Kay Larson

The mise-en-scene: The Buddha has just entered the realm of realization known as anuttara-samyak-sambodhi, absolute supreme enlightenment. He is in the land of Magadha, the site of true awareness. If we join him silently, peering over his shoulder, we see that the ground beneath his feet is made entirely of diamonds, adorned with exquisite jewels, glorious flowers, and pure crystals emblematic of perfect clarity. Nets and garlands of precious stones and flowers are draped everywhere, emitting shining light and harmonious sounds. Above him spreads a tree – the tree of enlightenment – that has a trunk of diamonds; its boughs are lapis lazuli. The tree speaks various truths without end; its leaves supply delightful shade to every corner of the universe. The palace where the Buddha stands is similarly adorned, and it also extends throughout the ten directions, reaching everywhere. The Buddha, by virtue of his spiritual power, encompasses a vast perspective. He enters all lands with equanimity. He is omnipresent in all sites of enlightenment, without any coming and going. His body fills all worlds. His awesome light shines to illuminate all the buddha-lands. He expounds all truths, teaching and civilizing sentient beings. There is no place his enlightenment does not reach.

Joy without end. A mind without boundaries. Action without limits. Wondrous!

So begins one of the primary sutras of Mahayana Buddhism, the Flower Garland Scripture: in Sanskrit, the Avatamsaka. (I have summarized the first two of its 1600-plus pages.) The description is breathtaking, even more so if I sit quietly and bring its imagery into the mind’s eye. Nearly 2000 years ago, the Avatamsaka and a handful of other sutras ushered in the Mahayana revolution, the subtle expansion of the teachings that led Buddhism gradually to shape itself into the forms we recognize in our own time. Carried by monks from India to China in the first few centuries of the common era, the Avatamsaka became one of the pillars of Ch’an (Zen), T’ien-t’ai (Tendai), Hua-yen and Pure Land Buddhism.

But that was a long time ago. Surely this ancient and quite mythical scenery has nothing to do with us. With me. With life. With art. Or does it?

The modernist movement defines its starting moments by its breach of the barriers separating fine art from ordinary affairs: newspapers and linoleum, bicycle wheels and bottle racks becoming art simply by reassignment. It’s now commonplace, a hundred years later, for artists to create installations with found objects from everyday life. Robert Rauschenberg bestowed a catchy phrase on these tactics by casually remarking that he worked in the gap between art and life. John Cage, who was by then saturated with the Buddhism of D. T. Suzuki, observed: « I wouldn’t say we are interested in destroying the barrier between art and life, or even blurring it. I would say we are interested in observing that there is no barrier between the two. »

And what if the barriers never did exist, in art, in life, in the mind – anywhere? What if they were all along an apparition, a figment of the mind’s desire to cleave the world into pieces? What if they were just something I ate, as Scrooge said to Marley’s ghost: an undigested bit of beef, a fragment of underdone potato – a humbug?

Let’s take a further step. Let’s suggest that the concept of a gap is in itself an expression of a deep-seated dualism that pervades Western culture since the time of Plato: our religion, philosophy, economics, science, social history, aesthetics, art practice. If we look at the habitual language brought to bear on spirituality in western art, perhaps we can see exactly where the gap is created and what is creating it. I would like to explore this possibility here. I am not interested in identifying a new « Buddhist art, » thus adding another category to the heap. Something more significant may well be at stake. The great chain of interdependence and mutual arising posited by the Buddha and elaborated in the mystical visions of the Avatamsaka offers a world-view characterized by seamlessness and wholeness: Life and art perfectly joined; indeed, never separate for a millisecond. Hierarchies dismantled; their power dispersed. The alienated self effortlessly healed. Action that extends throughout time and space (like the Buddha), as an expression of the mind’s inherent freedom. This mind-ground as the seedbed of creativity — the tree that speaks of truths without end. Unboundedness glimpsed in its absolute aspect, as the diamond-paved plane from which spring the glorious garlands we call ordinary life.

