’s ideas, and when he ultimately left Mori’s, it was to create art that would adhere to Matsuda’s ideas. Based on his descriptions of his wartime work, Ono seems to have created derivative, unexceptional propaganda posters. It is work that does not seem likely to have sprung from his own original ideas, but rather from copying and adapting other people’s ideas at the moment those ideas were rising to the cultural fore. When Ono sees other artists deciding to strike out on their own, he is far from supportive of their pursuit of originality. Sasaki, Mori’s favorite student early on in Ono’s time living at the villa, develops his own style and is treated as a traitor by the other students living at the villa. Ono records no effort on his own part to defend Sasaki. At the same time, while Ono leaves the villa with the support of Matsuda and his Okada-Shingen society, it seems that Sasaki leaves with no such support or guidance, truly as a result of his convictions. In dealing with his own student Kuroda, Ono is so offended by his student’s innovations that he gives his name to the Committee of Unpatriotic Activities, leading all of Kuroda’s work to be burned and Kuroda himself to be jailed and beaten.
In the end, other characters’ statements suggest that Ono’s presentation of himself is skewed; his belief that the courage of his convictions led him to paint original, ground-breaking works that have since been discredited seems nothing more than self-aggrandizement. In his final conversation with Matsuda, Matsuda says that they “turned out to be ordinary men with no special gifts of insight” and that their “contribution turned out to be marginal.” Ono rejects taking Matsuda’s words at face value, saying that there was something in the Matsuda’s manner that suggested he believed otherwise. In Ono’s last conversation with his daughter Setsuko, she reassures her father that he does not need to feel guilty for encouraging the militarism of the war years because it was not really culturally significant.
The novel’s presentation of a vain and self-deluding artist whose contributions lose their importance with the passage of time gives the title its meaning. Ono feels encouraged by a lifetime of acclaim for his work to believe that his contributions were important and will be remembered. But, in fact, he was only one of the many artists of his time who painted derivative works in styles invented by others. Although Ono leaves Mori-san’s villa and ceases to paint the geishas of the “floating world” of pleasure districts, the ultimate unimportance of his career makes him an “artist of the floating world” in a different sense. Ono finds a transitory success by shaping his work to fit the demands of specific times and places, and by copying others who have gained acclaim. But this world is neither timeless nor permanent; it is transitory, “floating.” The novel shows how the world in which Ono was an important artist is already floating away, superseded by new currents, ideas, events, and artists.
The Relevance of the Artist ThemeTracker
The Relevance of the Artist Quotes in An Artist of the Floating World
It is now already a thing of some fifteen years ago. In those days, when my circumstances seemed to improve with each month, my wife had begun to press me to find a new house. With her usual foresight, she had argued the importance of our having a house in keeping with our status — not out of vanity, but for the sake of our children's marriage prospects. I saw the sense in this, but since Setsuko, our eldest, was still only fourteen or fifteen, I did not go about the matter with any urgency. Nevertheless, for a year or so, whenever I heard of a suitable house for sale, I would remember to make enquiries.
Besides, there was surely much to admire in the idea of 'an auction of prestige', as the elder daughter called it. One wonders why things are not settled more often by such means. How so much more honourable is such a contest, in which one's moral conduct and achievement are brought as witnesses rather than the size of one's purse. I can still recall the deep satisfaction I felt when I learnt the Sugimuras — after the most thorough investigation — had deemed me the most worthy of the house they so prized.
My respect for reception rooms may well appear exaggerated, but then you must realize that in the house I grew up in — in Tsuruoka Village, a half-day's train journey from here — I was forbidden even to enter the reception room until the age of twelve. That room being in many senses the centre of the house, curiosity compelled me to construct an image of its interior from the occasional glimpses I managed to catch of it. Later in my life I was often to surprise colleagues with my ability to realize a scene on canvas based only on the briefest of passing glances; it is possible I have my father to thank for this skill, and the inadvertent training he gave my artist's eye during those formative years.
I have still in my possession a painting by the Tortoise — a self-portrait he painted not long after the Takeda days. It shows a thin young man with spectacles, sitting in his shirtsleeves in a cramped, shadowy room, surrounded by easels and rickety furniture, his face caught on one side by the light coming from the window. The earnestness and timidity written on the face are certainly true to the man I remember, and in this respect, the Tortoise has been remarkably honest; looking at the portrait, you would probably take him to be the sort you could confidently elbow aside for an empty tram seat. But then each of us, it seems, has his own special conceits. If the Tortoise's modesty forbade him to disguise his timid nature, it did not prevent him attributing to himself a kind of lofty intellectual air — which I for one have no recollection of. But then to be fair, I cannot recall any colleague who could paint a self-portrait with absolute honesty; however accurately one may fill in the surface details of one's mirror reflection, the personality represented rarely comes near the truth as others would see it.
