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Not knowing is most intimate

Post #1464 • March 9, 2010, 11:11 AM • 27 Comments

D.T. Suzuki on Sengai (holy cow - they want $211 for this! I got mine for $15):

Generally speaking, Zen masters are no more respecters of personality than of conceptualism. Their eye is fixed on something beyond all forms of limitation and definability, and they would criticise others from this higher attitude of their own. When thus the Emperor further asked Bodhidharma, "Who are you then [who is regarded as a holy transmitter of Buddha's doctrine]?" Bodhidharma unceremoniously replied, "I do not know." On this, Engo comments, "Tut! Again, not worth a penny!" This is not necessarily Engo's sarcasm. Inasmuch as he is bent on warning people not to be enticed by words or concepts, he is, we must admit, justified in using such strong caustic language. We are also to remember that Bodhidharma here as no thing to do with agnosticism.

Lately I've been picking my somewhat neglected meditation practice back up. I have a meditation cushion sitting on a set of flat files in the home studio. Next to it, on a stool, is a Buddha head with a sandalwood mala encircling the base, and a little bowl of rice for holding incense. If I spent as much time on that cushion as the cats, I would have attained anuttara samyak sambodhi by now. The cats aren't nearly as busy as I am, of course. No, let's put it this way - the cats don't have nearly as many expectations of themselves.

I found Zen during college and thus came into fine art already inoculated against the idea that art could be figured out intellectually. Our old teacher, Gesshin, used to remind us: "You will never figure out this life with your thinking mind." Renoir remarked: "You come before nature with theories. Nature throws them to the ground." One can pull similar notions at will from the pages of Greenberg (this one from Homemade Esthetics):

It turns out - and it has always turned out - that art, that esthetic experience can't be fruitfully reasoned about, at least not beyond a point that lies close to the beginning of reasoning. ...

The picture has everything it needs in order to succeed as art. By virtue solely of that judgment it demonstrates that to me. And so does every other work of art or esthetic experience that I've found satisfying. How could art that's proven itself satisfying, that's elicited a positive value judgment, fail to have "content," "relevance," "human interest," and so on? Esthetic value judgments, and nothing else, not interpretation, not explication, not argument, answer that kind of question. ... Unexamined habits of mind and speech lay traps here (as they do almost everywhere else in the discussion of art).

Thus I noted the ineffability of the whole creative enterprise, at least the part worth talking about, early on as part of the continuum of experience. We live in a time in which the explainers are ascendant, though. One of the major differences between the present and the middle of the last century is that a college education went from being a rare privilege for the brightest to a necessity for any work requiring a desk. All we can fairly ask of college is to explain things. And here we are with an art world built by and for the explainers. Watching art struggle in a world of explanations is like watching a butterfly caught in a spider web.

And yet if you know not to know, that world drops away. Butterflies float freely around the studio. Somewhere, Dizang chuckles.




March 9, 2010, 12:09 PM

Well said Franklin!



March 9, 2010, 1:57 PM

To paraphrase, those who can see, do, and those who can't try to compensate by going on and on and on, ad nauseam, as if words could substitute for sight, or text for taste.


Pretty Lady

March 9, 2010, 2:31 PM

I've been picking up my own neglected Zen meditation practice as well. One thing it does for me is to facilitate extremely rapid change. It becomes impossible to live with bullshit when your mind is bathing in daily doses of clarity.



March 9, 2010, 7:18 PM

Cats already are onto the Zen thing.

Butterflies want to play in the sun and suck nectar and should be more careful.

Greenberg's statement - nothing new but perfectly expressed - is one of those painfully straightforward facts that is about as difficult to comprehend as "you have to breathe to live" and damns the art business to the degree that it remains unobserved.


Chris Rywalt

March 9, 2010, 7:41 PM

Cats aren't Zen. A cat has a brain the size of a cashew. There isn't room for anything but sleeping, eating and making more cats.



March 9, 2010, 7:57 PM

George Inness's last words: "Oh look, how beautiful." Wandering aimlessly is my favorite thing to do.



March 9, 2010, 9:24 PM

After Poussin (click to resize as needed)

There's certainly a story here (the Massacre of the Innocents), which could be discussed at length, but as always with art, the only thing that really matters is what the artist produces visually.



March 10, 2010, 12:00 AM

"There isn't room for anything but sleeping, eating and making more cats."

Sounds Zen to me.



March 10, 2010, 12:01 AM

The Golden Section does it again. Spiral out, keep going...(Tool).


Chris Rywalt

March 10, 2010, 9:50 AM

And here I thought the only place where discussion would go from Poussin to cats to Tool was in my head.



March 10, 2010, 11:08 AM

I don't need to know anything about this, except that it works:




March 10, 2010, 6:39 PM

This f*cking Japanese stuff is amazing. This is a wonderful portrait and it's also the most sophisticated abstraction. People don't get it about abstraction. It's just something the mind does. You lay out some marks on a cave or on a piece of paper and the mind writes a novel.



March 10, 2010, 7:30 PM

Try these, David:

Eiri (click image to enlarge as needed)



March 10, 2010, 9:50 PM

Yeah I dig these too. The badass black samurai with the killer top-knot takes it. That black is so nice played against the yellows and grey.

Jack, is the background in 'Enkyo' raw or printed or what?



March 10, 2010, 9:51 PM

It's probably powdered mica that has aged.



March 10, 2010, 10:34 PM

Enkyo is my fave of these 3. It's striking. The nose is almost semitic. The shift in planes between the shoulders and the head give it a great dynamic. The aging you point out is really nice too.


Danka Antas

March 11, 2010, 6:43 AM

Thank you Franklin for your great, thought-provoking blog.



March 11, 2010, 8:31 AM

Another portrait by Enkyo:

Enkyo 2 (click on image to elarge as needed)



March 11, 2010, 10:08 AM

Those portraits, so primitive and yet so sophisticated.



March 11, 2010, 10:52 AM

I wouldn't call them primitive, but rather employing a particular kind of pictorial stylization. They are certainly sophisticated and elegant, and the best of them convey a psychological depth which is surprising, considering the spareness of the means.



March 11, 2010, 11:10 AM

A kabuki actor in a female role:




March 11, 2010, 12:26 PM

No, the *prints* are neither primitive nor sophisticated, but still crazily evocative. The *guys* seem primitive in their aggresive postures, yet sophisticated enough to have their portraits rendered. It's all kind of metrosexual, if you follow my drift.



March 11, 2010, 12:39 PM

Ahab, you have to remember that these portraits, especially those of men as opposed to courtesans or famous beauties, were very frequently portraits of kabuki actors in a particular role, hence the theatrical aspect.



March 11, 2010, 12:47 PM

Also, classical Japanese prints were overwhelmingly made in and a reflection of the urban, sophisticated and hedonistic capital (Edo, now called Tokyo). They were not produced all over Japan, as ceramics were. The only other production center was the Osaka area, but that was a small-scale operation consisting almost exclusively of kabuki prints.



March 11, 2010, 12:54 PM

Another Enkyo kabuki portrait:

Enkyo 3 (click image to enlarge as needed)



March 12, 2010, 10:39 AM

Another excellent portrait of a kabuki actor:

Toyokuni I



March 12, 2010, 10:54 AM

Two Utamaro women (click image to improve as needed):

Utamaro 1

Utamaro 2



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