The setting of the Avatamsaka is the mind’s dawn. The Buddha has just awakened from his dark night of meditation, a night « made dark » by his clinging to the fixed views he had held about himself and the limits of his mind. Now, through the power of meditation, he has penetrated the veils of self one by one, until he has passed through even the seeming solidity of Siddhartha Gautama. As he lets go of the subjective and contingent aspects of his own being, he enters the realm of boundlessness beyond words, a mystic realization of harmonic unity, of identity with the universe. He looks up in the clear light of his buddha-nature, and sees the Morning Star. Here is how Robert Thurman rephrases the Buddha’s post-enlightenment dilemma:

Say you are a Buddha and you’re free of suffering and you feel totally great – as happy as a bee and a clam and at one with the universe – and then you see all of these miserable people. Yet what good would it do for you to go and give them a big grin and a hug, or smother them with joyfulness? They’ll just get freaked out and be paranoid and say, « What does this person want? » So instead, a buddha has to develop some strategies – some art – to, first of all, open that person’s imagination to the fact that there is a world where they don’t have to be miserable all the time. And then he has to help them with a method of how to move from their paranoid corner of misery into the great ocean of the bliss of the universe that you, as a buddha, perceive. [7]

So the Buddha becomes the world’s first performance artist. He takes on roles, deliberately/intuitively chosen to convey an experience that is more than the sum of the words that can be said about it. He can act freely because he has set himself aside. He has pierced the veils – not only of selfishness, but also the illusion of a solid, substantial, historically-determined « me » concocted from my conditioning – and has seen their essential nature as a mirage of the mind. He has not entered any unusual or extraordinary or otherworldly state; he has simply let go of his own encumbrances. Now he is free – free to meet others where they stand, and to adopt whatever tactics are most effective in liberating them. Here is Thurman again:

The point is, in terms of art, when you go into the magical aspect of the Buddha, you look at the lifetime of the Buddha and see how every breath that the Buddha draws, every gesture the Buddha makes, every word the Buddha speaks is an artistic manifestation – in the sense that none of it is driven by any sort of selfish impulse on the part of the being that was formerly Siddhartha Gautama. Everything he does is a communication of compassion to other beings, creating doorways to open up their imaginations and then their whole beings to enlightenment – to nirvana. You have to present nirvana first as a work of art, and that allows people to perceive it and opens up the possibility that they can experience it for themselves. Who would want to seek nirvana if they couldn’t imagine there was such a state of freedom from suffering? [7]

He is free because he has realized the insubstantial nature of everything he once thought about himself. Because nothing is fixed, anything is possible. The unfettered mind flows into every container and flows out again. It’s not that there are no containers; it’s just that the mind-of-no-abiding does not rest in them.

The Buddha is famous for his ability to assume an identity that tests our awareness and challenges our principles. Is he that dirty, spike-haired young man begging food in front of the health food store? Is he the little old lady in a garden center – she with curlers in her thinning grey hair and a plastic bag on her head – who asks my advice on flowers for her parents’ graves? Is he the man who foams with rage in my workday? And how do I respond? Freely and appropriately? Or not? Do I give them all a big grin and a hug, scaring them to death? Or do I take a cue from the Buddha, and regard my own life as a work of performance art that conveys intimately and decisively the state of my awareness and the condition of my compassion? Can I act when need be? And if not, what gets in the way?

We note that Thurman has posited a view of art at odds with the one we have inherited from Western Romanticism. The Buddha is an artist because he has penetrated the veils of self; because he has tapped the enormous creative resources of his buddha-nature and thus is free of mental encumbrances. « [N]o hindrance in the mind, no hindrance, therefore no fear…, » promises the Heart Sutra. The Buddha at his awakening saw that all beings have buddha-nature. Thus we are all artists expressing our true nature fully by the ongoing, minute-by-minute activity of composing our lives out of the flux, out of the floating world. Some of us may realize it and some may not – and some may create art consciously while others do not – but realization (or the lack of it) doesn’t change the reality. This mobile view of human potential, which comprehends the artist in each of us, is Buddhism’s great contribution to a conversation about human creativity.

In the West, the artist is often considered to be a master of self-expression, and the self that is expressed is classically a tortured one. We might say, for instance, that the beauty of Egon Schiele’s drawings lies in the perfect match he creates between the shimmering, agonized line of his pen and the despair that arises for him in the moment of observing. Self-expression is the very activity of the artist, in the Western model. Thus the difficulty we may have in appreciating the art of cultures for whom self expression is simply not an issue: early Western religious art, perhaps, or Tibetan thangkas, or images of the Buddha produced by religious formula.

