© Marcia Tucker, 2001
[Artifacts suggest] that the imagination is bound up with compassion; that the imagination has an inherent tendency toward largesse and excess; that the work of the imagination is not here and there, now on, now off, but massive, continuous, and ongoing; that the imagination forfeits its own immunity and is self-revising; and that, finally, the imagination is self-effacing, and often completes its work by disguising its own activity.
—Elaine Scarry (1)
I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work….I want to achieve it through not dying.—Woody Allen
Why would a project that examines the relationship of Buddhist practice to contemporary art be relevant at this time—especially to those who are not practicing Buddhists? I’d like to approach the question by sharing two incidents from my experience as a museum director and curator.
In 1975, at the Whitney Museum in New York, I organized a show of the work of Richard Tuttle, an artist whose unconventionally humble materials (string, wire, pencil, nails, rope, cloth) and deliberately offhand placement of work appealed to me. Viewers came to the museum expecting to see traditional artistic skills and materials employed in the making of the sculpture, and to enjoy them in an appropriately formal setting, with explanatory wall labels and a substantive catalog of the artist’s past work. When they were disappointed in their expectations, visitors tried to rip the pieces off the walls. Critics and journalists complained vociferously about everything from the installation (which was changed three times during the exhibition, using many of the same pieces), to the publication of the catalog after the show closed (in order to include site-specific photographs as well the critical response), to the work itself. One reviewer griped that « seeing Tuttle’s work makes you scrutinize the teensy- weensy hairline cracks in the wall, » clearly not what he had come to expect or to value. Another made constant reference to « the Emperor’s new clothes, » and called for my dismissal (which, in fact, occurred in the aftermath of the controversy.) (2)
A similar response, thankfully for a much smaller number of people, occurred years later when I was the curator of a retrospective exhibition of the work of Markus Raetz at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. Raetz is a Swiss artist who makes pieces which are visually elusive but remain in the mind’s eye for years afterward—if you take the time to seek them out. In a typical work, wires are hung high up in a corner, with an elliptical mirror placed at an angle to them so that only from one specific vantage point can you see that the lines form a delicate and ephemeral face outlined and reflected in the mirror. He’s also created other kinds of anamorphoses with lights and shadows, with multiple mirrors, and with minutely carved surfaces. But what made me wonder if I had chosen the wrong profession was the appearance of a major donor to the museum who had just swept through the entire show in two minutes flat. She was on her way out in a huff when I ran after her to ask what she had thought of the work. « Not interesting, » she complained. « There just wasn’t anything to see. »
What both stories point to is the quality of attention that’s necessary in order to experience works like these at all. For Tuttle’s pieces, what the art object looks like is determined by the physical process of making it; that is, it takes its shape directly from that process. With Raetz’s work, it’s the process of viewing it that actualizes the work. In both cases, it’s not just a matter of paying attention, but of what kind of attention you pay—something that’s central to Buddhist practice, but hasn’t been given that much currency in talking about either making or viewing contemporary art.
In most art museums, exhibitions are structured so that information is valued over experience—so much so that the way we’re encouraged to look at art, in this country at least, is fast, efficient, chronological, linear (you often can’t go back through the show), and packaged for marketing, with an exit through the gift shop. When the viewer’s experience is emphasized, it seems to be shaped more by Disney than by Nasrudin.
Historically, the impact of Buddhist thought and practice was evident most recently in that period of the late 1960s and early ‘70s, documented by Lucy Lippard in her classic reference book Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. (3) The premise of this « dematerialization »—partly in reaction to formalism and its emphasis on the art object to the exclusion of all else—was the value of the idea or concept behind the object, and the notion that the process of making was more important than its product.
