The Guggenheim Museum here in New York is currently showing an exhibition entitled “The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia 1860-1989.” I visited the museum this Friday, taking notes and writing down my thoughts as I went. With my business suit (having interviewed for the JET program earlier in the day) and small notepad, I guess I must have looked like a pretty formal art critic or some such; one of the staff actually joined me in a rather engaging conversation about the exhibit, approaching me with “are you writing a review?”
Here are my thoughts, as written as I made my way through the exhibit:
“To be honest, I had expected from The Third Mind something very different. Based on my previous trip to the Guggenheim, I expected an exhibit of very abstract, modern avant-garde art which only claims to be Asian-inspired and is actually an incomprehensible, meaningless and pretentious mess.
Instead, I found a series of interrelated exhibits which really know what they’re talking about, and which feature artists who have actually spent time in the Far East, are keenly aware of the aesthetics, styles, methods, and history of Asian art, and whose works show it.
I was particularly entertained and pleased to see a replica of the “Adams Memorial” statue by Augustus St. Gaudens, designed with the advice of John LaFarge and heavily inspired by a Kanô Motonobu painting of White Kannon, in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. While the original, in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington DC, is in bronze, this reproduction in white stone resembles even more strongly the white robes of Motonobu’s Kannon. Inspired not by vague abstract conceptions (or misconceptions) of the philosophy of Zen, nor by vague general notions of Orientalism, but by an actual, specific painting by a great master, while remaining quite distinctly American, and not pretending to be “Asian art” itself, this piece is the epitome of what Asian-inspired American art should be.
The exhibition also included books by Lafcadio Hearn, and by Ezra Pound, based on notes and translations by Ernest Fenollosa. I’d known for several years about the book Pound and Fenollosa wrote about Noh theatre, but did not know that Pound had worked primarily, if not exclusively, from Fenollosa’s notes and translations, and had no direct knowledge of the genre himself. Pound also reworked a number of translations Fenollosa had prepared of ancient Chinese poetry by Li Bai into something more poetic in English, again working without any Asian language ability or particular historical or cultural knowledge. Reading these books could provide intriguing insights into Orientalism, and the attitudes and aesthetics of late 19th century American views of the Far East.
… Oh, wait, as I progress through the exhibit I discover it is mostly abstract avant-garde nonsense after all.
People talk about how we as a society have moved past Orientalism, into a new, more politically correct attitude or approach, but really, our current approach is so much worse. Unlike LaFarge, Fenollosa, and others who made extensive efforts to know Japanese art, and all the detailed cultural history behind it, creating works true to that history, it is increasingly popular today for people to speak about Zen and spirituality and Asian influences for their art while creating abstract, avant-garde, “modern art” pieces which show only the most tenuous, tangential relationship to actual Asian styles, motifs, methods, or cultural history.
Mary Cassatt’s work I can recognize from across the room as being ukiyo-e inspired. The figures in her prints have Caucasian features and Western clothing, and the works are made from metal etchings, not woodblocks, but her palette is precisely that of ukiyo-e, and other aspects of the style besides betray the inspiration. Her works provide beautiful insights into the Japonisme trend of her time. More than just inspired, Cassatt took the care to pay attention to the detailed aspects of the style and to make efforts to replicate them. These others guys aren’t even trying.
Rather than spend time talking about those works I didn’t like, those works too abstract and nonsensical to be worth my time, let me highlight a few I did like.
A work by Sam Francis (sorry, I can’t find an image online) entitled “Red & Black” caught my eye. Though abstract, and not really Asian in style nor in media, the large swirls of black and red, resembling dark billowing clouds of smoke from a fire, somehow suggest the fires of a Japanese Hell Scroll, or other Buddhist demon painting.
Brice Marden’s work claims to be inspired by Japanese calligraphy, specifically by a Japan House Gallery exhibit entitled “Masters of Japanese Calligraphy” which was shown in the 1980s at what is now the Japan Society. Like the works of most Western artists who claim inspiration from Japanese calligraphy, his works do not reflect any actual intimate understanding, let alone mastery, of the Japanese language, nor of the intricacies of shodô, skills which take a lifetime to master. Still, his works do show a passion for the form, the energy, of Japanese running grass script calligraphy, and in the end do reflect an appreciation of the aesthetic.
