The American “Zen”-influenced artist John Cage apparently is said to have once commented that all of the stones at Ryôan-ji’s rock garden were in just the right place. And that any other arrangement would also be just the right place.1 Normally I’m not a big fan of American New Age misconceptions of Zen, and the art and philosophy influenced by them, but here Cage actually summarizes very beautifully something I’ve been thinking a bit about. We look at artworks and talk about them as if every single aspect of them is perfectly arranged, perfectly intentional. Sure, as art teachers or art critics we may consider some works more successful than others, more technically proficient, or more aesthetically moving or powerful. But when it comes to those works already judged by history, by scholars, by curators, by general consensus, to be “masterpieces,” we talk about them as if they have no failings, as if every aspect of them is perfectly just as it should be. Consider the works of Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Jackson Pollock, Ni Zan, and how they are typically discussed. Every brushstroke in precisely just the right place. Yet, if it were different, would we talk about that version of it too as being just precisely as it should be?
(1) Stokstad, Marilyn and Michael Cothren. Art History. Fourth Edition. Pearson Prentice Hall, 2011. p816.
Photo of the rock garden at Ryôan-ji taken myself, 18 July 2010.