Saturday, September 19, 2015

In what ways can we talk about the Japanese tea ceremony as art?

Is the Japanese tea ceremony art?  I am prompted to think about this question as I have assigned "Zen and the Art of Tea" by Daisetz T. Suzuki to my students for my Philosophy of Art class. Of course this is not the question that Suzuki himself is interested in:  his question has more to do, as the title indicates, with the relationship between Zen and the art of tea.  That in itself raises issues about the boundaries between art and religion and how those boundaries can sometimes be overcome, or dissolve.  The context of our discussion here is a previous discussion of Danto's definitions of art.  His early artworld paper seemed to define art as whatever can be seen as art by someone with appropriate art historical and art theoretical knowledge. Towards the end of his life he defined artworks are embodied meanings that get viewers to engage in acts of interpretation to "grasp the intended meaning they embody."  It is not clear how the two different definitions relate to each other. (There was an intermediary definition created by Noel Carroll and based on Danto's Transfiguration of the Commonplace that has also often been discussed:  I won't go into that here.)  My point right now is that coming from thinking about Danto to thinking about Suzuki is a bit like jumping from a hot shower into a cold bath.   It is not clear how a tea ceremony can be seen as art under a theory that stresses the artworld or seeing something in terms of art history and it is not clear how a tea ceremony is to be interpreted, or even whether a particular tea ceremony counts as an artwork even though there is, to be sure, an art of tea.  At a minimum one could say that (1) there is something one might call the "tea ceremony world" i.e. the world of practitioners, events, histories and so forth, something like Danto's "artworld" (2) tea ceremony is often listed as one of the Japanese art forms much like painting and Noh drama, (3) interpretation and aboutness can play a role in the tea ceremony as it is important to understand how things work symbolically.  Is this enough to make interesting comparisons?

The central ideas of Suzuki's 1938 essay are, I would say, simplicity, soft-heartedness, and swallowing the universe in swallowing tea.  Simplicity is a common aesthetic quality often also stressed in the West not only in art but also in ritual contexts. We are well aware of similarities between the search for simplicity that can be found both in Zen and in Cistercian monasteries. Simplicity is also a value in modernist design.  When Suzuki says "the art of tea is the aestheticism of primitive simplicity" we can think of the tea room and its comparison to the work of modernist architect Adolf Loos.  However, the next part then puzzles:  "its ideal, to come closer to Nature, is realized by sheltering oneself under a thatched roof in a room which is hardly ten feet square but which must be artistically constructed and furnished."  How is being sheltered in such a room bringing oneself closer to Nature? (I am not questioning the validity of this, just trying to wrap my mind around it.) Of course it might be closer to Nature than sheltering oneself in a skyscraper, but one might think less than in not sheltering oneself at all.  But maybe sheltering in the hut puts one in the right frame of mind for coming closer to Nature.

Bringing closer to Nature, if essential to the Art of Tea, might pose a further problem for a follower of Danto, which is that the constitution of something as art is a matter of taking it out of the realm of mere real things and moving it into the realm of the artworld, thus seemingly further away from Nature.  One would think that for Danto making art cannot be consistent with getting close to Nature.  

Suzuki further says, in comparing Zen to Tea, "Zen also aims at stripping off all the artificial wrapping humanity has devised" and that it "combats intellect."  Suzuki even opposes Zen to philosophy which he thinks is "accessible only to those who are intellectually equipped, and thus cannot be a discipline of universal appreciation."  Danto was nothing if not a philosopher, and his philosophy was only really accessible to the intellectually equipped. Moreover, he treated art like philosophy, insisting that being able to distinguish art from non-art, especially in contemporary contexts, requires a special form of intellectual equipment, thus making impossible any universal appreciation of art.  If the tea ceremony is art under a Zen concept it does not also seem to be art under Danto's concept of art, or if it is, the two paths to art status are going in very different.  Danto takes us away from Nature to a highly cognitive and hence intellectual Artworld, and Zen and Tea follow the reverse path.  

Suzuki says that "the art of tea symbolizes simplification, first of all, by an inconspicuous, solitary, thatched hut if the hut were part of nature..."  That it symbolizes something would indicate "aboutness" on Danto's account, but imagination seems to play a radically different role here than in Danto.  For Danto we might use imagination in seeing the Brillo boxes as art when they are in the gallery.   We use imagination when we perceive something under what Kant calls "the is of artistic identification."  We are supposed to see the thatched hut as quite the opposite of art, as Nature, in the Suzuki case.  

Suzuki stresses the Zen ideas of harmony, reverence, purity and tranquility, all of which are notions that play a role from time to time in the Western arts as well.  But they are not necessary to art as the West conceives it, and no one would accept Suzuki's "these four elements are needed to bring the art to a successful end" as true of great architecture, painting, dance, or photography in the West. Occasionally purity gains prominence as when Clement Greenberg stresses that true art must be pure, something that Danto, by the way, spent a lot of time opposing.

Suzuki interprets harmony in this case as "gentleness of spirit" which he sees as governing the art of tea:  "The general atmosphere of the tea-room tends to create this kind of gentleness all around - gentleness of touch, gentleness of odor, gentleness of light, and gentleness of sound," and he describes how one would appreciate handmade teacup in the tea ceremony in terms of a charm of "gentleness, quietness, and unobtrusiveness."  

I have no intention here, by the way of setting up Danto, New York, or the West as in any way superior on the issue of art:  what interests me mainly here is how difficult it is to talk about the two together!  Perhaps gentleness of spirit, or the pervasiveness gentleness of the tearoom can be seen as the dominant aesthetic quality that the tea room master seeks to achieve.  Suzuki goes so far as to suggest that gentleness of spirit is "the foundation of our life on earth" and says "if the art of tea purports to establish a Buddha-land in its small group, it has to start with gentleness of spirit."  So the idea is that the foundation of a good life would being with establishing gentleness of spirit:  it is not just a matter of aesthetic choice, one aesthetic quality among many, but the key one.

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