[Actually, while there were certain works on display in the exhibition by Marden, Francis, and others which did reflect the Asian influence which they claim, looking at their works on Google Image Search reveals that the majority of works in their respective ouevres are just as abstract and meaningless as the kind of work I’ve come to expect from the Guggenheim. Nevertheless, moving on….]
The Dream House by La Monte Young et al is like the quintessential abstract avant-garde light/sound installation experience – weird, meaningless, and claiming connection to far deeper insights and higher philosophies than are in any way evident. Normally, I shake my head at these and just walk away. But in this particular case, as it claims connections not just to Zen or Buddhist concepts of altered consciousness in general, but actually results from genuine research into the frequencies of gagaku shô (笙), I can have some more respect for it. Well, it’s far from my idea of a Buddhist meditation zone, but the idea isn’t actually too far off, I don’t think.
Nam June Paik is said to have been the first video artist in the world. “The Third Mind” included a 1964 work by him entitled “Zen for Film.” It consists of the projection of an empty film lead – random black dots of dirt and scratches against a white light background. Zen is an extremely overused word these days, but even as a work like this has no real direct connection to the paintings or writings of any great historical Zen masters, I can see how this could be seen as a sort of mandala, an object of contemplation, a tool for meditation. Beauty in emptiness. Order in chaos.
Another artist of the neo-Buddhist avant garde whose works actually reflect a deeper understanding and appreciation of Buddhist philosophy than a passion for the random, overly pretentious, and ultimately empty avant garde, is Robert Rauchenberg. His piece “Automobile Tire Print” recalls a common form in Zen painting – that of a straight, plain, black line on otherwise blank, unadorned Japanese paper, albeit this time done with a car tire rather than a brush.
Another work on display by Rauschenberg, entitled “Gold Standard,” rested cleanly, I thought, on the border between pretentious, self-indulgent, repugnant avant-garde attitudes and something representative of the kind of artistic and intellectual chutzpah that puts a smirk on my face. Having advertised and gathered an audience for a display of performance art followed by formal interview of, or talk by, the artist, he proceeded to attach random objects found on the streets of Tokyo to a gold-foiled Japanese folding screen; afterwards, instead of giving a talk, he turned on a television on one end of the stage and sat down and watched. Had I been there, I probably would have marched out in disgust, but hearing the story afterwards, I cannot help but think it artsy and a good show of chutzpah.
Finally, there is John Cage, the head honcho it would seem of a particular brand of avant-garde, Fluxus, Dadaist, modern, abstract, Zen-inspired art movement which has come to be known as “Cage Zen.” Gallery labels in the exhibition explicitly described him as having “no interest in formal Zen practice, nor in the history of organized religion in Japan,” but solely in concepts. His use and interpretation of Zen was “strategic and creative.” In other words, complete and utter nonsense.
I went into “The Third Mind” with expectations that it would be a show of precisely the kind of pretentious abstract, avant-garde, BS that claims Asian inspiration and is actually at its core utter and complete meaningless nonsense. I was not disappointed. The exhibit had plenty of that. This is the new Orientalism, an Orientalism borne out of New Age sections at bookstores, out of a trend or movement of self-converted neo-Buddhists, hippies, and dabblers in the philosophies, concepts, and attitudes of some American conception of “Eastern philosophy” which conflates everything from Zen and wabi-sabi to Tibetan philosophy. An Orientalism which does not bother to ground itself in the deep, intricate, detailed cultural and religious histories of the peoples of the Far East, but picks and chooses only vague ideas and conceptions, refusing to pursue true understandings, while at the same time denouncing the Orientalism of 50 or 100 or 150 years ago as politically incorrect at best and racist, imperialistic, and colonialistic at worst.
Thanks, but no thanks. I’ll stick to the likes of Fenollosa, LaFarge, Saint-Gaudens, Lafcadio Hearn, Frank Lloyd Wright, and others whose writings and works reflect more than a passing interest in vague conceptions of pan-Asian philosophies, reflecting instead a deep passion for, and understanding of, Far Eastern history, art, and culture.