The online Buddhist magazine Buddhistdoor Global* published a great interview last week: “On Bells, Whistles, Hats, and Number Sets: An Interview with Jeff Watt on Buddhist Iconography and Himalayan Art” By Anne Wisman. Jeff Watt, the person interviewed, is noted as “one of the world’s foremost scholars and curators of Tibetan and Himalayan art.”
One of the most important parts comes when Watt gives the various reasons for the creation of Himalayan art. He lists six:
- Didactic: nobody bows to a wheel of life painting, the function of which is to show how awful samsara is. That is not sacred or devotional, that is didactic;
- Representing a narrative: art can depict the previous life stories of the Buddha or the Buddha’s life story, or the life story of famous figures. We don’t get written biographies, until later;
- Decorative: decorative Himalayan art was very popular, especially with the Chinese Emperors. They would ask artists to copy or paint images in a Himalayan style to decorate palaces;
- Utilitarian: when art is meant to be used, usually statues;
- Commodity: most of the art that you see commissioned by the Chinese emperors in the Himalayan style was meant for gift exchange, and gift exchange is a form of commodity exchange. For example, most of the Himalayan art you find in St. Petersburg, Russia, was part of a gift exchange between the Tibetan government and the Tsars of Russia. Tibetan lamas would write about artists painting pictures to sell to pilgrims and merchants, they would describe how this was not proper, and how bad the quality of the paintings were. So we have a very long trail in literature talking of the evils of the commodity of Himalayan paintings and sculptures.
I find that when people have too much of a Buddhist background, like some of my students, they have a hard time understanding the different reasons why art is created, which limits their understanding of the piece. They want it all to be sacred, they want it faith-based and Dharma-centered…
I have come across this as well, in particular with zealous converts who want all Buddhist art treated as devotional objects. They point at (often Western) use of Buddhist art objects as decorative or as commodities as a radical and destructive diversion from “tradition.”
Granted, there is much to be said for respect for the devotional value some people have for these objects, as Kwame Anthony Appiah noted in a recent essay: “Who owns yoga—or ‘talking black’ or Samurai regalia [or Buddhist statues]? No one, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK to use them in ways that ridicule or exploit the cultures they come from.”
Excessive commodification and exploitation at the hands of (often unknowing and unthinking – privileged) white folks has led to incredible misunderstanding of its own. The misunderstanding here is that of oversimplification, an aspect of Orientalism. The interview with Watt helpfully corrects this, showing the diversity of attitudes that Buddhists and others have held toward Himalayan art objects.
However, we should not assume all of these objects are seen or used devotionally, even by devout Buddhists or respectful Asians. Learning more about Buddhism, we learn to respect the diversity of approaches Buddhists take toward objects we call art.
A question I’ve posed elsewhere and would pose for you is: is there a concept of “art” in Asian Buddhist cultures similar to that which has developed in the West? That is, art as an object of discussion aside from any particular religious or philosophical value, art for art’s sake. Or is this yet another Western category that we (Westerners) impose upon a foreign culture, to our and their detriment?
* I am also a contributor to Buddhistdoor Global.