ART, ZEN AND TRANSUBSTANTIATION: IT’S LIKE KIND OF CRAZY

Right after I posted the video “What is it (Marcel Duchamp)? (see previous Post), my wife called me from Florida where she was visiting relatives.  She told me that she had just watched it in the company of her six year old grandniece, Catalina.  Apparently after viewing it, Catalina simply said “It’s like kind of crazy”.

 My painting teacher, Sally Pearce, once told me that the most useful critiques of my painting would come from children.  So it occurred to me that I should give this comment some thought.

First, Catalina’s comment brought to mind, a couple of similar comments I’d heard recently coming from fellow Zen students.  The first was elicited after the person had read the teachings of Buddha in the Diamond Sutra which includes the central Buddhist notion that what we think of as “self” is not real. The verse in question has Buddha saying the following to his student Subhuti:

And why not? Subhuti, a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a being cannot be called a ‘bodhisattva’. And why not? Subhuti, no one can be called a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a self or who creates the perception of a being, a life, or a soul.”"

The Zen student wrote me that the Buddha’s comments “sounds insane”.  Most of us would agree. (For more details see Discussion #3 on the FORUM page of this blog).

 The other comment was one of those commonly heard observations about the state of the world; i.e. “everyone’s crazy”. This student didn’t really say whether he considered himself in this category or not. Certainly one possible translation of the rapper’s dialogue in the video “What is it (Marcel Duchamp)? could be “IT is crazy”, where IT refers to what Jiyu Roshi often refers to as “the whole ball of wax”. EVERYTHING’S CRAZY!

Eihei Dogen, one of the most influential Zen philosophers, didn’t use the word “crazy” but did say that we all live in “delusion”.  And for those who are used to thinking that “enlightenment” is somehow an antidote for or the opposite of “delusion”, he argues that they are one and same.  Now, THAT sounds crazy, doesn’t it?  (If you haven’t already, you may want to check out an earlier post titled “SUN RA, THE ALIEN: THE THIN LINE BETWEEN GENIUS, SPIRITUALITY AND CRAZY”)

Whether something is considered to be “good” or “bad”, “crazy” or “sane” or “enlightened” or “delusional” depends on how that “thing” is defined. As Dogen and many Western philosophers’ have shown us, definitions are not fixed and do not enjoy complete consensus as to their meanings.  This seems to be the point of Duchamp’s “Fountain”.

TRANSUSBSTANTIATION

In doing research for the video, I learned that Marcel Duchamp was fascinated by the concept of “transubstantiation“.  If you watched the video closely you saw that I played with this concept in the video.  According to Wikipedia this term was first, or most famously, used at The Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215) where it was stated that Christ’s “body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine, the bread and wine having been transubstantiated, by God’s power, into his body and blood.” From this perspective, the bread and wine are not just symbols of Christ’s body and bread but are his body and blood, although in another form.  Later, more liberal interpretations allow that the bread and body are symbols or metaphors for Christ consciousness and that what makes this real or true is the faith of the participants in Communion.  In other words it  is as if the wine was Christ’s blood.

Here is how Duchamp used the term transubstantiation:

  • “The spectator experiences the phenomenon of transmutation; through the change from inert matter into a work of art, an actual transubstantiation has taken place… …All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work into contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”
    • “The Writings of Marcel Duchamp (Marchand du Sel)” e.d. Michel Sanouille and Elmer Peterson,New York1973, pp. 139-140

When Duchamp entered the urinal in a art show, he was obviously raising the question “What is it?”, or more to the point, “Is it art?”  His point seems to be that it all depends on how “it” is seen by the spectators.  If it is defined and perceived as art, (as if it were art) by viewers, then  it will be perceived and responded to differently than if it is seen as  ”just a urinal”.  If something is seen as “art” it brings forth a special mode of attention that is different from something seen as part of  “everyday life”.

What is the special kind of attention associated with art?  Those of you who have been reading my previous post know that is what I have been calling being “present/awake/alive”.  As I suggested in an earlier post ”Performer/Audience Communication“, some works of art allow the artist and the audience to share this unusual mode of consciousness.

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"An Oak Tree" by Michael Craig-Martin

The piece pictured to the left is a continuation of Duchamp’s dialogue  by conceptual artist Michael Craig-Martin.  His work “An Oak Tree”, installed in the Tate Modern consists of a glass of water, which the artist has declared he turned into a “full-grown oak tree”, “without altering the accidents of the glass of water”   Craig-Martin is claiming that, although the form of the piece looks like a glass of water, it is in fact or in substance an oak tree, which is transubstantiation of the kind that is central to the Christian doctrine.  Of course such work is likely to provoke remarks such as “Is it really art?” or “It’s like kind of crazy”.

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Since Duchamp created “The Fountain”, artists of all stripes have been interested in exposing the tenuous nature of the distinction between art and all other aspects of life.  For instance, in “Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life”, Allan Kaprow wrote:

“Consider certain common transactions–shaking hands, eating, saying goodbye– as Readymades (a term Durchamp used for pre-existing “art objects” like the urinal).  Their only unusual feature will be the attentiveness brought to bear on them.  They aren’t someone else’s routines that are to be observed but one’s own. just as they happen”.

What Kaprow seems to be saying is that living life attentively is making one’s life an art piece, which begins to sound  pretty “Zen-like”.   He strengthens this association by writing :  “Lifelike art in which nothing is separate is a training in letting go of the separate self”.  In the next Post, I will explore how the kinds of philosophical discussions prompted by Duchamp and others have been going on for centuries among Zen and other Buddhist’s philosophers.

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The Zen-man is an artist to the extent that, as the sculptor chisels out a great figure deeply buried in the mass of inert matter, the Zen-man transforms his own life into a work of creation….” (Presumably Suzuki would agree that the same is true of a “Zen-woman”)

                                                        D.T Suzuki, Zen and the Japanese Culture

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