At that time, critic Clement Greenberg’s idea of artistic « progress » or teleological « advance » in the making of art—toward an ever more reductive sense of painting as purely self-referential (the contemporary sine qua non of « art for art’s sake »)—was called into question by artists interested in multiplicity, ephemerality, art’s relation to the everyday, (4) or the concept of the artist as the work of art. A paradigm shift in the understanding of art making was taking place, leading to the blurring of artistic categories that resulted in interdisciplinary work, Happenings, performance art, multi-media installations, earthworks, and the direct engagement of artists with audiences. (5)
The epigraph to Lippard’s book, a quote from the writer Roy Ascott, reflects this shift:
To discuss what one is doing rather than the artwork which results, to attempt to unravel the loops of creative activity…leads to a consideration of our total relationship to a work of art, in which physical moves may lead to conceptual moves, in which Behavior relates to ideas.… (6)
While little, if any, direct reference was made in the art writing of the time to Buddhist practice, the new conceptual and performance-based work required a change of focus, encouraging viewers to become active rather than passive participants in the work of art. This shift was reminiscent of the way that Buddhism encourages practitioners to awaken the potentialities of one’s own mind, (7) to move past reactive and habitual responses, and to understand that, as Ken McLeod puts it, « we are what we experience. » Just as the Buddha took « the decisive step from a static to a dynamic view of the world, from an emphasis on ‘being’ to an emphasis on ‘becoming,’ » (8) artistic focus in the late 1960s and early 1970s shifted away from a concern with the integrity, competitive value and permanence of the art object toward an involvement with the myriad conditions that determine how art is experienced. Looking at art began to require an altogether different quality of attention, a new way of being present to the work, that left many viewers in the dark. Their usual response was (and often still is) simply that it wasn’t art. Approximately thirty years have passed since the publication of Lippard’s book, but the premises behind the work she catalogued have stayed. Conceptual art, art as language, interdisciplinary performances and events and ephemeral and non-objective works of art are now commonplace, but the general public has yet to understand what it’s all about.
The beginning of the millennium in many ways resembles the late 1950s, when Buddhism had a strong influence on American cultural life. We’re once again living in a period of political and social uncertainty, characterized by a rising tide of materialism, the erosion of democratic ideals and policies, escalating racial tensions, and a widening chasm between the richest and the poorest, a ripe time for a renewal of interest in Buddhism. Like the distribution of wealth in America, the art world’s distribution strategies afford exhibitions, reviews, commissions, sales, and professional access to an absurdly small percentage of artists working today—those whose product is commercially viable. In the visual arts in America there are thousands of artists for every reputable commercial gallery or non-profit arts venue, pushing visual and performing artists to find non-traditional ways of showing their work—using airline dinner trays, newspapers, the Internet, community building projects, telephone answering machines, abandoned buildings, moveable sites, broadsides, or store windows. Some have simply decided not to show their work at all.
While artists will always look for alternatives to traditional venues, the fact that we live in a world where materialism is the norm makes it that much harder. Ajahn Sumedho, an American-born teacher of Theravada Buddhism, says that « we have great problems with relating the meaning of life to anything real beyond just the material world. So materialism becomes the reality for us…and the emotions are dismissed as not being real because they’re subjective. You can’t go round measuring emotions with electronic instruments. [But] our fears and desires and loves and hates and aspirations are what really make our lives happy or miserable. And yet these can be dismissed in modern materialism for a world based on sensual pleasure, material wealth and rational thinking, so that the spiritual life to many people seems to be just an illusion. » (9)
Historically, of course, the source of art was grounded in spiritual aspiration and the sense of being connected to something beyond the material world. Although the spiritual dimensions of late twentieth-century contemporary art have been explored in recent years in a variety of museum exhibitions, for the most part the focus has been on the stylistic commonalties of art with « spiritual » overtones rather than on deeper parallels of intent, philosophy, method or practice. That’s because it’s increasingly hard to find artists who publicly acknowledge spirituality as a primary impetus for art making. (10) Religion, which many equate with the spiritual, has a bad rep in the art world.
* * * *
Reality is the leading cause of stress among those in touch with it.
People are always asking me who my favorite artist is. I must admit that the idea of having a « favorite » artist sometimes strikes me as absurd, just as having a single « favorite » person presents an impossible conundrum—just try choosing between your mate, your parent, your child, your best friend or someone who just gave you a pile of cash because they liked you! But because people really want an answer to the question (as though it will explain the professional decisions I’ve made over the past 30 years), I give them one, and it’s true. My favorite artist is Tehching Hsieh. (Of course, the next thing people immediately ask is, « Who’s he? »)
Tehching’s life’s work consists of paintings he did as a young art student in Taiwan (1970 –1973); a handful of non-existent film and photo projects; five « one-year performances; » and a final piece entitled « Earth, » which he completed in 1999. Here’s a brief description of each of the one-year pieces, which are works that he was fairly certain (but not absolutely sure) he could execute, but whose outcome he wasn’t altogether sure of.
For the first performance, he locked himself in a cell in his loft and lived there for a year without reading, writing, speaking, or entertainment of any kind. Twice a day, someone silently brought him food and removed waste. (1978-1979)
In his second performance, he punched a time clock every hour on the hour, day and night, for one year, a witness confirming each day that he had done so. (1980-1981)
The third piece consisted of living outdoors for a year, never entering an inside space (except for once, when an altercation landed him inside a police station). (1981-1982)
His next one-year performance was a particularly challenging one; he was attached to the artist Linda Montano (whom he didn’t know prior to the piece) by an eight-foot length of rope, and the condition of the work was that they not touch each other for its duration. (1983-1984)
This was followed by a year during which Tehching didn’t make, look at, read about or, presumably, think about art at all. (1985-86) (I mailed him a check for his participation in a show—the inclusion of several posters marking the beginning, middle and end of each one-year performance—and of course he didn’t open the envelope till the non-art year was over!)
