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the smile of the buddha

Post #662 • November 17, 2005, 1:44 PM • 3 Comments

The Smile of the Buddha: Eastern Philosphy and Western Art comes with impeccable credentials. Its author, Jacquelynn Baas, used to direct the University of California Berkeley Art Musuem. Robert Thurman, renowned scholar of Tibetan Buddhism (and father of Uma), provided a foreward. The book is, to my knowledge, the first to survey the influence of Buddhism on major figures in modern and contemporary art.

Buddhism has been hanging around in the intellectual background in the Western world since Perry forced open Edo, and as a non-theistic religion of attention, it jibed well with a certain kind of artist that was concerned with the act of reflective looking. Zen came with its own aesthetic and artistic practices, and Westerners were able to apply the sensibility to creative efforts that called for paring down, simplifying, neutralizing, and hiding. Nowadays, a small library litters the remainder shelves that will tell you how to apply it to every room in your home, but the aesthetic still has validity, and contemporary America has many more opportunities to practice genuine Buddhism than 19th Century Europe, where this book begins.

That said, one has to admit that sometimes artists have woolly ideas about Buddhism, and it no more holds up their art than Roman Catholicism holds up the work of any number of hackneyed painters of saints and angels. Baas takes an uncritical look at the included artists, noting Buddhist influences where she can find them, leaving evaluative discussions - whether the influences succeed - out of it. She includes statements from the artists regarding Buddhism, whether briefly noted, errantly proclaimed, sincerely uttered, or soft-headed, without challenging them. It works for the book. She's writing a survey, after all. But if many of these ideas were presented in dokusan, the monastic meeting in which the student displays his spiritual understanding to the teacher in Zen, the master would throw them out. Because the book doesn't do it, I want to remark that the Buddhism represented here is often little more than a scent in the air when it comes to some of these artists. It's there, but as a mild presence.

Sometimes the presence is milder than mild. The book starts with Monet, and Baas draws Buddhism to his work using a lot of legwork, some semi-promising clues, and duct tape. She admits that "the evidence of Buddhist influence is largely circumstantial." We have ukiyo-e, a fantasy conversation with the artist written by the critic Claude Roger-Marx in which a fictional version of Monet expresses his sympathies with the "Japanese of olden times," the fact that he went to London in 1870 in a mood of introspection, at a time when an important translation of the Dhammapada and other works about the life of the Buddha began to appear in France and England, his eventual friendship with the art dealer Tadamasa Hayashi, and so on.

Signs of Buddhist influence grow stronger from there. Van Gogh's letters refer to Japanese art and philosophy with partial authority but certain conviction, and he painted himself once as a Zen monk. Gaugin would have had access the Musueum of Khmer Art, the Musée Ethnographique, and the Musée Indochinois, all of which opened in Paris between 1878 and 1882. Redon, a spiritual though depressed character, rendered Buddhas.

The next section handles the early 20th Century. Kandinsky used to hang out with Theosophists and other questionable spiritual types, and I think that despite a poem he wrote that echoes the Heart Sutra, his absence wouldn't have reduced the book noticiably. Brancusi, however, felt strong connections to Buddhism. Baas does a convincing job likening The Kiss to Vajrayana sculptures of gods in coitus and describing his fondness of Milarepa. At Duchamp, the strains begin anew. Bicycle Wheel as the Wheel of the Dharma? The Small Glass as an echo of Japanese Amida cabinets? His personal or performative behaviors echoing the gender-switching Avalokitesvara? Duchamp doesn't say, and the evidence seems not just circumstantial, but contrived.

She moves to safer ground in the mid-century: the Japanese-American Isamu Noguchi, Ad Reinhardt, who "was temporarily drawn to Zen's spirit of iconoclasm," Yves Klein, a judoka who trained in Japan for fifteen months and who is known to have meditated (the first artist mentioned in the book to do so). But Jasper John's connections to Buddhism consist entirely of his collaborative friendship with John Cage, who seriously studied with D.T. Suzuki and applied Zen to many aspects of his work, and Marcel Duchamp, who seems simply to have been an obtuse guy. Baas makes an unworkable, credulity-straining attempt to link his target paintings with Eugen Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery.

She restarts a new mid-to-late-century section with Cage, and carefully outlines his connections to Suzuki, the I Ching, Coomaraswamy, Mark Tobey (who ought to have had his own chapter, along with the sinfully omitted Morris Graves), and Zen gardens. From there, she deliniates a performance thread through Nam June Paik, Yoko Ono, and Laurie Anderson. The last section covers recent object-makers: Agnes Martin ("John Cage talked a lot about silence, but Agnes Martin lived it," says Baas), Robert Irwin, Vija Celmins (who studied with Chogyam Trungpa), and Richard Tuttle, who received an NEA grant to study in Japan and has researched Zen extensively.

Each section has a preface, helpfully printed on gray stock, that delves into the developments in Buddhism contemporaneous to the artists in question and their relations to each other. The strong organization of the book and its handsome design contribute greatly to the author's text, which presents Buddhism as a minor but persistent influence on the course of contemporary art. A case for it being more than that doesn't really exist, and the author's mightiest labors against that fact are the book's weakest points. But the course of art changed noticiably because of this influence, and The Smile of the Buddha does an admirable job noting how and where.




November 17, 2005, 2:30 PM

Sounds like an interesting read,although I find the connections that are usually drawn between contemporary art and Buddhism usually strained and/or trite.
Zen connnections are one thing and apt at times ( Cage and Cunningham and painters like Tobey, Graves and Pousette-Dart I suppose), but other forms of Buddhism is pushing it. I mean, there just seems to be so much ego and maya in contemporary (if not modern) art!
Still, it is something I think about a lot in terms of my own work; not in the sense of making Buddhist images per se but more in the sense of how Buddhist tenets may or may not infuse the work .
On a related topic, Pankaj Mishra's "An End To Suffering-- The Buddha In The World"" is a good read.



November 17, 2005, 3:34 PM

I've always been a fan of Nam June Paik's TV Buddha.

Baas seems to have spearheaded a site called Awake: Art, Buddhism and the Dimensions of Consciousness, which has its share of contributors and links, but doesn't seem to have been updated in almost two years.



November 17, 2005, 9:16 PM

See The Buddah Project. Also see an essay on the site by David Bate After Postmodernism? that may be of interest..check out the links on the site, too...;)



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