Life is sometimes strange. I had planned for another blogpost when I came over one of the fabulous video lectures by the late art historian James Cahill. There he made a remark that triggered a kind of avalanche of thoughts and so I started on this post. Finally, I noticed that this text might actually serve as a sort of preface to the one I originally wanted to write. And so be it.
Well, anyhow, Cahill said in that lecture that ideologies, philosophies and religions do not create artistic styles. Artists do. These are wise words. Even great ideas need actors. And these actors shape and develop the expression of great ideas. In the case of art, actors are the artists and their audience. The latter is quite important as during many periods of art history they commissioned works and paid to have certain expectations fullfilled. Artists didn’t always just express themselves. The self-contained artist is a recent phenomenon – if (s)he then exists at all. All of this, I think, is true.
At least the question remains, why certain artists and audiences considered certain styles as adequate expressions for certain ideas. In addition, there is the question why certain forms of expression seem so succesful that they become paradigms of their underlying ideas. I suspect that this happens when an expression aligns with the “feel” of an idea and not only its rational content.
But before I get too theoretical on you, let me give an example (or actually: two).
These two paintings belong to the group of “influential” pictures in art history, which means they were style-forming and excerted stylistic influence on later artists and works. Mantegna you might realize is at the beginning of the Renaissance. But it might surprise you that there is a line of inheritance leading from the Liang Kai painting to Japanese design, to the Bauhaus and all the way to the design of the iPhone.
These two pictures have also a couple of things in common. Both constitute religious art (and I’ll explain that in a second). Both also were quite radical new forms of expression for their times. That they seem so familar only speaks for the power they excerted over later artists. Technically, both were quite innovative. Mantegna’s painting is one of the earliest examples of the use of foreshortening perspective in Western Art. Liang Kai’s picture is the first (known) to use “abbreviated brush strokes” (or sketch style, “Xie Yi”) that became a staple in the art of Zen Buddhism.
We in the West are familiar with the religious content of Mantegna’s painting but Liang Kai’s subject needs explaining. In his painting, Liang Kai depicts the (anecdotal) moment of enlightenment of the Sixth Zen Patriarch (the spiritual leader of the sect) Huineng while cutting bamboo. Huineng, however, was a rather obscure figure, which rose to prominence only some two hundred years after his dead in order to proof the spiritual legitimacy of the Southern School of Zen. This was a pivotal point for Zen as it then almost ceased to be a Buddhist sect and became a teaching all of its own. Huineng remains until today one of the most revered figures in Zen.
Montegna’s painting also marks a pivotal point: the birth of Humanism in the Renaissance. We see here for the first time the celebration of the human form (and implicitly the human spirit and potential) that became so familar to us through later works like those of Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci. Humanism today is, in the English speaking world, often associated with an anti-religous stance. And while that was not part of the original program of the Renaissance, it was one of its (unitended) consequences as the ideas of “Man” and “God” started to merge.
Both pictures thus actually mark points of departure from the strictures of organized religion up to that point. And I don’t think I am going too far in suggesting that in both cases people set about to redefine their place in the universe.
Religions can be grouped very crudely into certain categories. A common starting point for Buddhism and Christianity is that something is wrong with humankind. Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge (!) and thereafter are in need of redemption. In Buddhism our mind serves us constantly illusions about reality and it is these illusions we have to be redeemed from. Human sentience, our perceived otherness from the rest of nature, seems in both cases the problem and one kind of understands how we sentient apes crawling down from the trees and looking around got the idea…
But, just for perspective, there are of course religions with a radically different outlook. In Shinto (or many other so-called animistic religions), for example, nothing is wrong with humankind. Instead we are just part of an interconnected world of spirits. Religion there is about our “social relations” with the rest of the natural world. The emphasis thus is on keeping a balance between all the interacting forces in nature, including Man.
Humanism’s answer to the question (or the otherness) of sentience was: more of it. The “divine spark” (did I mention Michelangelo already?) was to be fully developed. This, in the end, led us to modern science. Redemption did not mean going back beyond Adam and Eve but going forward to become god-like ourselves.
The Southern School of Zen Buddhism (attributed to Huineng) recognized “Buddha-nature” (the state of enlightenment) as not only a human opportunity but as the true inner state of everything. Our redemption just meant to wipe away the delusions in our minds. This didn’t require prayers or certain practices; in the right mind-set it could happen anytime, anywhere e.g. while cutting bamboo. Buddhist Sutras (teachings) were no help, only distractions. In another painting of Liang Kai, Huineng tears a sutra apart. The result would be the Non-Ego (because our personality had been an illusion), a state that Buddhists (confusingly for Westerners) call Nothingness but is more like an ultimate re-unfication of Man with reality.
Thus, while the starting points for the Southern School and Humanism had similarities, the aims and goals where basically opposites. I think the two paintings express these views splendidly. The Lamentation of Christ looks to me like humankind triumphant, beautiful even in death. The death of Christ seems to be not only an act of redemption. It looks like a start on the way to perfection, an aspiration and a re-confirmation of the divine spark.
In the Liang Kai picture there seems less of everything. Individuality merges into pure energies and lines. Contemporary Chinese thought everything in this picture was “wrong”, especially the brush work. But, just as a practice, try to figure out where the weight of the Huineng figure is in Liang Kai’s painting and how “weight” overall is suggested in the painting. If the underlying idea is that reality is empty and form is an illusion then this idea has found a perfect expression in the picture. And, indeed, from then on, what we call “Zen-painting” has been more concerned with balances between spaces, the “weight” of empty space and relations between object masses than with any concrete subject matter. No wonder this led to the first “abstract” paintings and was so inspiring for modernism in art.
In our time, I think, humankind again has started to (and has to) re-think its place in the universe anew. We are in need of new ideas and ways to communicate these ideas. What then is the adequate form of expression in our time?
While this post is already far too long, I owe you an explanation for the title of the picture at the top. Bodhidharma was the First Patriarch of Zen, a man from India who brought Zen to China. According to legend, Bodhidharma tried in vain to convince the Emperor of China of his teachings. Having failed, he retreated to a cave where he silently meditated facing a rock wall for the next nine years. In his conversation with the Emperor, Bodhidharma was asked “What is the highest meaning of the noble truth?”. Bodhidharma said “There is no noble truth, only emptiness.” The emperor then asked “Then, who is standing before me?” and Bodhidharma answered “I know not”.
I don’t know about you, but I sympathise with the answer “I know not” to the question on who we are. Maybe, we should head for the rock face, just saying.