The plan for his final work, which he described to me once he was able to talk about art again, was mind-boggling: he was about to begin a thirteen-year piece, he said, in which he would make art, but not share it with anyone in any way. The work lasted from December 31, 1986 to December 31st, 1999, from his 36th birthday to his 49th!
Each of these « performances » is a lived metaphor, a sustained act of attention to basic facets of life—isolation, work, « otherness, » intimacy—but his last piece strikes me as a unique act of artistic courage because it involves taking the measure of oneself intrinsically rather than from the outside world, precisely during those years when artists feel themselves to be most dependent on extrinsic validation. At its completion, Tehching described the piece by saying simply, « I kept myself alive. »
Tehching has always refuted any religious or spiritual motivation in his work, saying simply that it has to do with « nature. » For me, his work embodies many of the characteristics of Buddhist practice without being a result of it. That’s part of what makes it so compelling, but it’s also what makes it both controversial and difficult for most people to understand. Among the most common reactions are: « It’s not art. » and « He’s nuts. »
That’s partly because the work is all process, with nothing to show for it but a handful of calendars that mark each one-year performance quarterly. In his case, the meaning of art parallels the Buddhist concept of the meaning of life which, like a journey, « lies not in the arrival at a certain place but in the progress toward it; in the movement itself and in the gradual unfoldment of events, conditions, and experiences. » (11) John Cage, a pioneer in this regard, expressed it succinctly:
We are not…saying something. We are simpleminded enough to think that if we were saying something we would use words. We are rather doing something. The meaning of what we do is determined by each one who sees and hears it. (12)
During the thirteen years, Tehching says that he tried to disappear, taking off unexpectedly in the middle of the night and not returning for months, living in other parts of the country where no one knew him or his work—literally, making himself scarce. But he found out that disappearing didn’t work because people still knew him, even if they didn’t know who he was. So he gave up disappearing and instead, he says, « I prepared for my future » and « wasted time », which he refers to as « a high-level choice. » He describes himself as being « a lazy artist » while he was doing the one-year performances, because once he jumped into a piece, he just did the work and nothing else. For the duration of « Earth, » on the other hand, he says, « I had ideas and worked all the time, but did nothing. » (13)
The efforts at self-effacement that Tehching made in this particular work seem to resonate with the Buddhist concept of the self as an illusion—fluid, inconsistent, amorphous, ephemeral and unlocatable. For him, as for the Buddhist practitioner, an attempt to abandon the idea of the self altogether is as futile as it is to locate an authentic, real, and stable self. Anatta, or no-self, is described as « a process rather than a fixed, independent, eternal self, or concrete reality. » (14)
Similarly, « wasting » time in Tehching’s case actually meant living in the present and paying attention to things as they are, while « preparing for the future » seemed an act of « right livelihood; » in 1994 Tehching went to Taiwan and auctioned off all the paintings he had made as a young man. They sold for a sizeable sum of money, which he now uses to provide a year-long stipend, housing and expenses for a small number of artists, writers, musicians and performers from around the world.
« Earth » put an end to Tehching’s artmaking. He now finds that traditional art forms are too narrow for him, and that they’re generally in the service of one’s career, or of « success. » Although he no longer uses a recognizable art form, he maintains that what he does is still art; he says simply that the artist’s life is the work, that it’s about human communication, and that « the message is enough. »
Tehching’s work raises several important and time-honored questions, but in a contemporary context: What is a work of art? What is its relation to reality? How can we distinguish between art and non-art? Is it necessary to do so? Buddhism suggests that « the mind is the pre-eminent power in the creation of reality, that through the control of our own thoughts we can create worlds as real as, if not more so, than the ‘world’ which is commonly accepted as the end-all and be-all of daily existence. » (15) What, then, is the difference between a world created by the mind and the so-called real one? Is it the difference between art and daily life?
