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shambhala sun covering art

Post #407 • November 11, 2004, 11:01 AM • 24 Comments

The Shambhala Sun has been doing a prodigious job lately covering art. Last month Joseph McElroy wrote about "The Invisible Thread" at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center in Staten Island. This month's issue has the theme of "Art That Wakes You Up," and features a beautiful spread on Tibetan painting, a heavily illustrated article by Robert Del Tredici about his long series of photographs of Chogyam Trungpa, and an extensive interview with Bill Viola, who had this to say:

The first [life-changing experience] came when we were at the Suntory Museum of Art in Tokyo to see an exhibition of art objects from a Buddhist temple in Kyoto. While we were standing before a row of life-sized bodhisattva figures, reading the relevant facts and descriptions, a little old lady walked right past us and moved down the row, stopping to bow in silent prayer at each figure, placing a silk scarf over their outstretched hands. I was dumbstruck. This was an art museum! When the guards didnt react, I was stunned. At that moment, the living practice, the living art in these works, shone through, and I felt like someone who for years had been admiring the outer form of a computer without ever turning it on.
I would say that the sum total of what we learned in Japan revolved around the idea of practice. That's how all the Buddhists we were meeting described what they did in everyday life. The focus was on refining one's actions, not expounding a theory. Of course, this was also what I did as an artist, as in the phrase "artistic practice," and after living in Japan I realized that the two uses of the word seemed closer together than ever before. I had a hard time seing this at first because in this age of academic art, when art training has moved out of the working community and into the insulated world of the university, becoming more theoretical in the process, the term practice no longer carries the same whole-life meaning. When I became exposed to art in a traditional context in Japan, I began to see traditional art forms not as stale artifacts from the past, but as active components of the present moment.




November 11, 2004, 7:43 PM

In response to Mr. Viola's revelation:

1. When a figure is experienced as a religious object, it is a religious object. It is art when it is experienced as art. "Theory" is something else altogether.

2. "Stale artifacts of the past" are always "active components of the present moment" when they are experienced in the present moment.



November 11, 2004, 8:16 PM

1. These are all separate components of experience, but I believe one has a certain amount of control over which component to emphasize, and that they can occur simultaneously in a mutually reinforcing way. I might put "religious connotations" in the Narrative category of Historical Value, as formulated in my essay Value and Validation.

2. This, unfortunately, is not self-evident. If artifacts are experienced in the present moment with the reverence and fondness that "present moment" implies for Buddhists, yes. But they can be experienced cynically as well by a mind that thinks "this is old, and therefore bad."



November 11, 2004, 9:11 PM

Of course we have control over which experience we choose to have, but esthetic and religious experience are separate kinds of experience by definition, mixable or not. Viola was referring a value judgement from one to the other. The woman was engaged in religious activity and Viola, for his own reasons, saw that religious procedure as revealing the "living art" in the work. My inference was that that one sees the living art in something by viewing it as living art. My guess is that the "subtext" here, albeit an unconscious one, is contained in the phrase "stale artifacts", that is, old-fashioned art that doesn't do what his art does, which is move around and show people doing things. In other words, "living".

The point raised in #2 is self-evident. It can't not be.



November 11, 2004, 9:51 PM

I kind of hate talking about what's going on in someone else's consciousness. Viola seems to have had some kind of moving experience in the process of looking at the bodhisattva figures in use as religious artifacts. And although they're undoubtably different, there may be just enough overlap between the religious and aesthetic sentiments that a stirring in one could trigger a response in the other. I don't see why that would be impossible.

I now see the self-evident sense of your second point. I maintain that you can tune out the value of the present-moment experience if your head is screwed on that way.



November 11, 2004, 10:19 PM

Oh, sure. One experience can certainly lead to another. And you certainly can tune out any kind of valuable experience of any kind if your head is screwed on that way, or screwed off, as the case may be. The Taliban who destroyed the giant stone Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afgahnistan, several years ago certainly were experiencing something else altogether with objects of similar character.



