Graduate Seminar: Modern-Contemporary Buddhist Visual Cultures
The study of modern-contemporary Buddhisms has produced books, articles, conferences, and the like, with significant interventions in “Buddhist Studies.” The mid-20th-century turn towards modern-contemporary Buddhisms is itself significant, often incorporating empirical, critical interpretive, and anti-colonial, anti-racist, feminist, queer, and anti-capitalist paradigms alongside “classical” methods and interpretive paradigms. Even so, the visual-material presences of/associated with Buddhisms in modern-contemporary religious, spiritual, political, and consumer worlds remain understudied. Pictures, objects, films, performances, mass media, new media, and architectures: these varied works—exceeding the category of Buddhist icon and Buddhist art, not always identified as “Buddhist,” or taken for granted as quintessentially “Buddhist”—do not merely reflect modern-contemporary Buddhisms but are instead agents in their formation and reception. They complicate the histories and lived experiences of “Buddhism.” They complicate study of “modern art” and “contemporary art.”
This seminar therefore explores complexities of representation and reception, belief and history, knowledge and power. It takes as a premise that these variously “Buddhist” images are “efficacious” in multiple ways—religious, aesthetic, material, economic, and ideological. Contrary to essentialist and sectarian dogma and “anything goes” or “feel good” appropriation, Buddhist visual cultures in the modern and contemporary world are tangled with empire, xenophobia, inter-religious conflict, and war (as they always have been). Simultaneously, they embody ongoing artistic explorations of Buddhist doctrine, philosophy, ritual, and lifeways (and always have) and the place of diverse Buddhisms in society. Study of the contexts and conditions of modernity and what has followed disclose in Buddhist visual cultures a range of particular convergences, or, we might say re-enchantments. Case in point, the intersection of early Buddhist Studies as a discipline with colonialism, archaeology, looting, and regimes of the collecting and museumification of Buddhist icons/sacred objects as well as processes of repatriation—a “colonial-Buddhist-image complex,” if you will. There are the aestheticized-psychologized enchantments of Buddhist images and concepts in modern spirituality and philosophy, sometimes reflected in the “cult of the Buddha’s smile,” the “Zen circle,” and a “neo-pantheon” referential to orthodox iconography but consolidating new figures, including the individualist trope of the meditating monk and the “Happy Buddha.” There is the Zen art modernism of the postwar period and “Buddha mind” in contemporary art, phenomenon that seem all but eternal in avant-garde creative work and exfoliate into “middlebrow” and pop-Buddhist consumption. Cutting through these histories are Buddhism-associated images deployed in modern empire and xenophobic propaganda (e.g. Yellow Peril), as well as the images produced within and of Buddhist protest, in Tibet and elsewhere, in response to settler colonialism and state repression, on the one hand, and desecration-appropriation into consumer and entertainment cultures, on the other. One might add the visual cultures of the Mindfulness commercial complex and its Silicon Valley apotheosis, and other “therapeutic Buddhism,” and those of non-monastic Buddhist practitioner/Buddhist affinity communities (e.g. magazines such as Tricycle, Lion’s Roar). Not to be overlooked in such critical-conjunctural study is the creative work of modern and contemporary monastic and lay artists as well as those of Buddhist spirituality in dialectics of orthodox teachings, material, iconography, and technique, on the one hand, and live experiences within/around religious communities amid immediate worlds, suffering, survivance, and freedom. So too the efforts of scholar-monastics, scholar-practitioners, and non-practitioners to study such phenomena, sometimes in tension with institutions, popular perceptions, and the question of “what Buddhism means.”
The seminar is open to graduate students in all disciplines/fields. Taken for 4 units, it requires a research paper/project; for 2, completion of readings and small assignments and participation. Course structure and content may reflect co-construction in relation to participant interests.