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buddhist art criticism

Post #108 • September 17, 2003, 5:08 AM

In 2001 I took ten Buddhist precepts. Three of them were:

I resolve not to speak of the misdeeds of others, but to be understanding and sympathetic.

I resolve not to praise myself and slander others, but to covercome my own shortcomings.

I resolve not to become angry, but to control my mind through daily meditation.

Well, that didn’t happen. As an art critic, I got angry, slandered others, and spoke at length of their misdeeds. I got paid for it. I did it for free with pleasure.

As is mentioned on the about page of this site, you’re witnessing the battle between equanimity and bile in my person. We want equanimity to win this battle. If bile wins, I’m going to end up bent and crabby. I believe that we have to define, then achieve, happiness for ourselves in this life, and my idea of happiness has a tone of equanimity.

Too bad. I’m good at bile. I’m a natural. I have a black belt in bile. It has been a useful, articulate, productive form of bile – that much can be said for it – but it’s still bile.

Many arts writers only write about work they like, and that would be an option. They’re not critics, though, and don’t claim to be. Imagine the art world without critics – a festival of self-congratulation, in which everything was great but some things were really great, with no one to challenge the fatuous, self-serving statements that issue out of our cultural institutions. It would function much the way it does now, and people would forget about the unimportant work anyway. Nevertheless, the critic has a role to play. If you took the entire public, separated out the people who feel passion about art, found some who could describe the experience of art in writing, and selected the one who was most judgemental, you would have a critic. A critic is a distilled, concentrated unit of the art-going public, and his opinion means something.

The value-neutrality of postmodernism would seem to offer a way out, but in Buddhism, the value-neutral approach doesn’t cut it. Kosho Uchiyama Roshi:

In our day-to-day lives, it is impossible to live without discriminating between good and evil, likes and dislikes. To say that giving is important does not mean we go around giving our house key to a burglar, or a rifle to someone who is crazy. If a woman is willing to make love to anyone, regardless of who the man might be, she becomes nothing but a whore. We cannot act without selecting or discriminating.

Besides, the problem is more fundamental. Sengstan, third Zen patriarch, Verses on the Faith Mind:

The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. When love and hate are both absent, everything becomes clear and undisguised. Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart. If you wish to see the truth, then hold no opinions for or against anything. To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind.

Baby, I’m an opinion machine.

Zen views reality as having an absolute basis and a relative manifestation. The enlightened mind is anchored in the oceanic wisdom of absolute reality and operates freely in the relative world.(It’s not an accident that I believe that art has a basis in aesthetic quality that is reinforced by its historical traits.) Uchiyama continues:

Yet, how can we call people anything but senile whose thinking is so hardened that they believe their own ideas of good or evil are irrefutable, and who become so entrenched in their own way of thinking that they become buried under it? Zazen [sitting zen meditation] takes this senile mind, this narrow mind of ours that constantly discriminates between good and evil and throws it away. It makes the mind more flexible and capable of seeing from a broader perspective. Zazen makes the mind like a high mountain and a great ocean.

What kind of art criticism comes from a mind like a high mountain and a great ocean? I will have to keep running the experiment of zazen to find out, because my instincts tell me that restraining my opinions in the name of piety would be simplistic and insufficient.

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