In a dualistic envisioning of the self and the purpose of art, the self that is expressed is the alienated, lonely, self-absorbed ego-I, perpetually set apart from others and from the life of the universe. The gap that is created must then be bridged by heroic means. The movement of bridging the psychological void to the Other requires a tremendous effort, a leap from self to audience, a heroic act of communicating (that is, convincing others of) that which is « inside. » Kandinsky, speaking from a classic Western formulation, wrote in Concerning the Spiritual in Art: « The artist must have something to communicate, since mastery over form is not the end but, instead, the adapting of form to internal significance…. That is beautiful which is produced by internal necessity, which springs from the soul. » [75] The soul is here viewed as a mental image, a concretion of those aspirations toward a « higher » life, a life of spiritual and transcendental escape from mundanity. Kandinsky again:

Painting is an art; and art is not vague production, transitory and isolated, but a power which must be directed to the development and refinement of the human soul, to raising the triangle of the spirit.

If art rejects this work, a pit remains unbridged; no other power can take the place of art in this activity. And sometimes when the human soul is gaining greater strength, art also grows in power, for the two are inextricably connected and complimentary. Conversely, at those times when the soul tends to be choked by materialist lack of belief, art becomes purposeless, and it is said that art exists for art’s sake alone. [74]

Kandinsky’s yearning is as keen as a toothache. Art must heal the gap, bridge the pit, he says; no other power can cleanse the soul, which otherwise remains choked by materialism. When art is purposeless, he says, it exists for itself alone. To exist just for itself is equivalent to achieving nothing: not developing the soul, not refining the « triangle of the spirit. »

Modernism as envisioned by Kandinsky (and Mondrian, Brancusi, Miro, and other early abstractionists) was born from a great longing to find a healing haven for the spirit. In the ninety years since Kandinsky wrote Concerning the Spiritual in Art, much has changed, so much that it might seem unfair to borrow Kandinsky as an exemplar. To elucidate the shift in consciousness that has occurred recently – I would place it, actually, in the last half-century – I point to the arrival of Buddhism in several subtle cultural forms that have not been fully accounted for, coincident with sweeping advances in information technology and science. My own research has led me to John Cage, who was the earliest modern artist (speaking broadly) to apprehend the profound possibilities offered by Buddhism for healing the pain of dualistic thinking. Here is Cage’s counter to Kandinsky:

[Most people are] convinced that music is a vehicle for pushing the ideas of one person out of his head into somebody else’s head, along with — in a good German situation — his feelings, in a marriage that’s called the marriage of Form and Content….

What it does is bolster up the ego. It is in the ego, as in a home, that those feelings and ideas take place. The moment you focus on them, you focus on the ego, and you separate it from the rest of Creation. So then a very interesting sound might occur, but the ego wouldn’t even hear it because it didn’t fit its notion of likes and dislikes, its ideas and feelings.

Cage also said: « We should rid ourselves of the soul or teach it to deal with an innumerable number of things. Likewise, the ego, its dreams, its value judgments. (Perhaps we will manage to get there.) » [Birds 26]

Cage was aware of a tide of cultural transformation sweeping him along. As Cage said parenthetically (and presciently) in 1952, in « Lecture on Something »:

Actually there is no longer a question of Orient and Occident. All of that is rapidly disappearing; as Bucky Fuller is fond of pointing out: the movement with the wind of the Orient and the movement against the wind of the Occident meet in America and produce a movement upwards into the air – the space, the silence, the nothing that supports us. [Silence 143]

The shift of consciousness that leaps from the modern into the post-modern – modernist art become contemporary art — can be described as a leaving-behind of modernism’s intent to breach the gap between art and life, and the taking-up of a postmodern state of mind that recognizes the limitlessness and ephemeral nature and elusively signifying conditionality of real life.

But though the practices of contemporary art have been put to a sea-change, the language we use to envision and describe spiritual issues in contemporary art has remained embedded in habituated dualisms. In preparing this essay I picked up The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985, the catalogue of an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The book and exhibition examine a century-long span of art production from French Symbolism and early abstraction to the work of Joseph Beuys, Ellsworth Kelly, and Dorothea Rockburne. To keep this argument manageable, I will focus just on the final essay, « Concerning the Spiritual in Contemporary Art, » by Donald Kuspit.

