Section 9: Evidence of contemporary American artist's interest in Zen


A dead-end sign is posted at the beginning of this section. Most artists, if they write, are not published and not much is printed about the religion of living artists. There is no "conversion" literature and no notice of painters studying with Zen masters. Suzuki confesses that in the way he is teaching the spirit of Zen, he is going to hell. "Real" Zen is not available now. However, it is clear that artists are very interested in Oriental ideas, and that Zen thought is very agreeable to many of them.

The northwest coast painters Mark Tobey and Morris Graves, studied in China and Japan. Tobey says, "Today, she" (America) "must assume her position Janus-faced, towards Asia, for in not too long a time the waves of the Orient shall wash heavily upon her shores." Graves, true to Zen, identifies himself more with Buddhism than any other religion. {Wright: Morris Graves} He has studied its writings, particularly of the Zen sect.

The artists Kuniyoshi, Noguchi, and Kenzo Okada have come to the United States from Japan. Kuniyoshi quotes Watts on Zen, "'The beginning of the Universe is now, for all things are at this moment passing away.' I quote this because it seems to me it has much to offer the creator..." This is typical of the contemporary artist's interest in Zen. Not having Zen training, he takes a random formulation of it, which accords with his attitude towards his life or art.

{Kenneth} Rexroth, one of the first to hail the Beat generation, claims its artists are interested in Zen. He claims that for one hundred years ruling standards in the plastic arts have been attacked until at the present no one knows the reason for the revolt or has any standards. Besides, the loss of tradition in art, he blames society for making its arts "Beat". It offers them nothing but the "ruin of the world". His analysis is superficial. What do teachers teach but standards? How can an artist act without standards? In fact, saying the world is in ruin implies a criterion. But what he is talking about points up the fact that many contemporary artists haven't any previous commitment which would make them take a stand against Zen.

The "Beats" are supposed to have few positive beliefs. In fact, they have no religion, no god, no morality, no feeling of duty, no political faith and often no lasting personal relationships. The world, they believe, is full of nonsense and they are not at home in it. The most they hope for is to keep "making the scene", to keep aware and snatching what seems significant for the moment. This opening of the senses and individual reflection of anything "told" or supposed to be true, makes for very confused world-views. The world is chaos, there is no world-view. When the individual swings or makes it, his adjustment has to do with a particular situation. There is no commitment to lifelong rules or situations. The individual is alienated from families, defending the nation, and repeating the words and ways of the ancestors. The eccentric individual is "Beat" because he may only attain freedom in truth, belief, beauty, in moments.

The lost intellectuals, what Rexroth calls "old juvenile delinquents" find much in common with Zen. Zen is famous for helping individuals adjust to themselves, but not to what they consider a sick society. "We are saved, such as we are," says a Zen master. Rexroth uses Jackson Pollock and Charlie Parker as "Beat" types and calls their arts respectively, confabulation, and flight. They have some things in common with Zen, even if they didn't know it or care.

The most direct evidence that contemporary artists are interested in Zen is in the magazine, It Is. This publication is devoted to writings and reproductions by and about the strongest contemporary American school of artists, the Abstract Expressionists.

A critic, Pavia, cites three main influences in the school. They are: Picasso, Mondrian, and "Chinese Cubism".

"Chinese Cubism may not have made a new sense of measure for the modernists, but it has when contrasted to Western practice, made the duality of light and space less fixed in its high keys and less full in its symmetrical sense. It gave a particular brand of courage...will for change." {It Is Magazine, Vol I, No. 1, Pp. 4, ff.}

When he speaks of "Chinese Cubism" he may mean the technical means of suggesting a whole form with an edge line that may spread to stand for a surface that the first Zen Buddhist painters helped to develop. It is similar to the techniques used in the early analytic cubist drawings. In relation to the Zen Buddhist painters it is called the mass stroke in this paper.

There has been some direct Zen influence of a subtle and diffuse kind, which is beyond the inquiry of this paper. A few of the writers in It Is acknowledge Zen either by using the word or by an obvious parody of Zen commonplace.

Stanley Bruel shares Zen's iconoclasm. He writes,

"Kill the Buddha. Zen is not Zen. Zen begins in Zen, passes through No-Zen, ends in neither Zen nor No-Zen. Freedom from Zen (Kill the Buddha!). Freedom from religion, philosophy, science, arts, literature, society, humanism, "God" and gods, for history -- past, present, future -- from civilization and primitivism, from family, self, pride, humility -- from Orient and Occident, from nationality, from....." {It Is Magazine, Vol I, No. 2, p. 65.}

John Ferren uses three Zen-like ideas: the changing form of communications, the Koan idea and the belief in a nameless absolute. {Briefly the Koan is a nonsense statement used by Zen masters to confuse their student's rational mind. An example is, "You know the sound of two hands clapping. Then what is the sound of one hand clapping?"} The spirit of his writing is Zen-like. He uses words poetically in the midst of a definition:

"How many telephones have been reinvented? If innocence is the Koan turned painting it is the dissolving of the barriers between the perceived and the executed. It is the split second that makes "it" a painting. A thirst for the absolute may be mad but it gave the early abstractionists a pioneer courage. Innocence, like painting, is to be achieved. " {Ibid., p. 12.}

Phillip Guston's definition of painting has a Koan-like effect. He misuses words to point at something else -- that painting cannot be defined.

"Painting is a clock that sees each end of the street as the edge of the world." {Ibid., No. 1, p. 44.}

Martin James tries to define his painting, but he repeats himself. By the context we know something of what Zen means to him.

"Trend to carefully contrived pre-suppositionlessness, to rigorous unconstraint, to the 'Zen' (sic) ...out with the engineers." {Ibid., No. 2, p. 74.}

Partly, the analytical attitude towards painting fostered in early 20th century European art by the Cubists, Futurists, Purists, Constructivists, and Chromo-luminists, has been an obstacle to painters who don't want to analyze what they paint. The anti-analytical attitude of Zen towards painting appeals to them.

A quote by Gabor Peterdi is culled from the catalogue of a show of abstract expressionist paintings called, "Nature In Abstraction". He says, "I want to paint nature from the inside, not as a spectator." This is a very direct statement of a common interest. It is very Zen-like. Does it come from Zen or simply accord?

Another painter, having heard about Zen by hearsay, said, "I bet millions of people live Zen and never know it. There's nothing much in Zen. It's like whiffs of smoke."

It may be stated that no one knows what contemporary painters are about. Statements about the subject matter and content of their work are not rational, not popular, nor even easily identifiable. They are not painting objects but "problems". The content is not attached to existing spiritual, moral, or objective values or entities. So understanding is dependent on feeling of plastic and intuitive qualities of painting which brings them close to the "inner" direction of Zen painting.

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