Religion & Art at the New York Times (“Colorful Realm of Living Beings”)

The best discussions about religion over at New York Times often appear is in the Arts section, either when the house-critics are writing about “artworks” whose original origin was “religious,” or when they import, unknowingly or knowingly, religious values into their analysis. More often than not, I think, they bring fresh insights to bear upon religion, not just upon the art. These insights tend to avoid the dogmatism that inflects so much writing in the general culture about religion, either for it or against it.

We see the inclusion of religion into art criticism more the more art critics move beyond a “merely” formal approach to art and art criticism, although here too I suspect that much of the brio that formalists such as Clement Greenberg brought to writing about art in the 1950s was perhaps always a little contaminated by “the spiritual in art.”

This week, what caught my eye was Ken Johnson’s article in the Friday Art’s section ) on Ito Jakuchu’s (1716-1800) Colorful Realm of Living Beings.” This is a renowned suite of thirty bird-and-flower-and-fish-and insect scroll paintings, which are rarely shown. Housed at the Japanese Imperial House since 1889, they are now on a short exhibit-loan at the National Art Gallery in Washington D.C. To get a good sense of the graceful, dancelike motions invoked in this understated colorful realm of living, teeming, fecund beings, I’ll recommend the slideshow at the NYT online.

In order to set up the vibrant naturalism that makes these paintings so remarkable, Johnson draws critical attention to the triptych of religious figures that are a part of this large body of work. Johnson demands of his readers, “Have you ever felt put off by the imperturbable serenity exuded by the Buddha in countless artistic images? Maybe it is my American DNA or my underdeveloped consciousness, but I sometimes feel almost as alienated by his Teflon-like immunity to excitation as by the idealized agony of the crucified Jesus. They both seem so unnaturally abstract.”

I think Johnson gets it right, the out of place character of classical Buddhist and Christian religious iconography in contrast to an “American” taste of the secular, worldly critic; and the out of place character of those three religious figures in this particular “colorful realm of living beings.”

Maybe these are just the comments of an anti-religious, secular critic. But I don’t think it’s just that. There’s nothing bitter in his remark, and Johnson writes so intelligently about art and about religion in art. “Teflon-like immunity” and “idealized agony” is good writing. The insight brought by him strikes me as conceptually grabbing as some of the best writing by scholars writing about religion, only more pithy.

If Johnson is right or wrong in his assessment, the proof is in the pudding. The tryptich of a Buddha and two bodhisattvas are most likely meant, as Johnson claims, to anchor the material world in a more transcendent frame. And they are as unimpressive and canned in comparison to the lush life presented by the other scroll as Johnson suggests they are. Predisposed as I am to these kinds of figures, I find their place here unpersuasive.

I know that Johnson’s remarks about transcendence goes against the usual notion that Buddhism operates along a more immanent frame, but I think he is right to observe how the paintings suggest a disjoint between “the sacred” and “the profane.”

Perhaps this proves nothing about transcendence or naturalism. It could just be that this is a bad example of Buddhist religious art. One can certainly point to countless examples of fetching Buddhas and bodhisattvas to be seen out there in the world. But I’m still struck with Johnson as to why the same artist who painted such gorgeous nature figures would have painted such poor religious figures. Maybe this is the failure of one individual artist, but that seems unlikely, and it doesn’t explain anything. Maybe it says something about the difficulties that are inherent in getting both religion and nature right at the same time in one single body of work or thought. I’m more inclined to think that the poor quality of the religious figures might reflect a general secularization of Japanese culture in 18th century Japan, but I just don’t know, and will gladly defer to anyone who knows better than I do.

What I do know is that for those of you lucky enough to live in or be visiting Washington D.C. right now, these paintings are not going to be there for long.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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