Tuesday, October 21, 2003

art and subjectivity

I finally went back to Insa-dong Monday evening and met with Mr. Shin, the friendly, bearded, septuagenarian artist who does the great calligraphy. As I promised him, I brought along my collection of artwork for him to appraise and critique. A surprise was in store for me, though: his chair was occupied by a "guest artist" while Mr. Shin stood to the side. The guy turned out to be an expert in Dalma-daesa paintings, and he and Mr. Shin were both eager to look at what I'd done.

I have to laugh: neither guy-- and both are pretty old and Old School-- was all that impressed with the abstract calligraphy. This was glanced at and then resolutely ignored for the rest of my time with them. Not a single remark was made about it. I was reminded of a passage in Mark Salzman's Iron and Silk, in which he visits an exhibition of Chinese calligraphy by an "innovative" Western artist. Along with him is a traditional Chinese calligrapher (NB: Salzman's narrative takes place in China-- I recommend the book, and the semi-fictionalized movie based on it, in which both Salzman and his wushu master, Pan Qingfu, play themselves). The calligrapher grimaces at the Westerner's very nontraditional calligraphy, shakes his head, and says, "This is so-called freedom."

There are reasons to smile and reasons to take this seriously, because we're talking about values. The old guys looking at my artwork are veterans and teachers, with years of experience behind them. They're also traditional Asians who feel you stand before you fly. Abstraction (abstract art is ch'usang yaesul in Korean), to their way of thinking, happens only after you've mastered the basics, which I obviously haven't: I began this whole enterprise around my birthday at the end of August, and have been learning as I go, without any formal training.

It was when I unrolled my "large" artwork, the Dalma-daesa pics and the Bul Shim/Buddha Mind calligraphy, that the old guys became more animated.

And the critiques rolled in.

"His expression's too scary looking! He looks like he's ready to kill somebody!"

[NB: He is the legendary inventor of kung fu, and his intense stare was supposed to be able to burn through walls. Plus, I've seen plenty of ferocious Bodhidharmas, including the one right there on Insa-dong's main street who's screaming.]

"His earlobe's not long enough!"

"His eyebrows should droop, not flare upward!"

"You're not writing the bul shim right!"

"Your strokes are too bold-- they need to be lighter!"

"Less black-- put in some gray! Subtle and smooth!"

[NB: You'll recall I made a deliberate decision to follow the bold-style school of thought on this, avoiding wispiness and subtlety. The best examples of this style can be found at a shop very close to Chogye-sa that features a particular artist who specializes in a very strongly-drawn, wisp-free Dalma-daesa.]

In the end, I think I got a "B." Despite their many and valuable critiques, they liked my work overall and praised it. They made three pieces for me to take home and study-- it was like getting $60 worth of artwork for free, an enormous privilege. One piece was a Dalma-daesa done by the guest artist (whose name I never learned). The next was "Bul Shim" by Mr. Shin. And the final piece was a gorgeous rainbow-style "Bul Shim" which I'll be putting on my wall to admire, but probably won't be learning from. The rainbow-style artwork is a few orders of magnitude beyond my current abilities, but I'd love to learn how to do it. Mr. Shim says, "If you learn this style, you can earn tons in America." At one point, he says he was earning $800 a day in Hawaii.

I can't say I was too hurt by their critiques. I have a decent idea of what I'm doing, and will probably continue to make Dalma-daesa pieces my way, but will also be making pieces in the style they suggest. One point I concede entirely is in how to write the shim (mind) character-- I'll be making an effort to write it the way they suggest, even on Kevin-style artwork, because my own intuition was that something was missing in the "oomph" of that character. When Mr. Shin showed me his way of doing it, something clicked. Both artists took great pains to explain the significance of writing shim correctly, and their tag-team earnestness was convincing.

On the other hand, I'm not inclined to listen to their advice about the bul (Buddha) character, because, as I showed you all before, other artists write it the way I do. The "radical" (root) on the left side of the bul character is in, the character for "person." Mr. Shin and Friend insist that it should be written more like the "print" version, in which the second stroke of in is absolutely vertical. Partly, this is because they feel I need to master the "basic" way of writing it, but I think they're also revealing an artistic bias. I suppose that, for them, bul looks "right" only when written a certain way. I certainly don't begrudge them that point of view.

Let's move the discussion a little bit deeper and talk a bit more explicitly about values in this kind of situation. A student with more than one teacher in the same subject is usually forced to make a certain type of choice, and it's not always pleasant: do I follow one teacher's advice over another's? Do I meld the two? How much of myself do I inject into this process?

My brother Sean knows this well. Sean's a cello player, and he's had many, many cello teachers-- often at the same time-- all of whom have different attitudes, teaching styles, and philosophies of performance. Sean knows that, as you learn, you inevitably receive contradictory advice, so it's incumbent on you to figure your own way through it. What results is a style that's a reflection of those who taught you, but simultaneously something that's all yours.

Zen literature has stories about students who study for years under one master, then move to another temple where the new master tells them flatly that everything they learned was garbage-- learn again! Once a student is aware that this is how things work, however, he's one step closer to realizing that, in the game of life, apparently contradictory statements aren't always as contradictory as they appear. In Sean's case, there was a period in which, after years of tutelage by an Armenian instructor, Sean was tutored by an American cellist who plays for the National Symphony in DC. The American's style and attitude were completely opposed to the Armenian teacher's; Sean went through some frustrating periods, and he also had moments when he favored one teacher's method over the other. When Sean played in front of his Armenian teacher after a year at the Cleveland Institute of Music (where his mentor was also an American), his teacher was disappointed. It seemed as if Sean had ignored everything he'd tried to teach (Sean, if you're reading this, I'm trying to squeeze years of maturation into a time-lapse chronology, so apologies for oversimplifying). But by the time Sean finished his undergrad career, his old tutor's comments had become quite positive. Artistic maturation isn't easily described by phrasal verbs like "growing apart," "growing away from," or "moving beyond." Whatever's happening, it's something else, and I don't think "away" and "beyond" quite fit as descriptors of this kind of progress.

I can borrow from Sean's learning experience and steal from my own academic knowledge of Zen to anticipate how it's going to go for me and my budding career as a brush artist (if I may be so pretentious as to call myself that). Through it all, it helps to have some backbone, some self-confidence, a sense of what works and what doesn't. You won't always please your teachers, but if your practice is earnest, that sincerity will be perceptible to those with eyes to see and hears to hear.

So now it's time to go home and stick these great gifts on my wall, along with my two previous acquisitions (the Dalma-daesa pieces I've talked about before), to be attentive to external reality-- very important if you're trying to be mindful-- but also to attend to internal reality, the workings of the heart.

The character for "mindfulness," pronounced nyeom or yeom in Korean (rhyming with "yum"), is composed of two simpler characters stacked one atop the other. The top character is geum, which means "now," and is a bound particle in the Sino-Korean word jigeum, meaning "now." The bottom character is none other than shim, "mind." So we're talking about now-mind. Or, since shim can also mean "heart," perhaps what an artist-- or anyone else-- needs to live deeply is heartfulness.

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