Art Koans: Zen and the Tao in Conceptual Art

The Zen scholar and teacher, Daisetz Suzuki (1870 – 1966), once explained that the origin of the term koan was a kind of certifying document that, in ancient times, was used to test one’s understanding of Zen. However, the more popular usage of the term is more paradoxical—a conceptual conundrum—that provokes a student’s awareness of the powers of the inner-self. A well-known Zen koan goes as follows— “We know the sound of two hands clapping, but what is the sound of one hand clapping?” The construction of the koan is often presented in the form of a contradiction. When a koan is told by a Zen teacher (sensai), the student may be inclined to search for the answer by means of a rational thought process. However, the koan is meant to overcome the limitations of the rational solution. The koan looks for another way of dealing with previously held notions of reality.

According to Professor Suzuki, the koan is fundamentally a criterion or “standard of judgment” used in determining a neophyte’s status in the Zen community, the zendo. The student is asked to reject readymade solutions to everyday problems in favor of a heightened sensory response to worldly phenomenon. This response manifests itself in deliberately pragmatic ways that focus one’s attention on mundane, repetitive tasks. These might include a steady concentration on one’s breathing or more practical routines like sweeping, preparing a meal, or washing dishes. This latter approach is used to achieve enlightenment (satori) beyond all existing forms of social and political order. The process is ultimately a tricky business. There is no formula and no verifiable proof, because the hypothesis is always ambiguous, always outside the normal, rational order of how things appear. Because the koan involves more than a rational procedure, one has to come to terms with the elusive side of consciousness, the side of consciousness that moves from attachments to objects and events in the everyday world into a form of nothingness, what Zen teachers may refer to as sunyata or “the pregnancy of the void.” This involves a special relationship of the inner-self to the external world, a synthesis of the non-self (what Westerners mistake as “non-being”) through a circumstantial view of time, a dematerialized space that passes before our senses.

I have taken the liberty of applying Suzuki’s argument to the work of selected artists who have at one time or another fallen under the rubric of conceptual art. To focus on the concept in a work of art became popular in the West during the late sixties and early seventies. This so-called dematerialized approach to art constitutes one aspect of the general notion of what is today considered contemporary. Instigated by a group of international artists in 1966, conceptual art was a general reaction to the pervasive object-oriented formalism of that time. While conceptual art is one way of approaching Taoism and Zen, it is not the only way. If it were considered the only way, then the application of conceptual art to these Eastern ways of thought would be false, because there is no single way to approach the Tao or to understand Zen.

One may look at the concept of Tao or the practice of Zen as it relates to art in two different ways: it can exist within the context of materiality or the structure of a physical object, or it can exist within the context of an idea without material or without the definition of an object, such as a performance or even as a visual trace that has evolved through an electronic image or montage.

Conceptual artists consider the structure of art as a kind of meta-language; that is, a language about the way the concept of art is communicated. In recent years, the new media arts—including video, digital and interactive art, print technology, systems aesthetics—have played a provocative and definitive role in extending the language of art by giving it a new synthesis that is as much virtual and it is tactile. Conceptual art continues to experiment with new narrative forms and media hybrids—offering new challenges for artists to engage in non-isolated forms of aesthetic experience. Often based on language constructions that fold into the artist’s intention, these idea-based forms carry a dematerialized presence. Quite simply, the idea becomes more significant than the object. As in the practice of Zen, the challenge is rid one’s mind of excess, to focus on the undivided self as a means toward emptiness. There are many ways to understand “emptiness.” And this is precisely where the koan comes into play.

Conceptual art is free of the conventional, static notion of art from past eras. It begins another chapter in the history of art—one that considers art as an open proposition—a territory of exploration and interaction without restraints or self-imposed limitations, an openness of mind, liberated from the political and ideological regimentation of the past. One interpretation of the koan is to see it as a kind of public document used in the zendo, the place of meditation. As Suzuki explains, the koan can structure the means by which one reflects on one’s actions within the community. This further suggests that there is both a personal and social dimension to the koan. In this sense, Suzuki’s interpretation of the koan may offer a means for coming to terms with art both from the perspective of intimate experience and as a social and political language.

