Courses / Spring 2015

Spring 2015

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    Course Number: HA 134C | CCN: 05049

    Buddhist Images in the Modern & Contemporary World: Icons, Art, and Popular Visual Culture

    Gregory Levine

    Upper Division Lecture: B) Asia; III) 1800-present. This course explores the Visual Cultures of Buddhist Modernism, namely the visual forms, materials, places, ideas, and powers associated with Buddhist imageries in diverse situations and communities of the global modern and contemporary world. Images of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and meditating monks abound in art history courses, museum galleries, and popular and consumer cultures. Often they seem timeless in visual form and stable in meaning; sometimes they may strike us as absurd, hyperbolic, or offensive. When studied critically in relation to modernity and late modernity, Buddhist visual and material works frequently defy easy categorization, provoke debate, and raise questions about inter-faith and inter-visual/cultural encounter, diasporic communities and visual traditions, nationalism, artistic subjectivity, and so forth. A cascade of questions might include the following:

    • When, how, and why is an image of a Buddha or other Buddhist deity a living presence of the divine? When is it a spiritual, art, commercial, or historical thing?
    • Who is a “Buddhist artist” and what is “Buddhist art” in the modern-contemporary world?
    • How has traditional Buddhist iconography and philosophy informed modern and contemporary art making?
    • How have premodern Buddhist images fared under colonialism and amid global war and global capitalism?
    • In what sorts of ways do museums work upon Buddhist images?
    • What about Buddhism and film; Buddhist body art; Buddhism and haute couture…?
    • What should we make of commercial and entertainment appropriations of Buddhism and Buddhist imagery? How might we respond to critiques of pop-culture Buddhism and “Buddhisty” images and things, such as those offered by Buddhist communities, post-modern philosophers (Slavoj Žižek, for instance), and Asian American artists and critics (such as Justin Chin)?

    This Upper Division course takes up the multiplicity of Buddhist imageries and visual-material things in the modern-contemporary world and their diverse, and not always comfortable or consistent meanings, audiences, and circumstances of production, appropriation, and consumption. The class incorporates student research projects on multiple topics throughout the semester and therefore demands a high level of preparation and participation. Although there is no pre-requisite (HA134A, B, for instance), students without familiarity with art history or Buddhist studies will want to reinforce their study with background readings. 

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