When I was small, maybe 9 years old, I picked up my parent's Life magazine and came across a photo-essay on beatniks. To a dreamy boy, the beats appeared as deities. Men with beards, berets, and poetry. Women in tights, white men's shirts, and smoking cigarettes. Creativity was in the air, along with smoke. And the word "Buddhism" was never mentioned.
But Buddhism was present in the 1950s and it played a major role in the artistic and cultural development of the period. Ellen Pearlman's new book, Nothing & Everything, examines how Buddhism, especially Japanese Zen Buddhism, came to influence the American avant-garde.
Look at a partial list of leading artists of mid-20th century who absorbed Buddhist teaching into their art:
- John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown (composers)
- Merce Cunningham (dance, through his lifelong partnership with John Cage)
- Philip Guston, Ad Reinhardt, Sari Dienes (painters)
- Isamu Noguchi, Ibram Lassaw (sculptors)
- Arthur Danto (critic)
- Betty Parsons (gallery owner)
- Fluxus, Happenings, and Judson Dance Theater (performance experiments)
These artists and groups were directly influenced by one man, D.T. Suzuki and his series of highly influential lectures given in New York from 1955 - 1957. These provoked and stimulated artists in ways that led directly to the creative destruction of European-based modernism.
It might be hard for us to imagine how powerful Suzuki's lectures would have been at the time, so here's an example from Pearlman's book. Prior to going to New York, Suzuki gave a lecture at Claremont Graduate School in Southern California:
As Suzuki walked on stage, he was smaller than many people expected [he was 80 years old at the time]. Leaning over, he tapped the microphone. A ping ricocheted out of the loudspeaker. He said:
Zen Buddhism. Very hard understand. Thank you.
He then walked off. Chaos broke out; the audience began screaming.
Nothing & Everything contains many wonderful anecdotes, the fruits of Pearlman's extensive research. The book has detailed bibliographies and references to source materials, enough to keep any art enthusiast occupied for a long time.
Curiously, none of the artists actually practiced Zen in the ordinary sense (that is, formal meditation, retreats, study with a teacher, etc.). John Cage came closest to a full-on engagement with the tradition, but apparently never sat on a cushion. A bit later, Jack Kerouac plunged deeply into Buddhist studies, along with plunging deeply into alcohol. At about the same time, Buddhist teachings were actualized in practice by two poets, Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg.
Nothing & Everything will reward anyone with an interest in the American avant-garde. However, the book would have benefited from a careful editing. At one point, a paragraph nearly repeats itself. In several passages I couldn't determine whose "voice" was speaking, a source or the author's. Finally, the book seems more like a PhD thesis than a book targeted to a general audience. Despite these issues, however, I couldn't put it down.
A review copy of Nothing & Everything was provided to me at no cost by the publisher, Evolver Editions.