Zen and the Art of…Art.

The majority of my art learnin’ is in the realm of Western Art. Honestly, my interest in the Oriental arts was minimal for quite a while; it was difficult to really appreciate the nuances of line and form when the scene itself projected a concept of life so unfamiliar to me. My studies in the south of France, of all places, turned my sights increasingly eastward. Over and over again, my professors spoke of the reverence the Impressionists had for Japanese art. Van Gogh purchased Japanese prints with the little money he had, for example. Monet’s house is filled with Asian sketches and paintings to this day. What is it about the eastern cultures that so affected these great minds? Worlds apart in so many ways, yet there is a language between artists. Then we read read “Zen in the Art of Archery” by Eugen Herrigel, comparing this practice of learning Zen in archery to the practice of Art (I highly recommend this!).

by Morikuni Tachibana

And so I had the pleasure to act as an intern for the East Asian curator at a museum for two semesters. It was in my internship that I really began a vast exposure to the eastern arts, able to see how they changed through the turbulence of the years.

One persistent interest has been the relationship between Zen and Art. I recently ran across this page from the UCSC website by Fredric Lieberman. As always, I’ll attempt to summarize for you:

1. The Basic Principles of Zen.
Zen revolves around the idea that the “highest truth, or first principle, or Tao, is not expressible in words or conceivable through logical thought.” However, it is possible to achieve an intuitive understand of that highest truth (aka. “enlightenment”). In mastering Zen, one has reached a stage of absolute acceptance in the reality of the world. “Enlightenment” in (the closely-related) Taoism means that one gains a special knowledge or ability that alludes others, thus the person becomes “somehow removed from the world”. By contrast, the “enlightenment” of a Zen master does not include such special prizes: only the “realization that there is nothing to gain,” and they are thus closer to Earth.

Sure, Zen masters do gain a thought process and understanding that eludes most, but not in the supernatural way the Taoist might. What is this understanding? The “Buddha-nature exists in everything and everyone. ‘See into your own mind’ and you will find the Buddha-nature that has been there all along…One need not seek to learn something new, just realize what is already present.” The Zen master in perfectly content in living knowing that there is nothing else to know: it’s all present right now.

“The universe is an indeterminate, constantly changing state of iteness. Being and non-being merge. Opposites share Buddha-nature, differ in their individual essences or spirits.”

It’s pointless to try and control individual things in this kind of world. In addition, the ideas of right and wrong are cultural values that are not shared by the universe at large.

2. Zen and the Arts
The general theme of comparison between the arts of the Eastern and Western cultures is that they are nature unto itself and nature through man, respectively. Glulick writes:

“Occidental art . . . exalts personality, is anthropocentric . . . . Oriental art . . . has been cosmocentric. It sees man as an integral part of nature . . . . The affinity between man and nature was what impressed Oriental artists rather than their contrast, as in the West. To Occidentals, the physical world was an objective reality–to be analyzed, used, mastered. To Orientals, on the contrary, it was a realm of beauty to be admired, but also of mystery and illusion to be pictured by poets, explained by mythmakers, and mollified by priestly incantations. This contrast between East and West had incalculable influence on their respective arts, as well as on their philosophies and religions. (1963:253-255).”

The West has a tradition of using Art as communication, and it is a personal reaction to nature. The aesthetic qualities of form connect the artist and their viewers while the artist’s technique narrates the experience, creating a illusion of reality. Resolving the relationship between form and content becomes a complex hurdle the artist must jump in order to truly communicate ideas.


Zen, however, is quite minimalistic in comparison. The Zen artist uses as little means as possible to convey the very nature of an object. “The job of the artist is to suggest the essence, the eternal qualities of the object, which is in itself a work of natural art before the artist arrives on the scene.” The inner nature (or Buddha nature) of the object must, therefore, be fully understood prior to creating the work (as a personal note, I think it can be the opposite the western Art: artists come to understand the object by painting it, for example). Spiritual mastery reigns over technical mastery; all could be conveyed in spontaneous gestures, for technique is much less important than the true “seeing” of the object.

Zen artists are economic in their material means, favoring the sumi-e style (the use of a horeshair brush, black ink, and paper). This simplicity of tools correlated with their concept of simplicity in forms. They do not attempt to recreate the complexities of reality, but “[work] with artificial space relations which make one think beyond reality into the essence of reality.” Yet even when using the barest possible means, the Zen artists do not create works that are so abstracted from the world that they seem caught in the imagination. The artists wants to suggest the essence of the object, allow the viewer to comprehend the underlying truth in the work.

“Therefore, when a drum is to be beaten, an elaborate (but not too elaborate) toy drum is used as a prop, usually very small, and the performer beats upon it without sounding, and in a visual rhythm completely free of the accompanying music! We cannot possibly imagine that a real person is playing a real drum; we are forced beyond the surface of reality into the emptiness of essence, the just being so.”

3. Zen and Contemporary Western Art.
Juuuuust read it.

More to come on this topic, to be sure.


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