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Asia on My Mind
by Donald Kuspit
Asia has not relied on the vagaries of genius, but on training: she would regard with equal suspicion "stars" and amateurs. She knows diversities of skill among professionals, as apprentice or master, and likewise the products of different ateliers, provincial or courtly: but that anyone should practice art as an accomplishment, whether skillfully or otherwise, would seem ridiculous. Art is a function of the social order, not an ambition.
-- Ananda Coomaraswamy, "Introduction to the Art of East Asia"(1)

In Manet’s Portrait of Emile Zola (1868), a Japanese print appears on the wall above his desk, next to a small reproduction of Manet’s Olympia (1863) -- the print, picturing a robed upright man, dwarfs the painting of the reclining female nude -- signaling the influence of Japanese style (japonisme) on modern art. More pointedly, japonisme is the basis of modernist estheticism, which first made a decisive appearance in Whistler’s Symphony in White No. II: The Little White Girl (1864), not only in the Asian décor but in the flattened space, which unfolds like a screen, and in the nuanced whiteness materialized in the girl’s dress. With japonisme, a new sensibility arrived in the West, a new consciousness of art as enigmatically pure and thus radically spiritual -- enigmatically esthetic and thus elusively otherworldly. Japonisme was not merely an exotically unfamiliar style, used ornamentally or additively. Its seemingly transcendental esthetics clashed with the familiar Western idea of art as this-worldly, that is, the representation of the material world, including the presentation of the higher "other world" in the lowdown material terms of the here-and-now world.

It is fitting that Alexandra Munroe’s tour de force exhibition "The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia 1860-1989" begins with Whistler, who "utilized East Asian motifs in his work," as she notes in her fine historical overview of "Orientalism" in art and literature. Quickly "abandoning pastiches of Asian exotica in favor of a sophisticated integration of Japanese compositional devices," he created the first truly modernist paintings, "his nocturnes of 1870."(2) They are the first pure color field paintings in all but name, and also among the first modern "fantasy" or "mirage" paintings, that is, abstractions in which objects and figures seem like surreal survivors of representation -- memorable traces of appearance in the process of being expelled from the paradise of pure painting. In Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket (1875), singled out by Munroe as Whistler’s "best-known nocturne," the scene has become a painterly blur, a compound of hedonistic color and atmospheric discharges resembling a wet esthetic dream. It is hallucinated rather than observed, indicating the suspension of the reality principle in favor of instant esthetic gratification. (Munroe might have noted that Whistler’s suavely erotic nocturnes make Monet’s early "impressions" -- Whistler exhibited with the Impressionists -- look esthetically crude, clumsily painted and erotically innocent. An American painter, not a French painter, was the first true "estheticist-eroticist.") 

Munroe’s introductory catalogue essay is a treasure trove of information and analysis, as are the more specialized essays that trace the influence of "the cult of the Orient" from Ezra Pound to John Cage ("Cage Zen"), in modern poetry and dance theater as well as performance art, in music and philosophy, and perhaps most subtly in what Munroe eloquently calls "ecstatic minimalism." The essays invite us to see the influence of Asian ideas everywhere, although I am not convinced that Warhol’s film Sleep (1963) is particularly Buddhist; or that Allen Ginsberg standing naked in front of the Sea of Japan, in a 1963 photograph, makes him into a Buddhist monk; or that Serra’s Pulitzer Piece: Stepped Elevation (1970-71) uses an "Asian strategy to expand its meaning"; or that Carl Andre’s idea of "sculpture as place," developed by 1969, has anything to do with "Zen gardens designed for Buddhist monastic contemplation" -- except by facile "theoretical" association.

Asian "theory" and religious ethics -- casually understood (does Ginsberg’s Howl follow the Buddhist precept of "right language"?) -- is loosely applied to all kinds of art, "intellectually" legitimating and "humanizing" it, as well as expanding what would otherwise be its limited formal and material meaning. Tehching Hsieh’s Punching the Time Clock on the Hour, One Year Performance, 11 April 1980-11 April 1981, becomes a highly significant "art" activity by reason of its Asian "meditative monotone" (and because Hsieh is Asian, and thus fashionably "in"), rather than being a mindless not to say dumb waste of time -- a feat of sustained boredom passing itself off as profound contemplation (of the time clock, the act of punching the card, the card itself, the hour it is punched?). Repeating "om" all day seems like an easier way to experience nirvana and timelessness, or rather delude oneself into thinking one has.