In 1912, when Kandinsky published Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kuspit observes, « the nature of spirituality was clearer than it is today. » The nature of spirituality in general may have seemed clearer in 1912, while the Western construct still held sway, but much has happened since. Charged with the awkward task of defining spirituality in a contemporary arena that has little use for the term, Kuspit falls back on dualisms that he is hardly alone in subscribing to. We can conjure them effortlessly: abstraction versus realism; silence versus noise; the spiritual versus the material; simplicity versus complexity, the symbolic versus the sensory; emptiness (God) versus form (matter).

The spiritually inclined abstract painting, according to this view, is one that eliminates all middle ground and arrives at an extreme: silent, monotonal, reductive, empty. The goal is purity, Kuspit writes: « Total abstraction (complete silence about the world) and total realism (alchemical transmutation of the worldly object) involve the same process of reducing the ‘artistic’ to a minimum. Art that seems to be ‘pure’ in its being results;… » [314]

Pure as opposed to what? We note the hallmarks of the « spiritual » within a dualistic construct: The spiritual artist turns his back on the world, and purges his art of complexity and « noise. » (Think: Ad Reinhardt.) The spiritual artist effects extreme reduction; she achieves purity at the expense of complexity. (Think: Agnes Martin.) The spiritual artist escapes the material realm into silence, which represents « absolute spiritual freedom, » in Kuspit’s view:

According to [Renato] Poggioli, the purity of silence implies that art can free itself « from the prison of things » (the noisy sound of reality)…. Silence is « an ever increasing process of distillation and condensation »: purification…. The problem is how to create essential silence in abstract art today.

Abstract art must pursue ever more complicated ways of become silent…. Many abstract artists have increased silence by abandoning even geometry, except for the minimal geometry of the canvas shape, which is sometimes echoed in the order of a grid, as in works by Agnes Martin. Touch itself exists under enormous constraint; it often becomes increasingly inhibited. As [Theodor W.] Adorno wrote, « The more spiritual works of art are, the more they erode their substance. » In the case of Robert Irwin and James Turrell the works seem almost substanceless. Silence can be understood as the eroded substance of a completely spiritual work of art. [314-315]

Kuspit is not to be singled out; he is merely giving voice to norms that his culture has long approved. The streams run deep in the Western mind: that spirituality is always at war with complexity, mundanity, materiality. To find a haven for the soul, in this view, it is necessary to negate the world-as-it-is. « In this context, » Kuspit writes, « one recalls Ad Reinhardt’s insistence that ‘you can only make absolute statements negatively,’ a statement that is inseparable from the basic understanding of abstraction as negation. » [317] Distillation, condensation, silence, negation – thus does an abstract artist of Reinhardt’s persuasion turn away from worldly things. But where does the yearning for negation come from? Can we locate its roots?

The architects of Western dualism are legion, but the one most identified with its extreme (and defining) imagery is Rene Descartes. Enlisting his famous method of radical doubt – a wielding of the philosophical razor that paralleled his researches in optics, geometry, astronomy and physiology in the seventeenth century – Descartes sought « to know with sufficient clearness what I am. » Descartes could not doubt the existence of his own mind – since otherwise how could he think? – but he held no such certainties about his body, « …so that the natures of these two substances are to be held, not only as diverse, but even in some measure as contraries. » [71]

In Descartes’s reading, mind and body are not awarded the same degree of certainty: « I here remark, in the first place, that there is a vast difference between mind and body, in respect that body, from its nature, is always divisible, and that mind is entirely indivisible. » [127] He speaks his fear:

Can I affirm that I possess any one of all those attributes of which I have lately spoken as belonging to the nature of body? After attentively considering them in my own mind, I find none of them that can properly be said to belong to myself…. Thinking is another attribute of the soul; and here I discover what properly belongs to myself. This alone is inseparable from me. I am – I exist; this is certain; but how often? As often as I think; for perhaps it would even happen, if I should wholly cease to think, that I should at the same time altogether cease to be. [81]