Lama Anagarika Govinda says that « if we look at a landscape and imagine that what we see exists as an independent reality outside ourselves, we are the victims of an illusion. If, however, we see the same landscape represented in the work of a great artist, then—in spite of the fact that the painting creates the visual illusion of a landscape—we experience an aspect of reality, because we are conscious of the illusion and accept it as an expression of a real experience….The moment we recognize an illusion as illusion, it ceases to be illusion and becomes an expression or aspect of reality and experience. » (16)
But what happens if the work of art is not an illusion, but is a life that is being lived? Is it still art? Or has it then become a matter of « right livelihood? » As Nancy Wilson Ross describes it, « if a job help us in our search for an understanding both of ourselves and of the world around us, then it is, for us, samma ajiva (right livelihood)—no matter how futile and crazy it may seem to our friends and neighbors. » (17) This may very well describe what art does for its maker—at least in part, and for some makers—but if you take away all recognizable aspects of art as a product, as in the case of Tehching’s most recent piece, what’s left?
One striking parallel between Buddhist and artistic practice is that works of art can jolt us out of our habitual ways of looking at and thinking about the world. Tehching’s work, even stripped of all material evidence, operates on this level—in fact, judging by the response of people who hear about it, it does so in spades.
When you think about it, art really does connect to us on a level outside of language, through what Mark Epstein refers to in Buddhism as « the pleasure of being rather than the pleasure of doing or of being done to. » (18) This is the « message » in Tehching’s work, work in which there is no artist and no audience, no venue, no viewing experience, no thing. It speaks to us, if it does so at all, in a language resembling that of the poet but without words. And as with a poem, you can’t skim read it, you can’t describe it accurately, and there’s no one way to understand it.
* * * *
Zen holds that the so-called rational mind is incapable of solving an individual’s deepest problem :[one’s] meaning to [oneself] and to life…Final awareness, lasting freedom, and true psychological equilibrium come only when the deepest intuitional faculties of the human being have been tapped. —Nancy Wilson Ross
The sense of becoming temporally and spatially untethered while making or viewing art is fairly common, and its affinities to a meditative state are obvious. But many people know that the experience of art can also create joy (as differentiated from the more elusive sense of pleasure deriving from the pursuit of pleasant physical sensations). If our capacity for joy comes not only from being in the moment, but also « depends on, and supports, the ability to tolerate surprise and unpredictability in one’s life, » (19) then perhaps joy is a potential outcome of art’s ability to jolt us out of our usual ways of seeing. If the mind, the eye, the heart and the hand are connected—or even more precisely, if they are the same thing—then art also has the capacity to change us altogether.
I’ve heard people use the phrase « the willful suspension of disbelief » in describing the decision to enter a work of art fully. I take it to refer to a conscious letting-go of the way we usually experience the world, which is through the intellect, or as Mark Epstein puts it, « through the filter of…the thinking mind, the talking mind, the mind that is language-based and has developed categories and words for raw experiences. » (20)
Of course, joy is hardly the common response to works of art, particularly to difficult contemporary ones. In fact, viewers become discouraged when the thinking mind is of no use to them in this encounter. People think it should be, though, and feel stupid and alienated when they can’t understand something through the exercise of their « intelligence. »
Art institutions share this assumption or they wouldn’t be writing didactic material that makes viewers feel as though they have Alzheimer’s. If museums spoke with another kind of voice, one that elicited and valued an experience-based response to works of art rather than a information-based one; if underlying the planning, design, and interpretation of exhibitions was the assumption that there is no one way to look at art and no single correct interpretation of it, the visual arts might seem a lot less alienating to lay people. But this requires a radical change in institutional attitudes.
Many of us in the visual arts feel the need for a sea change in the way institutions think about art, artists and audiences, especially since we see the rift between contemporary art and the public growing daily—helped along by politicians and critics who insist on not seeing what they know they don’t like. If contemporary art were to become a familiar part of people’s lives—or at least, if people weren’t made to feel that it’s an alienating, elitist hoax—then discomfort might turn to delight as imaginations were exercised and « business as usual » closed down.
But we know that the solution doesn’t lie in more blockbuster shows, bigger and better museum shops, newer and more flamboyant buildings, wings and renovations, or in putting art collections on the Internet. It is in qualitative, not quantitative terms that a solution needs to be found.
That’s why it seems to be a good time to explore the parallels between Buddhism and contemporary art: both are able to move us away from the idea of permanence, objectivity, independence, and isolation that have characterized institutional attitudes toward art for most of the twentieth century. For example, the solitary viewing experience favored by museums since the late nineteenth century is based on the assumption of an individual subjectivity. Buddhism can help to question this assumption and to identify other ways of being and relating that are based on connection and interaction. Because museums tend to shun the collective, just about the only shared experience in museums today seems to be found in docent tours or elementary school visits. Similarly, the making of art is also held to be the business of an individual maker, alone in the studio: artists working in communities are seen as community activists rather than « real » artists (especially when they are artists of color). A Buddhist approach would certainly begin to unravel fixed notions of who we are, how creativity and imagination function, and how we experience the world. In The Jew in the Lotus, Rodger Kamenetz writes that « the daring of Buddhist metaphysics is to defy all conventions, even the conventions of Buddhism. » (21) Isn’t this also true of those works of art that have caused a profound change in our thinking about what art is and can be?