My point is that without the Asian associations -- particularly when they involve religious concepts -- the neo-avant-garde works of art, as they are called, are rather dumb, trivial objects, all the more so because their material is not particularly "worked" or imaginatively transformed. The Buddhist, more broadly Asian angle, does the hard imaginative work -- and makes it look effortless (it is easy to label a work "Buddhist" when one has a naïve not to say simpleminded idea of Buddhism, and hypocritically confuses the practice of art with the practice of Buddhism) -- that transforms the banal object into "significant art." It’s the old Duchamp Emperor’s New Clothing trick given an Asian twist.

Don’t misunderstand me; I loved the exhibition for its historical comprehensiveness and sweeping interpretations. It was a rare treat to see so many different -- and contradictory -- works of art displayed one after the other. For once the Guggenheim spiral was turned into a convincing stream of Heracleitean consciousness into which one could not step twice. But while the exhibition was generally about the fertilization of American art by Asian art and ways of thinking, it unwittingly made a particular point: "Asian" became an intrinsic part of early avant-garde art, while it was a quasi-theoretical overlay on later neo-avant-garde art. One cannot look at avant-garde American art without noting its Asian esthetics -- climaxing not only in Whistler’s Nocturne (1875) but in Arthur Wesley Dow’s August Moon (ca. 1905), and extending through Morris Graves’s Time of Change (1943). But with few exceptions, most notably Brice Marden’s Cold Mountain Studies 1-35 (1988-90), one can think of neo-avant-garde American art without attending to its "Asian" aspect, which is there more in name than substance. Of course Painting in Three Stanzas (from the series Instructions for Painting), made in summer 1961 and spring 1962, are clearly Asian, for they’re all written in Japanese and made by the Japanese-American neo-artist -- or "celebrity post-artist," as Allan Kaprow might say -- Yoko Ono. Simply put, the Asian is not of the essence of neo-avant-garde American conceptual art -- does it have any essence? (is American conceptualism the essentialization of art carried to reductio ad absurdum -- to the point of no return for esthetically significant let alone well-crafted art?) -- while avant-garde American esthetic art is unthinkable without "Asian influence."

The exhibition discloses a deeper paradox: the misunderstanding of traditional Asian art by American, more broadly Western artists. They regarded it as the idiosyncratic expression of wayward genius -- display of unique identity -- rather than as "a function of the social order," to recall Coomaraswamy’s words. Worse yet, they stripped it of its religious function -- the "indivisible connection of religion and art" that traditionally existed in Asia, as Coomaraswamy said, but which in the secular West was "conceived as an infringement of human [and artistic] liberty."(2) Modern art is supposed to serve individual liberty not collectively enslaving religion, and freedom of expression is not necessarily spiritual freedom. Meyer Schapiro’s vision of modern art as an expression of "inner freedom" is blind to the compulsive repetition evident in automatism, word art (misnamed idea art), pattern painting, op art and Minimalism. They sometimes seem more formulaic than anything in Asian art. Schapiro also fails to note that the more "free" -- and thus "modern" -- the artistic expression, the less "training" necessary to make the art, which is one of the reasons so-called "self-taught" artists have become celebrity artists.

As Coomaraswamy writes, "to the modern consciousness, art is an individual expression, produced only by persons of peculiar sensibilities working in studios and driven by an irresistible urge to self-expression," while in Asia art "was always produced. . . by trained professional craftsmen. . . ultimately ad majorem gloriam Dei,"(3) rather than by self-styled geniuses, who produced it for their own glorification or deification, that is, for grandiose narcissistic rather than collective spiritual reasons. Perhaps in the last analysis the American appropriation of Asian art and ideas is just another manifestation of American imperialism if also the American artist’s way of asserting his or her own sense of "manifest [artistic] destiny." 

DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.