Zen and the Critical Eye

Posted by on Apr 14, 2018 in blog | No Comments

I’m having a conversation about art. I want to talk about what’s in front of me, what might be called an ‘object oriented’ conversation. What I’m seeing is an  artist who developed his metier in 1960’s era New York. It appears to me he never left the era. His subject matter (when I can find it) has no content, the palette is boring as mud, and the brush strokes & scraping are an exercise in chaos — that is to say, I cannot find their point (unless that’s the point).  I want to ask the painter, “What are you doing?!” It’s not at all clear that he knows…and I certainly can’t see what’s going on.  The work is not so much ‘derivative’ as it is ‘stuck’ with little if any originality to commend the labor of looking.

Now it very well could be that my assessment misses the mark, that the problem is mine and that I am the one who just doesn’t get it. Others could easily be more charitable than I. My partner in conversation certainly thinks so because he suggests that I’m missing the novelty, insight, and aesthetic genius of these paintings. Could be. And that’s ok…I can only report what I see. That we differ in what we see is not at issue. What is, however, is  ‘why’. What is  irksome about the conversation is the way it turns from the art to me. What I’m seeing is dismissed because the ‘problem,’  I’m told, is with the way I am looking. By being critical I am introducing something into the viewing that doesn’t belong.

Here is how the dismissal goes:  I am being “judgmental” because I’m caught up in an art critical way of thinking and assessment. That kind of awareness, says this argument, robs me of the capacity to experience the work simply for what it is now in the present moment. (The present moment evidently does not participate in what’s gone before….) “I don’t use that way of thinking,” comes the announcement, “I approach art from a Zen perspective and so I am not bothered with all of those judgments. You know, it’s like be here now, be with these absolutely unique works of art. Just enjoy!” But don’t think about them?

The ‘Zen’ argued at me is supposedly free of critical thinking about schools and movements and techniques rooted in the past. Just let the painting wash over you with whatever makes it what it is. (But while it’s washing over me I should not be concerned with what makes the work what it is?) According to this argument Zen is about letting go of  the hindrance of evaluation, ridding oneself of a critical eye, imagining that seeing does not have an eye to craft or history or meaning. The critical eye, so the be here now argument goes, kills the experience of art by dragging in all that stuff that is ‘outside’ the viewing moment itself.

That is ‘the Zen perspective’?

Actually…no.  This is Pop Zen. Zen in the first place is not a ‘perspective.’ Perspectives are positional. Zen is not a position, it is a practice. And it is not a practice without a discerning eye or judgment. It does not jettison the mind or the heart, it is mindful of them.

Pop Zen is not the Zen of seeing but the Zen of saying, saying that the present moment has no past, no future. It’s like arguing for a bull’s eye target with no center. The problem with Pop Zen is that it always has a kernel of truth, a kernel poorly digested. It is true, for example, that being awakened to the present moment matters. And it is true that “time” — past, present, future — is a construct, a function of the mind. But in the Zen of seeing rather than saying, the past and the future are not outside of the present, but within it shaping & directing the very moment of seeing itself. You can’t get away from it any more than you can bite your own teeth. Saying that time is a construct does not erase or obliterate lived experience, learning, or the knowledge we inherit from our history. They in fact are the lens through which we see  and the more aware we are of that lens the more clearly we see. Saying, by being critical we are grabbing stuff from outside of that moment of seeing that clouds our view of things, is just not the way the eye/the mind works. Suggesting that the act of seeing has an ‘inside‘ and an ‘outside‘ bifurcates a dynamic process that is immediate & whole when we are awake.  ‘Inside’ and ‘outside’ keeps us in the dual and linear world of now and then and thus, ironically, not in the present moment at all! It is actually, probably only, the discerning eye that can be awakened by the splash of the original in the ordinary or be startled by the everyday made surprisingly new! To be fully aware, awake, to see unselfconsciously, one cannot be oblivious to one’s sensibilities or our capacity to tell one thing from another. Drawing a judgment is not being judgmental.  Unless you’re asleep, you can see immediately that Thomas Kincade is not Claude Monet. But you have to look at their work to know. You can’t just say so.

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