To begin to understand that « nothing and no being can exist in itself or for itself, but only in relationship to other things or beings, » (22) to know that « just as we cannot separate the sight from the seer, so reality cannot be separated from the experiencer, » would engender a different approach to art altogether. For those of us in the field of visual arts, even a limited engagement with Buddhist philosophy and practice could generate a fresh approach to our work, one that doesn’t (even inadvertently) privilege the institution, isolate the artist or demean the public. Buddhism teaches us to relate to the world with openness, acceptance, generosity, and joy. Could it also teach us to relate to art in the same way?
Marcia Tucker is an independent art writer, lecturer and stand-up comic living and working in New York City. From 1977 to 1999, she was the Founder and Director of the New Museum of Contemporary Art, a museum dedicated to innovative art and artistic practice. There, she organized such major exhibitions as The Time of Our Lives (1999), A Labor of Love (1996), and Bad Girls (1994). She is the series editor of Documentary Sources in Contemporary Art, five books of theory and criticism published by the New Museum. Ms. Tucker was Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Whitney Museum of American Art from 1969 to 1977, where she organized major exhibitions of the work of Bruce Nauman, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, and Richard Tuttle, among others. She was the 1999 recipient of the Bard College Award for Curatorial Achievement, and received the Art Table Award for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts in 2000. She has taught, lectured and published widely in America and abroad.
(1) Elaine Scarry, The Body In Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, Oxford University Press, Inc., New York: 1985, p. 325.
(2) Some good came out of it, though. An avid collector of contemporary art sought me out to tell me that she had seen one of the more controversial pieces in the show, a one-inch piece of rope nailed to the center of a large wall, and that, while she didn’t understand it at all, she had found it « poignant. » She ended up being a lifelong friend and supporter.
(3) Lucy Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, Praeger Publishers, New York and Washington: 1973.
(4) For example: the acceptance of non-art subject matter; identifying the activities of daily life as art; the use of ordinary, non-art materials in the making of art; ideas or even conversation as art (Ian Wilson), and works of art existing only as photographic or written documentation.
(5) Among the artists who broke ground at that time were Yoko Ono, Bruce Nauman, Eva Hesse, Richard Serra, Gina Pane, On Kawara, Eleanor Antin, Jan Dibbets, Hanne Darboven, Lawrence Weiner, Vito Acconci, Allan Kaprow, and James Lee Byars.
(6) Roy Ascott, « The Construction of Change, » Cambridge Opinion 37 (January, 1964).
(7) Lama Anagarika Govinda, Creative Meditation and Multi-Dimensional Consciousness, The Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, Ill./ Madras, India/ London, England: 1976, p. 13.
(8) Lama Govinda, Creative Meditation, p. 6.
(9) Ajahn Sumedho, The Way It Is, Amaravati Publications, Hertfordshire, England: 1998, p. 122.
(10) Wolfgang Laib, Marina Abramovic, Mingwei Lee, Alex Grey and Suzanne Lacy are only a few of the artists whose artistic practice is directly informed by their spiritual practice, and acknowledged as such.
(11) Lama Govinda, op. cit., p. 39.
(12) John Cage, 1961, quoted in « Zen and Contemporary Western Art, » by Frederic Lieberman, University of California, Santa Cruz, unpaginated Internet paper.
(13) Comments about his work are taken from a conversation with me on May 12, 2001.
(14) Lama Surya Das, Awakening the Buddha Within, Broadway Books, New York: 1997, p. 119.
(15) Nancy Wilson Ross, Buddhism, A Way of Life and Thought, Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, New York:1980, p. 136.
(16) Lama Govinda, Creative Meditation, p. 36.
(17) Ross-Wilson, Buddhism, p. 82.
(18) Mark Epstein, Going On Being: Buddhism and the Way of Change, Broadway Books, New York: 2001, p. 118
(18) Mark Epstein, Going on Being, p. 197.
(19) Epstein, Going on Being, p. 102:
(20) Rodger Kamenetz, The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India, HarperCollins, New York:1994, p. 64.
(21) Lama Govinda, p. 9.
(22) Lama Govinda, p. 41.