In the Buddhist model, this statement is a classic expression of suffering born of ignorance. The world-as-it-is already exists; it is the cradle out of which Descartes himself has emerged. But he can’t accept this truth. Descartes fears death, fears « ceasing to be. » He rejects his physical form, which is separate from him, or so he imagines. We might suggest to him that if his body should cease to be, Descartes would also cease to think. We observe that Descartes does not trust himself to be more than he thinks he is. In actuality, he is vast, he contains multitudes (as Walt Whitman wrote). The world-as-it-is flows in and through him, as it does before he is born and after he dies. Hey Descartes – think you’re an island? Just try to stop taking in air. Try to stop eating other beings and things. Find out exactly who you are and what is left when you neither breathe nor eat.

Without citing Buddhism, modern psychology has also responded to the Cartesian model by noting the fundamental hurt it expresses. Psychologist Adam Phillips, building on the work of D. W. Winnicott, revisits Descartes. He observes Descartes’s seeming desire to find a secure place for himself, barricaded against the anxieties of the temporal and conditional. In Phillips’s reading, the body’s frailties, its alarming propensity for dying, and its disturbing interconnections with other beings cause Descartes to flee to the safety of a fortress of ideation. Descartes can and does doubt the existence of everyone else; thus mind reifies itself, all by itself. Indeed, who’s there to challenge him?

Beset by anxiety and fear, the mind creates an objectified version of itself – we might call it ego, but Phillips, echoing Winnicott, calls it a mind object – which is that part of the self invented to manage childhood suffering. The mind object, Phillips writes, « is that figure in the internal world that has to believe – and to go on proving, usually by seeking accomplices – that there is no such thing as a body with needs. The body is misleading because it leads one into relationship, and so toward the perils and ecstasies of dependence and surrender….; it reminds us, that is to say, of the existence of other people. » [230] The mind object, originally created to seal off a place of hurt, becomes a thing-in-itself, bent on its own survival. The mind object separates itself from the universe – and the people who have hurt it.

So what of the « gap » Rauschenberg posited between art and life? What creates a gap or separation, if not the dualistic mind?

The Tang Dynasty teachers of the Golden Age of Zen in China healed dualistic thinking by undercutting it at every moment: with a shout, a turning phrase, or simply a turn of the shoulder, leaving the student to ponder his error in solitude. The Zen koan arises from this place of no-separation. So does the statement by Layman P’ang, the Golden Age adept who was reputedly as enlightened as any Zen master:

How supernatural!
I chop wood!
I carry water!

Ordinary mind is the Way, said the Zen masters. The world is not somewhere else. There is no route of escape, no slate to wipe clean. This place of no-separation suggests another interpretation of the classic haiku by Basho:

Old pond
Frog jumps in

Old pond = the world as Dharma; sacred-and-profane as one reality. Frog jumps in = I enter practice; I merge with the Way. Splash! = glorious! Not two!

At a certain point in the history of contemporary art, artists simply stopped creating a gap. Let’s return to the work of James Turrell and Robert Irwin for a moment. Both artists, in the 1960s, began (with other members of their generation) to dismantle every apparent boundary between their work and all-that-is. Irwin constructed a white convex disk and fixed it to the wall; spotlights shining on it created an image out of shadows and the optical play of the eye. Eventually he stopped using even those sorts of props, choosing instead to devise an art of light and space, completely immersed in ordinary reality. In that case, where is the work? Its edges have disappeared.

Turrell speaks of « honoring » when he discusses his labors at Roden Crater, the extinct volcano in northeast Arizona that is being reshaped into a bowl to hold the sun, the sky, and the stars in our newly refreshed consciousness. The sun, the sky, the stars, of course, continue in their cosmic paths. It is our awareness that is being reshaped. Where is the « eroded substance » here? On the contrary, the whole machinery of the universe cycles in and through the crater. The totality of space and time breathes in the bowl – and is the bowl. As I breathe, standing in the crater, my own awareness expands and contracts in accord with celestial, perceptual, and existential cycles. In the night, the stars press in on me and space is dense with fear and alertness; at daybreak, space is buoyant and expansive. Nothing happens in the crater that is not already happening at all times everywhere. Turrell remarks that we have forgotten what people used to know in ancient times. They watched the movements of the sun and moon and honored them, Turrell says, because those cycles allowed our lives to continue. He says: « The knowing was important and they honored the knowing. » [unpaginated] The Roden Crater project honors this life and that which cradles it.

