In an evening lecture on May 24, four scholars—including F|S curators Jim Ulak and Debra Diamond—explored “Religion in the Gallery” as part of our Exhibiting Asia in the 21st Century lecture series. Jenna Vaccaro, assistant in the Scholarly Programs and Publications Department, attended the event and reported her thoughts back to Bento.
The politics surrounding the display of religious content in museum galleries are complicated, to say the least. Opinions differ wildly on the role museums ought to play when putting religious art on view. Some argue that we must provide more context and meaning for religious art than we do for other forms of expression, as meaning dissolves with time, language, and cultural barriers. Others go further, advocating for a display that provides the viewer with a transcendent experience.
During “Religion in the Gallery,” Katherine Anne Paul, curator of the arts of Asia at the Newark Museum, presented several variations of Tibetan Buddhist shrines in American museums and abroad, and waxed philosophically on the way the different displays might make viewers feel. Bold reds and yellows among golden statues, butter sculptures—literally, lamps burning on animal fat and colorful shapes made out of butter—and musical instruments were common elements of each shrine. It appears that the goal of each exhibit was to completely envelop the viewer in color and light, described by Paul as a “more is more” method of display. The panel of speakers considered this similar to the Baroque design period: the more glitz and ornamentation, the better.
Paul’s Tibetan shrines were juxtaposed by a presentation on Zen art by Gregory Levine, associate professor of the art and architecture of Japan and Buddhist visual cultures at the University of California, Berkeley. Zen art is much different than a Tibetan shrine, and its elements are harder to define. Generally with Zen, a “less is more” approach is taken when putting objects on display. Traditionally we see minimalism, nature, and stillness as the representative elements of Zen art, though what “Zen” means has changed over time. Meditative and natural design principles have been watered down and usurped by popular culture. Citing scholars from the mid-1900s and beyond, Levine tracked how Zen has been appropriated in America from the museum context to commercial design. Rather than using minimalist motifs for a meditative purpose, Zen styles today are used to sell a product, such as Zen mp3 players or Zen perfume.
As a casual observer, I do feel a stronger, transcendent connection to the Tibetan shrines’ display. The exhibits Paul presented demand attention and never let the unfamiliar viewer forget that this was or could be a religious space. The pieces that Levine showed did not provide the same experience. The questions I was left with after considering my own different reactions to the presentations are personal, but perhaps not uncommon: Has the appropriation of Zen religious art by American marketing and design companies already ruined the transcendent experience for me? Is there any way in which I can see Zen art as sacred when it has been a staple of American secular design for so long?
An audience member asked a question along these lines, wondering whether we must contextualize religious art that is distinctively different than the culture in which it is being displayed. Paul responded by asking if we have the same duty to contextualize a Monet painting. Jim Ulak, F|S curator of Japanese art, followed up by stating that staff at the National Gallery are constantly surprised at how many people today have trouble understanding the Christian art on display, which wasn’t the case a generation or two ago.
In my humble opinion, all religious art, particularly when we are presenting that of another culture, deserves to be given more respect and context than a Monet painting for the sheer fact that the religion and its practitioners still exist. If we appropriate the style of a Monet painting and get it wrong in our gallery, the only harm done is a misunderstanding of a visual style. If we appropriate a religious design we have the potential to misinterpret and erase important cultural meaning—the opposite of what a museum ought to do.