As a student of Art and the History of Art, my current work aims to articulate and visualize a theory and practice of 'contemplative beholding.' My purpose is to re-orient attention away from habitual and predominantly exterior or 'distanced' observation, production and consumption of works of art and encourage direct experiential involvement with the 'art' of works of art by fostering an integrated intersection of our multiple capacities for knowing and action. From within this threshold of a deliberately focused ontological perspective, my goal is to re-imagine a 'contemplative beholding' that might reclaim an artistic resonance - the 'art' of art -, diminished by a now long-standing tradition of artistic estrangement caused by verbal and scientific objectification born in the exclusive ratiocination of all reality.
“Man as an observer is becoming completely alienated from himself as a being”
(Vaçlav Havel, 1994)
“I approached the task of destroying images by first tearing them out of the heart through God’s Word and making them worthless and despised.... For when they are no longer in the heart, they can do no harm when seen with the eyes.” (Martin Luther, 1525)
These two comments concerning our collective capacity to behold bracket an era in which the discipline of art history and modern technology have evolved as instruments of observation that have made more art of more varied means, forms and styles accessible to more people in more places that at any time in history. Anyone of us, with a few key strokes of a computer, can “download” more of Rembrandt van Rijn’s artistic work in a single moment and place than he himself could ever have seen. This calling forth of works of art of every medium and date from around the globe can be repeated endlessly. Contemporary textbooks and countless illustrated publications only amplify this catalog of images on demand, even as many of us may find ourselves remarkably empty before actual works of art, left grasping for more and still more information about and the interpreted meaning of the object rather than contemplating quietly the human significance embodied by it. For, missing from this vast second-hand virtually obsessive relationship with art is an accompanying means of experiencing much of anything beyond the surface of transitory realities. Having thus been torn from the heart and moved into the museums of objective observation, art that might have been the realization of our immanent wholeness has become little more than sumptuous distraction from lingering despair.
As an art historian concerned not only with art’s long and varied past, but with the living ‘art’ of that art whose history we seek to articulate, I have turned increasingly to contemplative practice for two reasons. First, disciplined contemplation provides the most effective calming and focusing preparation for any full encounter with complex works of art. Second, the very act of contemplation, on reflection, is itself the explicit embodiment of being that informs art within a genuinely abundant awareness of wholeness beyond limitation. From this perspective, contemplative practice amounts to a radical reclaiming of ‘art’ at its human core. It offers the behavioral preparation and attitude for the artistic action of constructing those intimations of reconciliation of the contradictory possibilities conscious being entails that comprise our human threshold of beholding.
In this act of beholding, contemplative practice serves as a quieting and focusing complement to substantive learning, but it may also become the very basis of an active way of knowing that will reveal cognitive possibilities otherwise obscured by the conventions of ‘scientific’ scholarship. This contemplative beholding offers a new (or very old!) perceptual threshold in which the ‘art’ of art might emerge. Rather than define art exclusively as an object one would seek to possess by way of ownership, interpretation, or even analytical understanding, this beholding imagines ‘art’ to be an act of aspiration, that is, a verb before it is the noun of our familiar experience. Drawing on a fundamental psychological impulse we all share, but may have forgotten, this beholding challenges the potentially estranged voyeurism of merely looking at or objectively measuring works of art and resists our habitual stance of neutral, disembodied, and essentially iconoclastic observation. For in the recognition and acceptance of a paradoxical tension between self-conscious separation and dynamic involvement in the world, we might re-discover within ourselves precisely that profound reconciliatory longing (erôs) we possess at least from birth, and that animates artistic imagination and action, even as it informs our capacity for enduring insight.
By setting the explicit goal of learning how, through a disciplined and particularized attitude and procedure, to engage this artistic impulse both in ourselves and as it is embodied in a given work of art, we may re-discover a living ‘art’ that would revive the embalmed bodies of a museum-deadened world. This contemplative return to a place and presence within the thrall of an art work’s ‘art’ might actually allow us once again both to encounter and to construct for ourselves those intimations of reconciliation among the countless contradictory realities of human being that will incarnate meaning in our lives and bridge the infinite chasm of solitude and compassion.