November 11, 2004, 11:28 PM

I think that most powerful religious objects derive part of their power from their artistic quality. It therefore follows that the finer a piece is artistically, the more powerful it will be religiously. So I think that from the religious perspective the two experiences are always tied together. From the artistic side, it is possible to have an aritstic experience with no religious component . . . though even that may be impossible for some people.



November 12, 2004, 12:01 AM

Alesh: Those are some logical giant steps you are taking there. A religious object might derive some authority from artistic quality provided the viewer knows the difference, but this is pretty tenuous at best. And I'm sure we could come up with a whole lot of religious objects with great influence which are worthless esthetically.



November 12, 2004, 12:26 AM

there may be some...

There are the Buddah statues. There are a million christian examples - stained glass windows, fancy crucifixes, and that little Duccio painting... since all of these things (including the duccio) were made for the purpose of serving God, the fact that they are aesthetically beautiful suggests that aesthetic beauty feeds religious inspiration pretty directly, don't you think?



November 12, 2004, 12:55 AM

I would say sometimes yes, sometimes no. I definitely think that religious enthusiasm has inspired a kind of work ethic that was sometimes conducive to producing quality. A really good religious work, you would think, would give an aesthetically sensitive believer a little additional rush. But too, I have seen technically marvelous religious works that were devoid of inspirational feeling, and the converse.


gregg chadwick

November 12, 2004, 1:29 AM

i've been thinking about the question of contemporary art that deals with the spiritual quite a bit lately so bill viola's comments in shambhala sun are deeply encouraging. what strikes me in his story is that the woman broke through the invisible do not touch barrier of the museum and the guard recognized her actions as appropriate. the guard did not interfere. the woman was able to carry out her devotions. and bill viola was able to see the interaction and determine something about the typical western approach to art in museums and the university. bill stopped reading the museum labels, stunned by the woman's actions and the guards non-action. this event speaks of the power in great art, even art from a distant past, to speak to the present moment.



November 12, 2004, 3:00 AM

It is odd in these discussions how the original point wanders around and gets lost. I said that religious and esthetic experiences are different experiences - that's why we have two terms to describe them - and that Viola saw a religious observation involving "stale artifacts from the past" when he did not expect it and says he thereby saw the "living art" in them. My point was that a so-called "stale artifact" which is a good work of art can be seen as "living art" simply by experiencing them as art. I go to "stuffy" museums and do this all the time.

Gregg: I would caution you not to swallow the implications of this story so willingly. We have no idea what the policy of this museum was. This kind of thing might happen there all the time, might be customary. All we really know is that Viola was very impressed and drew a set of conclusions from it, which are in general accord with widely accepted feelings about "stuffy and stale" vs "fresh and living". I don't disagree with him, particularly the part about "academic" and "theoretical". I just think he is talking more about his problems seeing art than anything else.

Alesh: If objects are made to serve religious purposes the chances are that some of them can and will also be seen as good art. This does not mean that religious experience and esthetic experience are the same thing.



November 12, 2004, 3:44 AM

but then why bother to make the object aesthetically beautiful? aren't stained glass windows in old churches beautiful because that beauty causes, or improves, the religious eperience of looking at them?


Phil Isteen

November 12, 2004, 4:35 AM

Religious and esthetic experiences can be different experiences - and we do have two terms to describe them...but that seems a bit simplistic.

The Church didn't hire second rate artists because no one could tell the difference...
and why did the Church employ artists in the first place?

I'll relate an experience I had:
I am not a religious person. But the first time I walked into St.Peter's I was physically moved. I cannot deny that I exited with a new sense of faith, more for the possibilities of mankind than for the Catholic...but changed nevertheless.

So help me, was this an esthetic or religious experience?
How would my experience differ from that of a believer?



November 12, 2004, 4:50 AM

Something well-made and esthetically pleasing presumably could be more effective inducing, enhancing or supplementing a religious experience. Stained glass is an interesting case because religious intention is then often intertwined with the idea of beauty, and the drama and spiritual implications of light. I think the best of them can cause a mix of esthetic and religious experience as much as anything, at least in one who is receptive. My own experience of stained glass, in Chartres, say, was more a kind of heightened admiration for the effects of the windows, neither religious nor fully esthetic, but that is what I may have been looking for.



