How Zen Catalyzed Conceptual Art
by Daniel Larkin for Hyperallergic
So, let's just go for it. What the hell happened in art history after the 1950s when the real, discrete art movements started to break down? That's right -- we're taking the bull by the horns here, tackling the big questions.
The Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection and the majority of scholarly modern art courses chart an elegant procession through Realism, Impressionism, Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimalism and then... ummm... (awkward pause). Conceptual art? Well, not exactly. The timeline gets messy here (cough). Solution: Put a Post logo on everything like there's a secret sponsorship deal by the cereal company and remark that everyone is unique, like we coddle first graders.
So what exactly happened to art? Why this big change with concepts that we struggle to describe?
A new book by artist and critic Ellen Pearlman , Nothing and Everything: The Influence of Buddhism on the American Avant Garde (Evolver Editions, 2012), offers a good answer for the origins of this turn towards the conceptual. Because something really did change, and it's better than the vague, fragmented trends and everyone-is-special story you see in most museums and syllabi. The short, oversimplified (but you secretly want me to be pithy anyway) answer is Zen.
The longer answer is that there is a profound intersection between the rise of what we reluctantly label conceptual and process art, the origins of Fluxus, and the growing popularity of Zen Buddhist riddles and the philosophical reflection they stimulated in New York's intellectual and bohemian circles.
Okay, that sentence was gargantuan. But that's the story that unfolds in Pearlman's new book. Encountering Zen catalyzed many of the artists leading the charge to redefine what art does in the '50s and '60s, to dematerialize the object and foreground the concept.
For example, John Cage attended the first seminars in the '50s Columbia ever offered on Zen by D.T. Suzuki. At this point, very few creative types knew anything about Zen or Buddhism. And it wasn't a major thing people talked about as an alternative like today. Cage played a major role in turning the tide, exploring Zen for the rest of his life in process-oriented art and music and introduced numerous people to Zen.
John Cage wasn't the only one getting into Buddhism. Kerouac and Ginsberg drank tea in 1957 in D.T Suzuki's apartment and both plunged into Zen. Painter Ad Reinhardt gave a talk in 1950 about the "Spiritual plane [and] Zen" at an artist club in the village whose list of club members was a who's-who of the New York school. In 1931, Isamu Noguchi traveled to Zen temples and gardens throughout Japan and explored the source of this philosophy. When he went back to America later that year, he brought back a lifelong engagement with Zen in his work that he shared with others.
Each chapter in Pearlman's book focuses on a particular artist, writer or group, examining how they got to know Zen early on before most Americans knew anything about it. She looks at how the philosophy shaped their art and then finally explores their roles in getting other people interested in Zen. It's like John Cage, several Fluxus artists, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Noguchi were all the first big rocks that got thrown into the pond. They created these ripple effects of exposing more and more individuals in the arts to Zen. What emerges after reading the entire book is the organic process by which Zen and Buddishm first took root in the American Avant-Garde and drove a profound rethink of the role of concepts in the arts.
And Pearlman, knowing that this is a new argument about Zen's role for many readers, lards her book with so many primary sources, got to so many people right before they died un-interviewed, and captured so much content that hasn't been documented before that I got the sense that it might be the one new book I read this year that graduate students will still be reading and footnoting in 78 years. The focus on primary sources also made it hard to deny that Zen has played a bigger role that most historians have given it credit.
So what did these artists find in Zen, exactly? It's not a monolith, and different artists had different takeaways, which Pearlman explores in turn. But one common denominator was the effect of exploring Zen riddles that seemed to problematize the idea of an easy answer.
For example, there is that famous riddle "what is the sound of one hand clapping." As Lisa Simpson explains to Bart when he hits his fingers against the palm, the point it to clear your mind and give up over-thinking unresolvable conundrums. Or is Bart telling Lisa to stop over-thinking with his gesture? The clip's genius is how both characters reach the same conclusion in a different way that reflects their process and personality
For artists and writers, solving these open-ended riddles is a way to reveal your process to yourself. It shows whether you are more of a Bart or a Lisa or neither. It gives some insight into how your brain works. It casts a light on the first concepts and values that bubble up in your mind when trying to grasp the riddle. And that insight captivates artists seeking to understand themselves better and use that understanding to make better work. And the takeaway message to not over-think speaks to anyone who has spent to much time fiddling on a project. This is the tip of the iceberg, but one example seemed better than a vague line about how everyone takes zen in different directions.