In short, from this ontological perspective, the explicit goal of my current work is to reanimate our experience of art. Implicitly, however, my purpose is to reclaim contemplative knowing itself, as a non-ecclesiastical and yet fully spiritual act of love that might recharge our human aspiration to know true rather than counterfeit wholeness
from an acknowledged condition of unalterable fragmentation and limitation. Rather than the discovery of just another cognitive tool in an otherwise unchanged academic enterprise, this contemplative knowing, embedded in an art of beholding, might offer some small measure of artistic re-integration and reunion in a world of loneliness and, perhaps, a fleeting vision of peace in the face of irreconcilable contradiction, conflict and mortality. As an instrument of psychological, if not also social and political, not to mention scientific reality, this contemplatively based beholding might open a way to Vaçlav Havel’s dream of approaching an elusive blending of self and transcendence. If nothing else, contemplative beholding as a deliberate, but gentle, mechanism for seeking out and realizing palpable intimations of reconciliation might help us try to recover some sense of belonging with each other, the world and the universal mystery of our being as it is known in the deepest place of our solitude. Having thus re-entered the threshold of our full human being, we might again be able to say what Goethe's Dr. Faustus was unable to say, "Tarry a moment, thou art so fair," and in that reawakening re-discover our profoundest well-being.
Teaching and Writing:
I am a teacher of ‘art.’ Although my graduate training is within the broad discipline often called ‘art history,’ my focused attention is on the ‘art’ of art as it is manifest in the long and varied history of art. The distinction between the academic discipline of ‘art history’ and the academic subject of the history of art reveals the all too often and easily overlooked reality of ‘art’ itself. By this ‘art’ I mean the attitude of human being and the disciplined act that will allow for, at least occasionally, those fragile intimations of wholeness and consolation (e.g., works of art) that our fleeting mortal existence requires. From this ontological perspective, the ‘art’ I seek to encourage is, profoundly, first an attitude of reverence and then an action verb before it becomes the more familiar object of art.
During the thirty-five years I have been teaching at Amherst College, the phrase "fine arts" has served to describe this complex triangulated integration of attitude, contemplative action and object. It also allowed for the curricular integration of the distinct disciplines of the studio practice of art and art history in an interdisciplinary academic department and in the work of willing individuals associated with it. At its best, this Department of Fine Arts sought to realize a skilled and informed artistic awareness in each of us, faculty and students, echoing the ancient sentiment that artists are not special kinds of people, but that we all are, or ought to be, special kinds of artists.
The recent disintegration of the Department of Fine Arts into what is currently called the Department of Art and History of Art has separated those 'artists' who practice their craft in the studio from those 'artists' who work as art historians. This disintegration has also divided the departmental curriculum into three distinct and autonomous Concentrations: “Studio Practice,” “History and Culture” and “The ‘art’ of the History of Art.” The latter Concentration seeks to preserve the integrated interdisciplinary program of artistic education envisioned by Professor Charles Morgan, the founder of the original Department of Fine Arts (see At A Glance: An Advisory Guide to the 'art' of the History of Art for the Principles and Goals of “The ‘art’ of the History of Art”).
As noted above, my aim to encourage encounters with ‘art’ within the long and broad History of Art takes shape in a theory and practice I call “contemplative beholding" (see esp. pp.8-9) as it is realized in specific courses:
These courses include: a focused encounter with Netherlandish painting from the 14th to 17th century, subtitled, “The ‘art’ of Beholding;” 12th and 13th - century ‘romanesque’ and ‘gothic’ architecture in France, entitled, “The Monastic Challenge;” a general overview of ‘art’ as it emerged in Christian works of painting, sculpture and architecture, beginning in the 4th - century Roman catacombs, centering on the magisterial cathedrals of France and concluding with the poignant self-doubts of the early masters of artistic rationalism, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarotti and