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WOID Bulletin

Mimi Yiengpruksawan, Yale University: "The Zen in Zen Art." Wednesday,
December 2, 6:30 pm, at Japan Society.

Japan Society. 333 East 47th Street, New York, NY 10017 (opposite the
United Nations). (212) 752-0824.
November 19, 1998 - January 10, 1999.
Open 11 to 6 every day.

This is a show about Zen painting in contemporary Japan; or maybe it's a
show about Zen in contemporary Japan. Take your pick.

As the show's opening statement explains, "until now, the arts of Zen have
been examined and viewed in this country in light of the historical past."
So how else should the arts of Zen be examined and viewed? Surely I am not
being asked to identify with Zen as an organized religion?

It turns out that I am, and I don't want to. I want to identify with the
arts of Zen, not with attaining Zen. Unfortunately the ideology of art and
the ideology of Zen are so similar that I can't untangle one without
untangling the other. This was made clear in the Sunday Times Arts
Section, in which the critic Kay Larson explained Zen painting for the
unitiated - explained it fairly and well. The problem was that in the end
her explanation was indistinguishable from the usual New York Times
artspeak. Larson made me wonder if this show attempts to do for art what
organized religion does for the divine. Visiting the show, I was amused to
read that one of the artists "received his Certificate of Enlightenment"
from such-and-such a temple. Uh-huh.

Zen art, like art, is a technique to focus the mind. But focus it on what?
In Medieval Christian art there is a tradition of "Andachtsbilder," images
that serve to focus the mind of the believer on, say, the tangible
presence of Christ. It is obvious at once that the Zen artist is not
focusing on tangible images: the most trite works in this show are the
representational ones, because their motif seems so much beside the point.
These images are consistently described as "affectionate," "gently
ironic," etc., which translates as: lacking commitment. The drawings in
this show need to be seen next to similar Chang or Zen works of the same
time by professional artists, say the painters of the nihonga movement.
Zen monks of the early twentieth century were not painting in a void.

Conversely, the writing in this show ranges from the strong to the
exeptional. It's as if the intense focus of the Zen mind was best directed
towards pure shapes, or the pure kinesthesia of movement, or the
visualization of a perfect harmonious balance of parts. Predictably, the
finest works in the show are those that show an awareness of the art
movements that they simultaneously fed and fed upon. Yamamoto Gempo's
"White Clouds," painted when the artist was 89 years old, has a newfound
confidence that owes much to Abstract Expressionism; and there is a
collaborative work by Shibayama Zenkei and D. T. Suzuki, whose lectures at
Columbia in the early 'fifties had an enormous influence on American Art.
What makes it special, though, is the idea of two masters writing on the
same page, balancing their individualities and providing a model for the
practice of art. As Hegel put it, ethics is the aesthetic of the future.
And vice-versa, of course.

Paul Werner, New York City

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