After reading this book, it's hard not to see Zen's influence everywhere. This idea of a work of art as a riddle to solve began in earnest during conceptual art, drawing heavily from Zen precedents. And the idea of a work of art's symbolism not giving an easy answer and telling you more about yourself with the takeaway you find in it remains relevant today. Although Cage, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Noguchi all integrated zen and Buddhist ideas differently, this book elegantly demonstrates how Buddhism, and its Zen expression in particular, entered the discourse about contemporary art in the '50s and radically transformed it.
Nothing & Everything: The Influence of Buddhism on the American Avant Garde: 1942-1962
Ellen Pearlman. North Atlantic/Evolver (Random House, dist.), $21.95 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-58394-363-2
In this eminently readable treatise, Pearlman, a founder of the Brooklyn Rail and early contributor to Tricycle magazine, explores Zen Buddhism's influence on the post-WWII American avant-garde, focusing on its practitioners, students, and resultant artistic movements. Beginning with the public classes of noted Japanese Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki, Buddhism was disseminated throughout the arts in America by Suzuki's famed pupil and composer, John Cage, as well as through the work of the Abstract Expressionists, the Beats (e.g., Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac), and Fluxus artists. Pearlman's study also touches on how Eastern cultures viewed the transplantation of their religious beliefs into the American arts, especially in the wake of the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima--the author notes that while America's artistic elite were embracing Zen Buddhism, artists in Japan were trying to move away from the school of thought, whose institutions were viewed as militaristic and corrupt. Given the book's brevity, Pearlman's survey is remarkably extensive. However, the sheer range of artistic works inspired by Buddhism's influence on the American avant-garde--from Cage's silent composition, 4'33", to Kerouac's energetic stream-of-conscious American epic, On the Road--is perhaps the best evidence of its dynamic and lasting impact. (Apr.)
Philosophy Weekend: Ellen Pearlman on Buddhism and the Avant-Garde
By Levi Asher on Saturday, May 12, 2012 08:00 pm
American, Beat Generation, Eastern, Existential, History, Modernism, Music, New York City, Religion, Visual Art
Exactly sixty years ago, in May 1952, 81-year-old Zen Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki began teaching a regular course at Columbia University. 39-year-old modernist composer John Cage attended a few of his lectures, and this is the electric point of contact that starts everything buzzing in Nothing and Everything - The Influence of Buddhism on the American Avant Garde: 1942 - 1962, a new book by Ellen Pearlman.
Both men were trailblazers. Suzuki is remembered today as a premier ambassador for Eastern religion in the West, and as the author of the influential books Introduction to Zen Buddhism and Essays in Zen Buddhism. But, Ellen Pearlman reveals in the first chapter of Nothing and Everything, Suzuki had not been considered a very "successful" Buddhist as a young Zen student in Japan. He found a far greater calling as a highly visible foreigner in the West than he could have ever found if he'd stayed in Japan, since his idiosyncratic personality rubbed many Zen masters the wrong way. It was Suzuki's ability to translate key Asian texts into English that gave him a foothold in the United States of America, and he eagerly grabbed the opportunity to pursue his own unique vision of a global Buddhist awakening.
John Cage had already earned a reputation as a rule-breaker in the field of avant-garde music by the time he attended the elderly Suzuki's lectures at Columbia, but it wasn't until after he was exposed to Zen Buddhism (from Suzuki and several other sources) that he was able to conceive of his signature work, 4'33, which thrilled and outraged the world of classical music with its unspeakable simplicity. The composition indicated that the performer should sit at a piano (or any other instrument) and maintain four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence.
It's impossible to encapsulate modern, avant-garde and experimental arts within any formula, but Nothing and Everything's purpose is to follow a single thread of excitement among several 20th century innovators within American art, music, theater and literary scenes that was caused by a rising awareness of traditional Buddhist religion and philosophy. The first to follow John Cage were the Dada-inspired innovators of the Fluxus movement in the early 1960s, Alison Knowles, Jackson Mac Low, Num June Paik, Toshi Ichiyanagi and Yoko Ono (who, beyond the scope of this book, would eventually collaborate with John Lennon to present crystalline expressions of Fluxus ideas to the entire world, and become its most famous practitioner).
Others notable figures profiled in this book include Willem and Elaine De Kooning, Ibram Lassow, Saburo Hasegawa, Isamu Noguchi, Franz Kline and, eventually, the rising stars of the Beat Generation: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Anne Waldman.
