Research Paper: Motherwell Visual and Philosophical Connections Between Zen

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Motherwell

Visual and Philosophical connections between Zen Buddhist thought and Asian brush painting and American 20th century painting

Robert Motherwell

Visual and Philosophical connections between Zen Buddhist thought, Asian brush painting and American 20th century painting: Robert Motherwell

Intersections: Zen and Modern Art

In a formal philosophical sense Zen Buddhism was introduced to the West mainly through the works of D.T Suzuki and his extensive and insightful studies and commentaries on Zen texts. Zen provides a radically different mode of perception of reality. It was also an ethos that found a great deal of resonance in the emerging abstract expressionist artistic community in the Twentieth Century. Many modern artists like Robert Motherwell responded to the Zen view of reality, either unconsciously through the own experiential creativity or through contact with Zen thinking and philosophy.

It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to summarize or put into words the essence of whist Zen is. In fact the kernel and ethos of Zen Buddhism is possibly much more approachable through the immediacy of the visual arts. As Helmut Brinker states in Zen in the Art of Painting ( 1987);

What is Zen? Plentitude of emptiness, the zero of being? Is it meditative contemplation of the Self, to a mystical vision of absolute truth? There is no ready-made answer, as any definition will necessarily distort the nature of Zen and diminish its irradiating clarity.

The essence of Zen is to become cognizant of or to realize the mind of the Buddha. This means to become enlightened and to experience reality rather than illusion. This realization, which lies at the heart of Zen, is termed Satori.

In order to understand Zen at a more experiential level one could begin with the term 'immediacy' to describe something of the meaning of Zen Buddhism. A central concern of Zen is the immediacy of the perception of reality. Zen, unlike other spiritual -- philosophical systems does not believe in any intermediate stage or stages between the world of ordinary reality and other wider and more ideal realities. In fact it is the illusion of binary opposition and the illusion of intrinsic difference that Zen praxis attempts to overcome. Therefore, Zen Buddhism does not have any dogmas or theories but rather sees these as obstructions to the process of sensing and experiencing.

The sense of the immediate and unmitigated apperception of reality is underlined by the common phrase used in Zen philosophy to "drop both body and mind" in the search for enlightenment. Put into other words, this refers to the denial that the intellect and the mind have anything to do with enlightenment. The intellect, while useful, must be finally overcome through the practice of Zazen or meditation that leads to illumination. This attitude has distinct affinities with modern abstract art.

The process of realization is therefore not mitigated and obscured by theory or intellect, or any conceptual system. We can compare this to abstract art which has its origins in the need to overcome the representational dilemma in art. This refers to the denial that art should only represent that which was commonly agreed to exist. Rather, art was becoming more concerned with perceiving a deeper and more subjective truth about reality.

In his critical work, Art Now, (1960) Herbert Read states that the representational and scientific view of art was critiqued by the modern artist in the early Twentieth Century as a "… construction of the intellect, and not a direct perception."

In other words, the perception is filtered through the lens of the intellect and various concepts and predispositions, which in fact distorts the true nature of reality. Herbert Read goes on to view the development of abstract art as an attempt to affirm the subjective nature of the perception and experience of reality and, by so doing, "…abandoning all attempts to reproduce even the phenomenonal character of an object, or indeed any form given by the direct experience of the eye…"

Therefore, adopting this non-representational stance, the modern abstract artist can "…proceed to project on his canvas an arrangement of lines and colors which are entirely subjective in origin, and which, if they obey any laws at all, obey the laws of their own origination"

and " Each work of art is a law unto itself."

The above view of abstract art can be applied with a great deal of justice to Zen Buddhist art. Zen art is, in the first place, interested only in an immediate and unmitigated apperception of reality that is not filtered or influenced by the intellect. Like abstract art it focuses on the subjective state but also like the best abstract art, goes beyond both subject and object. The aim of Zen art is to unveil reality in the instinctive movement of the brush and this is essentially the same aim that we finds in abstract artists like Motherwell. Both wish to achieve an insight into reality that is not representational and which transcends the binary opposites of dualistic thought. At the same time Both Zen and abstract art attempt to show the ordinary world illuminated by reality.

To summarize, the background to the relationship between Zen and modern art is based on the following insights. Zen is not a doctrine or a theoretical school of thought in any sense. It does not have books or rituals. The central ethos of Zen is built on a very different perception to the dominant Western scientific and rational worldview. It rejects the logocentric and dualistic perception of reality. These are aspects that we finds in many modernist artists like Motherwell who interrogated and rejected the norms and mores of Western art and culture in the search for something more profound and 'real'. Many aspects of abstraction and the rebellion against forms of representation in modern art can be likened to the Zen Buddhist view of art. As D.T. Suzuki has stated; "Zen is decidedly not a system founded upon logic and analysis. If anything it is the antipode to logic, by which I mean the dualistic mode of thinking."

While Western rationality rejected ambiguity and paradox, these elements are the very heart and soul of the Zen Buddhist outlook. This search for a vision of reality in art that was immediate and which transcended the need to represent and conform to Western ideals was to play a part in the development of modern art in the Twentieth Century.

Zen Painting

In this section we will briefly look Zen brush paintings in the light of the above discussion. As stated, one central aspect of Zen and Zen art is that it transcends opposites and endeavors to escape dualistic concepts and rational thought. In this regard we can analyze the following painting, Circle by Yamada Kensai.

This painting contains little more than a simple circle. This is in line with the Zen view of simplicity and intuitive immediacy. The circle is a symbol that is synonymous with a transcendence of opposites. It is also associated with continuance and the mystery of life. This image is depicted in a spontaneous and non-objective way that implies the denial of opposites and contraries in existence, which is such an important part of the Zen vision of enlightenment; as well as a feeling of unity and realization that goes beyond logic or reason. Note as well that there is no reference to conventional objects or direct representations of man or nature -- a factor that is in keeping with the principles of abstract art and in particular the abstract works of Robert Motherwell.

In this picture all reality originates and returns in an image of unity and transcendence. The background is also important to note in that it is blank. This refers to the nothingness or emptiness that is so often associated with Zen. However, as many critics have pointed out, this is not the emptiness of rational Western logic but is contradictory in that it refers rather to the fullness of undefined reality from which all and everything emerges and from which everything returns. This idea of nothingness represented by the circle refers to a reality that is beyond all explanation and conceptuality. Therefore the circle represents all and everything as well as nothing at the same time. The image is both ordinary and mysterious simultaneously.

We encounter this ambiguity and tension between the everyday and ordinary and the strange and mystical in other Zen paintings and drawings; for example, in the painting entitled Orchids and Rocks by Tesshu Tokusai (1366).

The painting is extremely simple and even minimalistic. It consists of as few direct and spontaneous brush strokes against a completely blank background. Yet the work provides a direct, unmitigated and fresh insight into nature and reality. Viewed without the obscuring lenses of Western reason and rational judgment, the painting provides a sense of Satori or enlightenment. Satori can be described as a complete, instantaneous and clear view or vision of reality.

Another work that is seemingly more realistic but which also has the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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