Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art
Edited by Jacquelynn Baas and Mary Jane Jacob
University of California Press; $45.00
I have a problem with explanatory texts in museums. They make art all about telling and intention, an activity, in other words, that takes place between the ears. These texts have a way of shouldering in between me and experience of the work itself. I recognize (and lament) that many people appreciate these texts. These folks hang on to words like life preservers because, apparently, without an explanation their encounter with art would be meaningless - or worse.
Although the collection of essays and interviews in Buddha Mind and Contemporary Art steers clear of an explicit position on this issue, nevertheless it gives me consolation. This book grew out of a project that brought together an array of arts professionals from around the country - including the IMA's Linda Duke - to investigate the implications of Buddhist perspectives for contemporary art practice and exhibition. This result is this fascinating and, at times, inspiring anthology.
To begin with, one needn't be a Buddhist in any formal sense to benefit from the ideas in this book. While some will grouse that Americans have a penchant for taking outrageous liberties with one of the world's great religions, the fact remains that, as idea, Buddhism has had a profound influence on American thought and culture going back to Emerson and Thoreau.
In a world that too often is split between skeptical intellectuals on one side and religious fundamentalists on the other, Buddhist influence offers a middle way, a means of expressing spiritual values without being hung up by dogma.
What's more, the Buddhist way of understanding subject and object as one has had particular relevance in a postmodern era in which art has attempted to transcend the object. As Mark Epstein puts it in his essay, Sip My Ocean, "Buddhism provided a natural inspiration to - or confirmation for - artists in the process of discovering how exciting art could become when freed from the restraints of materialism. Before postmodern notions of the spuriousness of self or the relativity of the object, it turns out, there was Buddhism."
Or as John Cage famously put it: He wasn't interested in destroying the barrier between art and life, but in observing that there is no barrier between the two.
Peppered throughout the book are wonderfully provocative insights like, for example, Tosi Lee's well-researched meditation placing Marcel Duchamp decisively within a Buddhist tradition. Indeed, Duchamp's definition of art was derived from Sanskrit, the language of Mahayana Buddhism. "The word 'art' interests me very much," he said, "it signifies 'making.' Now everyone is making, and those who make things on canvas, with a frame, they're called artists. Formerly, they were called craftsmen, a term I prefer."
In a wonderfully conversational essay, philosopher critic Arthur Danto puts the Buddhist contribution to how we think about art in historical perspective, noting, "overcoming the gap between art and life became a kind of mantra for the avant-garde artists of the early sixties." For Danto, Warhol's Brillo boxes were a turning point, Warhol made art and life look outwardly alike. "The philosophical task," Danto writes, " was to explain why and in what way they were different." Finally, he concludes: "Once one recognized that there was no particular way a work of art should look, one would see that one could not define art in perceptual terms at all. It is a way of seeing the world... "
As if insights like this one weren't enough, Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art is lavishly illustrated and beautifully designed. Most important, it is useful. A welcome point of entry to a world of experience that, in the end, refuses to be explained away.