The otherworldliness of Eastern religion has always attracted Western artists (in this sense, many elements of 20th century modernism can be traced back to Vincent Van Gogh's meta-sketches of Japanese paintings inside his self-portraits). But Nothing and Everything points to a more specific, more intentional common ground between Buddhism and the avant-garde: the interest in confounding the mind and defying expectations. We have all heard our share of Zen koans -- some of them more persuasive than others -- but the koans Ellen Pearlman chooses to retell in this book are the ones that resonate most loudly with Western fascinations:
Hasegawa told the audience a Zen story. "Once" he said, "two young monks on their way to buy iron noticed a flag flapping in in the wind. One said, 'The flag is moving,' and the other said, 'No, the wind makes the flag move.' A senior monk who was on his way to buy gold walked by and overheard them talking. He intervened. 'You are both incorrect,' he said. 'It is your heart, your mind, which is moving.'"
Nothing and Everything may be most surprising to readers who are deeply familiar with either Buddhism or the avant-garde arts scene of the 20th century but not both. I was an easier sell for this book, since I've long understood the two traditions to be linked, and have followed my own inquiries in this area. The case, as far as I can see, is quite clear: Zen Buddhism stands for (among other things) a vigorous, nearly fanatical rejection of any settled ways of thinking. Modernist or avant-garde art, from Paul Cezanne to James Joyce to Pablo Picasso to Gertrude Stein to Marcel Duchamp, stands for exactly the same thing. A cool sense of discipline and calm openness to raw experience pervades both. I wonder if other readers will find the basic equation at the center of this book more challenging than I did, though the fact that I was pre-convinced by Pearlman's argument before I reached page one did not blunt my enjoyment of the book at all.
Nothing and Everything is a work of appreciation more than a work of analysis; the brisk, encyclopedic coverage sometimes reads like a museum catalog, and at times I wished to hear the author's private opinions, or to enjoy the kinds of darker tales of artistic rivarly, conflict or moral failure that often accompany histories of creative movements. Then again, this kind of treatment would disrupt the tone of rock garden Zen cool that permeates this book, and which is highly consistent with its subject. To break the shimmering surface of placid appreciation is not very Zen. Or is it?
Zen and other forms of Buddhism are impossible to define in strict terms, of course (this is something else that Buddhism shares with avant-garde arts). One section of this book points out the vast differences between the cultural connotations of Zen Buddhism within Japan (where it was often associated with one virulent political movement or another) and in the West, where it stood far apart from the realm of conventional politics. At times, this difference was unbridgeable, and at least one Japanese artist found that he could not go home again.
According to Noguchi, when [Saburo Hasegawa] returned to Japan, he discussed Zen practice with artists. Because of its association with the militarists and the war, however, they asked him, "What are you talking about?" Feeling out of step with his country, he wound up in San Francisco, teaching at Alan Watts's American Academy of Asian Studies.
It's particularly surprising to read that Zen Buddhism had once been used as a pillar of Japanese militarism; this confounds Western notions of Zen in ways that may hurt even more than a blow with a sharp stick to the back. But there are infinite facets to these cultural differences. When we read of Suzuki's New York City lectures in 1952, or of Yoko Ono's controversial 1965 artwork Cut Piece in which she sat on a gallery floor and asked viewers to slice off pieces of her clothing with scissors until she was nearly naked, we must remember that during these years the incomprehensible violence of the Pacific theater of World War II, from Pearl Harbor to Midway to Iwo Jima to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was still a vivid living memory for every artist in the world. This is certainly one key to understanding most or all of the experimental works discussed in this book.
Aside from political or historical differences, there may also be vast areas of misunderstanding between the East and West in terms of the core meaning of Buddhism (which is not to say that the East must have it right and the West must have it wrong -- that would also not be a very "Zen" way to think). In the late 1950s, D. T. Suzuki was clearly amused to receive a chaotic visit from the current literary celebrities of the moment, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky (the Beat poets were at least careful enough to leave the rambunctious Gregory Corso out of it). Suzuki remarked after the meeting that the Beat Buddhists appeared to have only reached the very early stages of letting go of their egos and their intellects. The meeting, however, seemed to have pleased all the attendees.
If you're interested in exploring the syncretism of modern Western culture and ancient Asian philosophy (and, as I see it, how can you possibly not be?), Nothing and Everything will give you a fine kickstart.