No matter how conventional or dematerialized, art is ultimately a structure based on intuition. It might be said that to view art from the perspective of Zen gives form an implicit meaning that is simultaneously explicit. If the paradoxical intent of koans have the capacity to awaken minds to think about art in a new way, they are also documents that point towards a social criteria running parallel to art. Granted that this constitutes an idiosyncratic view of conceptual art, it also enlarges the framework of what might be called “conceptual.”

As we know from Zen teachings, labels are less important than the reality that is felt and therefore understood. My premise is that conceptual art should not be defined according to its medium but according to the kind of thought process involved in making the art. Thus, when I cite more traditional Chinese artists, such as Fung Ming Chip and Wenda Gu, who work with calligraphic brushwork, I am suggesting that from an Eastern point of view—in this case, Chinese—there is something intrinsically “conceptual” about their work. Nonetheless, I would like to place these artists in a context with others whose work also appears “conceptual”—including Korean artists such as Lee Ufan, Yun Hyong-keun, Lee Kang So, and Kim Sooja, and Japanese artists Hiroshi Sugimoto, Rakuko Naito, and Tadaaki Kuwayama. I would argue that while these artists should not be contained by the label of “conceptual,” they are working according to an essential structure that may be interpreted from a Zen perspective. As art comes closer to ideas and ideas come closer to advanced information technology, the intervention of a critical discourse that deals with these kinds of interactions between artists, regardless of their global or transcultural affiliations, cannot be overlooked.

Whether this connects with Professor Suzuki’s concept of the koan is difficult to ascertain (An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, New York: Grove Press, 1964). Yet one of the most attractive features about Zen—as I began to study it forty years ago upon meeting Senkei Shibayama from Kyoto (who visited the United States in 1968)—is its fluidity of discourse, its ability to be rigorous without becoming dogmatic, its ability to shift direction when the winds of culture change perspective, and to cut across class and cultural barriers. In the latter sense, Zen is different from Mayahana Buddhism, where class and cultural issues are implicit within the practice of one’s belief.

There is little doubt that with the advent of recent communications technologies and the accelerated rise of globalization, our notion of art is changing. The point of criticism is not to simply reflect what is going on around us, but to offer an intervention—to go beyond the limitations of the academic solution, the airtight theories, that deny art its very substance. Whereas in recent years so much Westernized theory, including views on multiculturalism, identity politics, French feminism, visual culture, and poststructuralism, has been imported into East Asia and elsewhere in Central and Southeast Asia, we may begin to entertain the possibility that Eastern philosophies—specifically the intersections between Zen and Taosim, may be useful in exploring and critically investigating what is being produced in an exhaustively globalized art world.

Although I have recently considered the linkages between such philosophies as Taoism and Zen in relation to globalization, including the impact of digital and technologies in more recent forms of postconceptual art, I feel this connection is more than a bygone idea popularized in the fifties. If anything, I would have to conclude that the influence of Zen on movements in experimental literature (spontaneous prose), jazz, and art, specifically in reference to the Beat generation of the fifties and sixties (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Snyder, Whalen, Ann Waldman, Diane di Prima), the music of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker, and the Abstract Expressionist painters, tends to have been severely underrated. It is perhaps necessary that we reinvestigate the some of the connections (affinities) between Eastern traditions and new forms of transcultural experience, rather than insisting on the exclusivity of poststructuralist theory disseminated through advanced capitalism as the only method of discourse worth considering in the renewed Asian frontier. In effect, there is no reason why our transcultural environment should not remain open to both conventional and conceptual forms of art on many levels of discourse. As part of the information age, we can remain open to new interpretations that come through hybrids of critical thought and aesthetic decision-making that are not entirely based on Western language constructs. If I am not mistaken, this is implicitly what constitutes the poststructural world—a world without labels and divisions, without closed systems between signs and referents, that yet does not relinquish the notion of ideograms as a regenerative system of holistic metonymy.