November 12, 2004, 4:58 AM

Phil: who said anything about "not being able to tell the difference"? Of course they could tell the difference. They hired the best artists for the same reason they hired the best stonemasons.

Sure, I have been moved by many things in many ways. If you reflect on experience, and account characteristics, you find that though the affect is similar, the nature of the experience differs.
This is something I have learned. You do not have to agree,

I don't presume to put a name on your experience. You are the one who had it.


Phil Isteen

November 12, 2004, 5:09 AM

"The Church didn't hire second rate artists because no one could tell the difference.."
That's a declarative statement from me to which I don't think anyone here has made a contrary claim, yet.

But Olpro, I think you did presume "that religious and esthetic experiences are different experiences."

I merely asked for help figuring out which experience I had.


Jerome du Bois

November 12, 2004, 5:45 AM

Given the sacrosanct categories of "aesthetic" and "religious," I wonder where the 2000+ images used by Leo Steinberg in The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion fit in? Right in between?

Right in betwen sounds right.




November 12, 2004, 6:19 AM

I think we have a book topic here. I better write the thing quick before James Elkins does.



November 12, 2004, 7:08 AM

Phil: Your declarative statement, for which you want an answer, seems to be simply wrong, that is, if I understand it. I can't quite make sense of it. They were a lot better at telling who the good artists were than we are.

Yes, esthetic and religious are two different kinds of experience. There are lots more kinds.

I think you described your experience. You said you were physically moved, and you left with a greater sense of faith. Obviously it was strong and sincere. I don't know what name to give it, or why it matters.

Jerome: religious art can be good art or bad art. I guess you just take it from there.

Elkins is welcome to this.


Phil Isteen

November 12, 2004, 7:13 AM

Just make sure I get my cut.

All comments PI 2004.


Phil Isteen

November 12, 2004, 7:34 AM

Oldpro, you said "Phil: who said anything about "not being able to tell the difference"? Of course they could tell the difference. " You AGREED with my declarative statement that "The Church didn't hire second rate artists because no one could tell the difference...."

Then you say "Phil: Your declarative statement, for which you want an answer, seems to be simply wrong, that is, if I understand it." (It wasn't a question, as I made very clear; it was a "declarative statement" and you had agreed with it...)

First you agree, then you disagree? Your contrarian nature appears to be catching up with itself.

I guess you "can't quite make sense of it" because you claim that "religious and esthetic experiences are different" but you "don't know what name to give" my experience.

I would deduce from your previous declarative statements that it would be one or the other. I understand if you cannot help me in this regard. Thanks anyway.



November 12, 2004, 7:46 AM

At least part of this discussion relates to the Met's new Duccio. It was made as a devotional object and used as such, as attested to by the damage to the bottom of the surviving original frame caused by votive candles (shown in the NYT photo). It happens to be both very beautiful as well as moving. Mary's face is exquisite and not even remotely "clunky", and her black cloak is stunning as a purely visual device, apart from the obvious intimation of mourning for what will happen to Jesus.

I find it significant that the painting is quite small, as I often find oversized oversized work suspect, though that depends on the piece. The point is that small format definitely does not preclude greatness and that a huge work can be worthless. I won't say the Duccio is worth $45 M, but if people are prepared to spend that kind of money on a painting, they can certainly do worse.



November 12, 2004, 4:48 PM

Phil: I have to admit to being completely confused by what you are saying. I simply cannot figure it out.

Jack: When I reflect on my take on early Rennaissance painting I realize that one thing nags any attempt I make at being a "pure" esthete: my abject admiration for technical facility. (This also hampers my appreciation of "outsider art"). So much has been learned about "how to paint" in the last 500 or 600 years - things which I, in turn, had to learn - that I irrationally hold them to account for their technical failings. This amounts to a degree of inability to see the art in them. it is a failing.



November 12, 2004, 6:01 PM

Well, Oldpro, you're an artist and I'm not, which may explain the difference in how we perceive a work such as a Duccio Madonna. Obviously you'd be more conversant with and attuned to technical matters, though I am hardly indifferent to them in my own way.



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