You may perhaps think I am taking too much credit in relating this small episode; after all, the point I was making in the Tortoise's defence seems a very obvious one — one you may think would occur instantly to anyone with any respect for serious art. But it is necessary to remember the climate of those days at Master Takeda's – the feeling amongst us that we were all battling together against time to preserve the hard-earned reputation of the firm. We were also quite aware that the essential point about the sort of things we were commissioned to paint — geishas, cherry trees, swimming carps, temples — was that they look ‘Japanese’ to the foreigners to whom they were shipped out, and all finer points of style were quite likely to go unnoticed. So I do not think I am claiming undue credit for my younger self if I suggest my actions that day were a manifestation of a quality I came to be much respected for in later years — the ability to think and judge for myself, even if it meant going against the sway of those around me.
“I realize there are now those who would condemn the likes of you and me for the very things we were once proud to have achieved. And I suppose this is why you're worried, Ono. You think perhaps I will praise you for things perhaps best forgotten.”
“No such thing,” I said hastily. “You and I both have a lot to be proud of. It's merely that where marriage talks are concerned, one has to appreciate the delicacy of the situation. But you've put my mind at rest. I know you'll exercise your judgement as well as ever.”
“I will do my best,” Matsuda said. “But, Ono, there are things we should both be proud of. Never mind what people today are all saying. Before long, a few more years, and the likes of us will be able to hold our heads high about what we tried to do. I simply hope I live as long as that. It's my wish to see my life's efforts vindicated.”
You may gather from such recollections that our devotion to our teacher and to his principles was fierce and total. And it is easy with hindsight — once the shortcomings of an influence have become obvious — to be critical of a teacher who fosters such a climate. But then again, anyone who has held ambitions on a grand scale, anyone who has been in a position to achieve something large and has felt the need to impart his ideas as thoroughly as possible, will have some sympathy for the way Mori-san conducted things. For though it may seem a little foolish now in the light of what became of his career, it was Mori-san's wish at that time to do nothing less than change fundamentally the identity of painting as practised in our city. It was with no less a goal in mind that he devoted so much of his time and wealth to the nurturing of pupils, and it is perhaps important to remember this when making judgements concerning my former teacher.
I have learnt many things over these past years. I have learnt much in contemplating the world of pleasure, and recognizing its fragile beauty. But I now feel it is time for me to progress to other things. Sensei, it is my belief that in such troubled times as these, artists must learn to value something more tangible than those pleasurable things that disappear with the morning light. It is not necessary that artists always occupy a decadent and enclosed world. My conscience, Sensei, tells me I cannot remain forever an artist of the floating world.
'Did you have authorization to bum those paintings?’ I asked.
'It's our policy to destroy any offensive material which won't be needed as evidence. We've selected a good enough sample. The rest of this trash we're just burning.'
'I had no idea', I said, 'something like this would happen. I merely suggested to the committee someone come round and give Mr Kuroda a talking-to for his own good.' I stared again at the smouldering pile in the middle of the yard. ‘It was quite unnecessary to bum those. There were many fine works amongst them.'
'Noriko hasn't told you about the miai? Well, I made sure that evening there'd be no obstacles to her happiness on account of my career. I dare say I would have done so in any case, but I was nevertheless grateful for your advice last year.'
'Forgive me, Father, but I don't recall offering any advice last year. As for the matter of the miai, however, Noriko has indeed mentioned it to me a number of times. Indeed, she wrote to me soon after the miai expressing surprise at Father’s . . . at Father’s words about himself.’
'Let me assure you, Setsuko, I wouldn't for a moment consider the sort of action Naguchi took. But then I am not too proud to see that I too was a man of some influence, who used that influence towards a disastrous end.'
My daughter seemed to consider this for a moment. Then she said: 'Forgive me, but it is perhaps important to see things in a proper perspective. Father painted some splendid pictures, and was no doubt most influential amongst other such painters. But Father's work had hardly to do with these larger matters of which we are speaking. Father was simply a painter. He must stop believing he has done some great wrong.'
'But there's no need to blame ourselves unduly,' he said. 'We at least acted on what we believed and did our utmost. It's just that in the end we turned out to be ordinary men. Ordinary men with no special gifts of insight. It was simply our misfortune to have been ordinary men during such times.'
And all the while I turned over in my mind what might occur when I came face to face with Mori-san once more. Perhaps he would receive me as an honoured guest; or perhaps he would be as cold and distant as during my final days at the villa; then again, he might behave towards me in much the way he had always done while I had been his favourite pupil — that is, as though the great changes in our respective status had not occurred. The last of these possibilities struck me as the most likely and I remember considering how I would respond. I would not, I resolved, revert to old habits and address him as 'Sensei'; instead, I would simply address him as though he were a colleague. And if he persisted in failing to acknowledge the position I now occupied, I would say, with a friendly laugh, something to the effect of: 'As you see, Mori-san, I have not been obliged to spend my time illustrating comic books as you once feared.'
It is hard to describe the feeling, for it was quite different from the sort of elation one feels from smaller triumphs – and, as I say, quite different from anything I had experienced during the celebrations at the Migi-Hidari. It was a profound sense of happiness deriving from the conviction that one's efforts have been justified; that the hard work undertaken, the doubts overcome, have all been worthwhile; that one has achieved something of real value and distinction. I did not go any further towards the villa that day — it seemed quite pointless. I simply continued to sit there for an hour or so, in deep contentment, eating my oranges.