If painters of Reinhardt’s and Martin’s persuasion pursued reductivism, silence, and negation, they could do so because they had drawn a boundary around their work: the boundedness demarcated by the edges of the canvas. The frame is a powerful dualism imaginatively devised to separate the « pure » world within from the « impure » mundanity without. (Christian artists used it thus for centuries.) Reinhardt and Martin shrank the decorative wooden frame around their work, but they did not eliminate the stretcher-bar edges, nor the conceptual barriers between « inside » and « outside. »

The artists who came of age in the 1960s got rid of the edges altogether – giving us a simple but effective way to define the beginnings of the post-modern phase of visual art. Turrell, Irwin, Bruce Nauman, Robert Morris, Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson, and their ilk discovered that any frame can be temporarily appropriated as a site for installation: a museum, a mesa outside Las Vegas, a lake, a loft, an abandoned barn, a book, a film, a pile of documentation, a photograph, an idea. Installation art can occupy any time and space. In the early years of conceptual art, an artist proposed putting a stake in the earth and, at its opposite point on the globe, another stake, thus claiming all the ground between as his art. The mind can reach that far, even without the stakes, so he was essentially granting the whole world the status of an art work.

The frame need not be physical; it can be conceptual, emotional, experiential, social, temporal. Furthermore, it moves. Like the Buddha’s role-playing, the frame takes on whatever shape is needed to meet the demands of the moment. When there is no « inside » or « outside, » boundaries shift and flow, expand, contract, become perfectly fluid and adaptable. It’s not that there are no boundaries; it’s just that there are none that actually contain anything.

Installation art has overtaken all other art forms in the half-century since its arising. Once the frame begins to move and the world opens up, anything is possible. The flexibility of installation art reflects the nature of the mind of no-clinging. When I watch my own mind as I sit in meditation, I see a ceaseless flow of thoughts continuously re-framing sensations and experiences. No frame lasts forever. (Any frame that sticks around for a long time, however, can be an expression of a stuck place.) Each frame illuminates not only experiences and sensations, but also the framing process itself. Artists such as Turrell and Irwin need not be Buddhists to be aware of the flowing nature of their own minds, and the interpenetrating nature of their lives.

In the Buddhist sutras, space is perfectly fluid. It’s a flexible vehicle, a kind of performance stage. The Buddha, standing peacefully on his diamond pavement in the Avatamsaka, can be everywhere at once because he has seen this framing activity for what it is. It’s just ordinary life. At his enlightenment, the Buddha took away every frame; that’s why his view extends to the edges of everything. As a performance artist, he simply re-supplies whatever frame is needed. If he does it seamlessly, no one will even notice.

« It is not a question of decisions and the willingness or fear to make them, » said John Cage, soaked to his eyeballs in Suzuki’s teachings. « It is that we are impermanently part and parcel of all. We are involved in a life that passes understanding and our highest business is our daily life. » [Silence 256]

In that case, what of the hurt self, the self-as-reified-mind? How do we deal with it non-dualistically?

When the sacred is no longer set above the mundane, then every mundane thing is sacred; every sacred thing is mundane. Even the hurt self, which fomented delusions of separation, is an aspect of the whole. What is the subject of « spiritual art, » then, if not daily life? The first wave of site-specific artists focused on the perceptual implications of the framing process; since then, other installation artists have turned toward the hurt self to see what hay can be made of it. Is one artist spiritual and the other not? What is served by such a distinction?

The frame that Louise Bourgeois has used all her creative life is built of her own ego baggage: the stuck, enraged, pained voices of childhood. Bourgeois calls herself a « femme enfant. » The father who took mistresses and the mother who endured them have become the basis of what Bourgeois calls « a philosophical anxiety. » She says her work is based in the drama of « something that is falling apart and that you will never be able to put back together again, commonly explained by ‘Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall.’ » [unpaginated] The hurt self, betrayed by others, returns again and again to its original site of separation, the source of its alienation.