In such a world, we have the potential for an open forum to create and discuss without trying to prove or legitimate one approach over another. Through the recognition of differences, there is the opportunity to achieve unity; that is, a transcultural forum for new ideas that move toward heightened premises of meaning and experiential involvement. To think of art as a koan—a document of reality or a riddle that gives insight into the matter of worldly things without escaping them—is a marvelous project, one worth seeking and striving for. It is less an imperative than a communal proposal—that art can open windows of understanding and beget new energies previously unknown, yet readily tapped through principles of meditation applied to the making of art.

Emerging forms of art come as the result of inevitable shifts in our transcultural world, where all possess the potential to move through different cultures. The idea is to heighten our awareness of this phenomenon through the perspective of Zen and a clear understanding of Taoism as the core of the Zen movement going back to the twelfth century. The connection between Zen and Taoism has been written about at length. (For two examples, I recommend Ray Grigg, The Tao of Zen, Alva Press, 1994, and Alan Watts, What is Tao? New World Library, 2000). For those who have read and studied the writings transcribed as Lao-tzu or Tao Te Ching, the affinity between the two is well known. But getting back to Daisetz Suzuki’s framework, if critical writing can become an exercise in meditation that rejuvenates standards of judgment in relation to one’s experience with emerging forms, it can then offer itself as a form of passionate disinterestedness in contrast to the overwhelming cynicism and predictable mannerisms that are so evident today.

On the other hand, criticism must be wary of piety and open to criticism of itself—a kind of meta-criticism—because it is through this exchange of ideas that we begin to get a more accurate understanding of how we think and feel about art in an ever-changing world, a world defined over the centuries by Zen masters as one of transition. To think of critical writing as a series of documents in the process of testing their own correctness with regard to the art that has provoked them can function much like the process of Zen. It is not a matter of being right, but of finding ways to contradict what is right, in this case, the assumed nature of art. At the same time, the process of clarification with regard to the manner of being right is also important. But rightness in art—as in life—is never fixed. It changes its meaning on the spur of intuition. This is when art and aesthetics find their contradiction, but also their complementary foundation. There is nothing right or wrong about art. As Picasso once said: “Art is never chaste.” This would seem to concur with the teachings of Zen—particularly Suzuki’s interpretation of “no-mind” or wu-nein in which the direction of thought determines its own structure as opposed to a predetermined concept of legitimacy.

The implicit question being posed here is how to go on with art given the overwhelming pressures under which artists are subjected in this media-driven, globalized moment. The business of art in recent years has pressured artists to conform to the paradigms of media, fashion, Hollywood, corporate ideologies, and popular entertainment. Of course, these elements can be appropriated into art, maybe even subverted, in order to project a critique of culture. Unfortunately, these intentions rarely succeed. Indeed, the art ends up being swallowed by the very elements that it is attempting to subvert. Conceptual art—I dare say—has often fallen prey to the same formulas that the critic Lewis Mumford once called the “humdrum,” the incessant buzz that fails to make distinctions as to what is substantial and significant in contrast to what is merely trite and symptomatic.

The point of criticism, then, is to feel what is significant in art and then to communicate the ideas that such work inspires. It is a matter of allowing visual concepts to function as tactile/virtual coagulates—as artists have chosen to incite them. To discover new art—or old art that feels new—carries with it a virtual dimension. This may be the truest way to rediscover the tactile world of our senses. Such a paradox constitutes not only the basis of Zen, but the fundamental means toward unraveling those qualitative art koans to be discovered in our search for a stable system of communication as we move ahead into the twenty-first century.

This essay was originally written in 2001-2003, and distributed in an unpublished format to various friends and curators interested in the affinities between Eastern thought and contemporary art. It was partially revised in 2008 for publication coincident with the current Guggenheim exhibition, “The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989.”


Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.