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Art as Spiritual Practice, Part 1

(Originally posted Mar. 3, 2021 to my Artful Buddhist blog on Substack)

I throw up a little every time someone asks me whether my art-making is “spiritual.”

Like so many concepts in the history of religion, “spiritual” functions as an empty container, like these other terms: God, Sacred, Holy, Transcendent, and Mystical. “Religion” also has a long history, and scholars continue debating whether the term has any use.

“Spiritual” both says too little and too much at the same time, leaving the listener to fill in whatever meaning she or he wants.

It’s lazy.

It’s conversation filler.

It avoids having to think clearly.

I’m taking some Master Classes right now from Neil Gaiman and Roxane Gay.

Neil Gaiman says to be brutally honest.

Roxane Gay agrees.

Me too.

Every time I get the urge to call my art-making “spiritual,” it feels simplistic, forced, over-reaching, and dishonest.

(Shunyata, 40x60, ink on paper, @jeffbrackettart)

Lest I be too harsh, I decided to reconsider my art as “spiritual.” I started looking at popular titles, hoping to find something that addressed the complexity of such claims. What I found instead, were tautological arguments, and a whole lot of wishful thinking presented as Gospel Truth.

Reiterating a vague term authoritatively doesn’t make it clear, in spite of how it feels.

“Spiritual” has become naturalized: it has cultural cache, everyone knows what it means, and it is no longer in need of questioning. In effect, naturalizing the word “spiritual” shields it from questioning.

So, I will continue to ask, “What leads people to imagine in the first place that art-making ought to be called ‘spiritual’?”

Looking beyond the self-help oriented books about art and spirituality, I was reminded that Deborah J. Haynes uses the term in the title of her latest book, Beginning Again: Reflections on Art as Spiritual Practice. She’s an artist, a retired professor of Art and Art History, and a practicing Buddhist. We met much by chance at an American Academy of Religion annual meeting (Denver 2018), when I attended a special evening event in which she introduced the main speaker. She had some encouraging words and

helpful suggestions for my reading list.

Here are a few general points she discusses in her book:

· Artistic practice as contemplative practice.

· Spirituality as that which is of most value to us.

· “Spirituality” comes from the word for “spirit” or “breath,” so it is integral to our very being.

Haynes argues that, while art-making may be spiritual, it is just a part of who we are as breathing, embodied beings. Of course, she says much more, but I will have to address that some other time.

For now, I’m trying to figure out how to draw as a Buddhist. This question is related to the more general one of artistic influence, which is central to my research project. How do we claim that Zen, for instance, influenced the work of the artist Agnes Martin? (This is a question I’m addressing as part of my project.)

What does it even mean to draw as a Buddhist? Agnes Martin never called herself a Buddhist. Other people claimed Buddhist influence on her work, though. And people have insisted that my work is spiritual.

What model do I look to in order to make art as a Buddhist? Do I mimic a Buddhist artist? If so, what type? Tibetan Thangka painters, for instance, follow a rigorous training program and then rarely add their own creative signature. Instead, they follow very strict rules, proportions, color patterns, etc. Like clergy leading rituals, they don’t improvise; they repeat patterns, in specified ways, through symbolic bodily gestures, and so on.

My longer answer depend on new ways I might imagine my work fitting with other Buddhist conceptualizations of “spiritual” practices. As a start, I found the following description in one of the introductory textbooks I considered for teaching Buddhism:

To attempt to capture the wholeness of the Buddhist way, we will at times use a Western term, namely, spirituality. By this we mean to denote specific paths to religious goals that include teachings and practices, moral and communal life, ontological and psychological foundations, as well as transformative experiences and cultural expressions. Spiritualities open one to insights into truths, to liberation from attachments, and to overcoming blockages to religious realizations. In Buddhism itself, the closest equivalent is bhāvanā, meaning “cultivation” and “producing,” or, in a broader sense, “the process of religious cultivation.” It is in this sense we use the term spirituality. (Mitchell, Donald W., and Sarah H. Jacoby. 2012. Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience. 2nd ed.)

The authors narrow the term a bit, even if it is still quite broad.

In any case, I find the suggestions here and those of Haynes to be helpful in my search to name how it is that I will “draw as a Buddhist.” This idea was given to me by a studio art professor in response to telling him of my research proposal. He wasn’t saying I should become Buddhist. No, he was saying I need to figure out how to draw as a Buddhist, whatever that may mean.

The point is located in the search, not in a definitive answer; much like trying to find the “first religion” (which isn’t possible), the search for an answer leads to a whole lot of other interesting insights into the history of “religion.”

It may be that I never find a satisfactory answer. I could conjure up some facile “Buddhist” interpretation, but I imagine that will be as intellectually dishonest as if I were to play the “art-is-by-definition-spiritual” card with no further explanation.

I’ve made several Buddhist-themed pieces of art, each of which I will connect to several questions, a few of which are:

· What were my intentions in my Buddhist-themed series of drawings?

· What influenced those intentions?

· And how do my answers to these questions differ from that of viewers?

(Woodcut print, 7 1/2 x 8 inches, @jeffbrackettart)

All of this assumes that I can articulate a reasonable response to any of the questions. More than that, to what degree – if at all – do my ideas matter? How much weight do we give to the words of the “insider” here? Again, it’s not that I would lie, but that my views would be juxtaposed with viewers: once the artwork is out of my hands, so too is its reception (i.e., its interpretation).

Returning to the question of whether my art-making is spiritual, I see ways that maybe a specific definition in reference to my work might come out of this process of “drawing as a Buddhist.” I’m not being intentionally vague. I’m being honest. I can’t force a definition that feels off.

Meanwhile, I’m working on the details for a book, tentatively titled, The Artful Buddhist: Asperger’s, Art, and Academia. Keeping “Artful” in the title lets me continue wearing the mask of a Fake Buddhist, but there’s much more to the words in that title.

This is only Part 1 of what I will post about art and spiritual practice, and I’ve barely mentioned Asperger’s or Academia, the lenses through which I see art and spirituality.

Next week: Art as Spiritual Practice, Part 2 – exploring Buddhist approaches to art

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