Yet it’s possible, like Bourgeois, to make art of a high (that is, subtle) order from this cyclic return, thus confirming that suffering does not confine her or limit her capacity for daily life. On the contrary, the hurt self is an inexhaustible well of humanity and compassionate action. When the hurt self is not pushed away – when it’s thoroughly experienced, embraced, and welcomed home – suffering is transformed into compassion, ignorance becomes enlightenment, and the artist frames the world-as-is and shows us a picture we recognize.

The dazzling Mahayana vision of reality as depicted in the Avatamsaka sutra is one of unobstructed interdependent arising – a Buddhist technical term that describes the intertwined fates of all beings. (A more modern way to say it is « interbeing. ») From the Avatamsaka comes the image of the Diamond Net: a web as wide as the universe, each node a diamond that reflects in its facets the dazzling light from all the other jewels. Every perturbation in the net is felt by all. Every beam that illuminates one diamond shines on all. Each diamond is itself, and each is linked with all the others throughout space and time. When the conceptual barriers fall, we see our shared destinies. And we see that we share with others the sources and conditions of our own arising.

In the non-dual universe, every frame is just a performance born of its moment. Hence art’s amazing capacity to leap out of every boundary created for it. Turrell’s crater accepts the cosmos that flows into it. Reinhardt’s paintings open out to airy darkness. Agnes Martin’s seem to breathe like desert wind through a singing weave of fine wires. Heizer’s Double Negative is a hieroglyph inscribed in the edges of a Nevada mesa, a brash semaphore visible from 30,000 feet. Bourgeois’s art is a grudge match with her embodiment.

There is nothing to get rid of, and nowhere to put it. Wondrous!

Hey, John Cage, bring us up to speed on the Buddha’s enlightenment vision:

What Suzuki taught me is that we really never stop establishing a means of measurement outside the life of things, and that next we strive to resituate each thing within the framework of that measure. We attempt to posit relationships between things by using this framework. So we lose things, we forget them, or we disfigure them. Zen teaches us that we are in reality in a situation of decentering in relation to this framework. In this situation each thing is at the center. Therefore, there is a plurality of centers, a multiplicity of centers. And they are all interpenetrating and, as Zen would add, non-obstructing. Living for a thing is to be at the center. That entails interpenetration and non-obstruction….

There must be nothing between the things which you have separated so they wouldn’t obstruct each other. Well, that nothing is what permits all things to exist….

That they interpenetrate means there is nothing between them. Thus nothing separates them…. [Birds 91]

Bourgeois, Louise, and James Turrell, interviewed in Entrails, Heads & Tails, compiled by Paola Igliori. New York: Rizzoli International, 1992.
Cage, John. For the Birds. New Hampshire and London: Marion Boyars, 1981.
—— Silence. Cambridge, Mass. and London: M.I.T. Press, 1969.
Cleary, Thomas. The Flower Ornament Scripture: A Translation of the Avatamsaka Sutra. Boston and London: Shambhala, 1993.
Corrigan, E. and Gordon P. (eds.). The Mind Object: Precocity and Pathology of Self-sufficiency. Northvale: Jason Aronson, 1995.
Descartes, Rene. « Meditations on the First Philosophy » in A Discourse on Method: Meditations and Principles, translated by John Veitch. London and Vermont: Everyman, 2001.
Kandinsky, Wassily. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. New York: George Wittenborn, Inc., 1970.
Kuspit, Donald. « Concerning the Spiritual in Contemporary Art » in The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985, exhibition catalogue, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. New York: Abbeville Press, 1986.
Thurman, Robert. « The Wonderful Ambiguity of Art » in Inquiring Mind, vol. 18 no. 2, Spring 2002.

Kay Larson is a distinguished art critic (New York Magazine 1980-94; New York Times and other freelance work) who is currently working on a book entitled, Where the Heart Beats: Zen, John Cage, and the Inner Life of Artists. Recent articles in the Times include: « A Humble River Town Acquires the Ambience of Art, » Sept. 1, 2002; « Art Becomes an Instrument to Unearth Buried History, » June 23, 2002, and « To Take Part in the Art, You Sleep With the Artist, » Nov. 5, 2000.




Étiquettes :


Laisser un commentaire

Votre adresse e-mail ne sera pas publiée. Les champs obligatoires sont indiqués avec *