The purpose of art is not generally to show the world as it is, but to show a new, better way to look at the world. As such, my take on Japanese zen art, is that it is a very cool, fun way to say “just go away.” What follows are some nice (to my eyes) examples, with my commentary.
As with most Japanese art, the zen art looks simpler and more free-form than western religious art. In a sense that is true: there are far fewer lines, but the paintings take as long to make, to a good estimate, since they only appear to have been made with casual ease: flicks of the wrist and waves of the hand. In actuality the artist had a vision of what he wanted, and then made free-hand waving copy after copy until he had some correct, free-looking ones ready for delivery. Because of this, you can look for a meaning in every wiggle — something that you would not do with US free-form abstracts, or with religious paintings of the 1600s. Take daVinci’s last supper — the grand layout is clearly planned and meaningful, the details of the wrinkles, not really. With these, though, no detail is accidental, and the non-accidental sense, as I see it, is “just go away.”
Take the spiral at left. It’s sort of cool, and claims to be an allusion to meditation. Mystic, no? As I look carefully a the spiral, the first remarkable thing I see is that it circles in on itself at both ends. At a simple level, I think that’s an allusion to the inward nature of meditation, but note that, at the top end of the coil there’s a wiggle that looks like a face. I take that to be a monk’s face, looking away. The geometry of the coil then suggests the legs and thighs of the rest of the monk (sitting?). If that’s the image (and I think it is) the fact that the monk is facing away from you, leaving you behind suggests to me that the owner has no desire to have you join him. I see nothing in this that would cause another person to want to meditate either. There is nothing attractively persuasive as in western religious art. Here’s an essay I wrote on meditation.
Perhaps it’s just me, but I also imagine these artists living on an industrial treadmill, making painting after painting in his shop and throwing most away because, for example, the monk’s back extended past the paper. Western expressionism also sometimes puts many paintings on a single canvas, but the hidden image stays, at least in a sort-of half shadow. And the wiggles strive to be less learned, even if the faces of some western religious art is distant –even more distant often. At right, above, you’ll find another popular zen-art approach. It shows a zen master in nearly full face. As with most zen art, the master (Buddha or a disciple) looks calm -ish with a sense of the put-upon, as if he were Christ carrying the cross of you being there. Perhaps the intent was to make you go off and meditate, or to see society as worthless, but I think the more-likely message in the master’s look is “why me Lord.” The master looks like he isn’t unhappy with life, just unhappy with you being there. I imagine that this work was placed in a noble’s living room or study for the same reason that many American today put up a picture of Yosemite Sam, sometimes (for those who don’t get art) “Keep Out! This means you.”
As with the Warner-bros. classic, there is a flowing look to the brushwork, but a fair amount of detail. As with the Warner Bros. cartoon, the casual lines seem to serve the purpose of keeping the viewer from taking offense at the message. Sort of like, “Don’t go away mad, just go away.” Cool, but I also like Western cartooning.
As one last example, at left you’ll see a painting illustrating a zen parable. in this case it’s the parable of the monkey’s and the image of the moon. Shown is the moon’s reflection in the water of a well — moon is that big round face. A monkey is about to touch the moon-image, and as we can expect, when the monkey touches the image, it disappears. There are several understandings to be gained from this, e.g. that all is illusion (similar to Plato and his cave), or suggesting that it is better to look at life than to interact with it. Which is the main meaning? In this picture, my sense is that the moon seems put-upon, and afraid. Thus, the lesson I take from the picture is one of inaction: “don’t touch the reflection.” Once again, the choice to depict a frightened moon rather than an impassive one, seems to be the painter’s way of saying “please go away.” Very cool image, but as messages go, that’s the one I see in most Japanese zen art.
Robert Buxbaum, August 17, 2017. I’ve also written on surreal art (I like it a lot, and find it ‘funny’) and on Dada, and conceptual (I like it too, playfully meaningful, IMHO). If you like zen jokes (and who doesn’t) here’s a story of the Buddhist and the hot-dog vendor, and how many zen Buddhists does it take to change a lightbulb? Four. See why.