I’m Thinking about Meditaton and Art

Posted by on Jan 9, 2012 | 0 comments

As a long-time Buddhist practitioner, I’ve particularly liked teaching Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” I get to ask, “Is it true? Is ‘beauty truth, truth beauty’? Is that really ‘all we know and all we need to know’? If they have all their cylinders firing, students get curious about what Keats means by truth, where it can be seen, what it has to do with beauty, and what beauty might mean.  Buddhists, of course, have been asking such questions for over 2500 years. If I take Keats’s assertion and question it from a Buddhist perspective, I get something like: Are there objects ‘out there’ that embody ultimate truth? Are there objects (art, music, dance, poetry, fiction, etc.) that can be deliberately created in some way to embody truth?”

I’ve thought a lot about these questions. The goal of meditation is to see what is the truth, what is real.  Not to “understand” what’s true, which assumes that truth is rational and can be reached by logic.  Its goal is to “see” in the sense that truth can only be perceived, not explained.  Isn’t the goal of all art to show us what we have no words to explain, a truth that’s embodied in the work itself, inseparable from our relation to the work? I.e., How can we know the dancer from the dance?

I don’t separate meditation in the Buddhist sense from the making of art or our experience as viewers of art.  Take visual art, for example. Take a really abstract one: Jackson Pollack’s Full Fathom Five, 1949. Pollack said, “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about. I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess.” So, there is Pollack, aware not in his head, but somehow in his entire being.

And, too, as we look at the painting, what happens on canvas is interdependent with what happens in our minds and what has happened in Pollack’s mind as he made the image.  What would that image be without us? We’re doing the work of making its meaning together. That doesn’t mean that it can mean anything we want it to mean. There’s the actual paint on actual canvas in a particular pattern. We can’t ignore that and drift off with our own daydream of what it might “be.”

If the work is were more representational, it might be easier to imagine that art, artist, and audience are fixed entities, but just as we imagine we ourselves are fixed entities, long and close examination (meditation) will begin to break apart our preconceptions.

So who is the “maker” of the art in question? There doesn’t seem to be one. The French literary theorist Roland Barthes said something like this in the 1960s. About literature, he said that the unity of a text lies not in its origins, or in its creator, but in its destination, or its audience. The author is “born” simultaneously with the text. Every work is “eternally written here and now,” he said, with each re-reading, because the “origin” of meaning lies exclusively in “language itself” and its impressions on the reader.

A knee-jerk reaction might be “So what? That’s obvious.” Or, “This is too, too precious for me to care.” But listen to what Barthes says as it might be put in Buddhist terms. The origin of the painting, says Barthes, is in the sensual experience of paint itself. We invent Pollack. Our minds invent everything, actually, through the compounding Buddhists call mind-aggregates, or, in the ancient Pali language, the skandas.

Here is how we invent our world: we see (or experience with one of our senses) a form, we have a feeling about it (love, hate, indifference) , we start developing concepts about it, we recall other things in our past that seem to be like this object and we put it into a category. Finally, we run riot with our minds, fitting the image into all sorts of ideas, theories, memories, and random thoughts about it. The Buddhists note that this is the way our minds get confused—by building up this material, and then believing in all these inventions that begin to surround the simple truth of what “is.” (Our minds, of course, follow that path every moment. It’s our belief that what we’re seeing is true that distorts the truth.)

Are you still with me? To see Keats’s poem from a Buddhist perspective, we have to move all the way through the poem (bringing it along with us) into new territory. There’s no object that is “made” by one self and “transmitted” to another “self.” In the first place, Buddhists deconstruct the idea that we are something called a “self.” Where is that “self” to be found? Of what is it made? When we begin to peel the onion, take apart our concepts of what a “self” might be, we find there’s nothing there that is independent, that does not depend upon everything else for its identity.

And the same is true for all objects—all art. The work is and is not a “self.” It’s interdependent. Studying a painting (or a poem) in this way is essentially the same work a meditator does on the cushion: just letting our personal mind-games subside.  And finally, after much time in looking and/or hearing, the object “as it is” comes clear. In the case of a poem, we enter into the words.

Okay, if we are the artist, we paint. If we’re the poet, we write. If we want to come close to a truth, we have enough sense not to dwell among the concepts; we don’t paint or write in order to prove any idea or to promote an ideal. We make what seems right to us, what seems true to us. If we’re the audience for art, we’re its co-makers. We don’t come at it with our preconceived ideas. We look at what’s actually there, on the canvas. We don’t overlay our own meaning. We look. We look as if we were meditators. We simply watch our own preconceptions, our own ideas about meaning, come and go without attaching ourselves to them. We allow the art to be made in the relationship between our mind and the mind of the painter.

And as the work comes close to the truth-of-things, the gaps between what can be said and what’s actually the case begin to be more obvious. It is as if we lowered a high-powered microscope on an atom. We begin to see that there’s more space there than there is matter. But as we invest ourselves more and more in the work, we see that the whole thing is simultaneously space and not-space. I could explain this better if I were a physicist, but even if I were, I’d have to just talk around it. Basically, language has no name for it. And it is really beautiful there.  Physicists like to use the word “elegant.”

How about this as a way to reduce all this abstraction to something  Tweetable?—There is a stillness necessary both to make and to receive art.




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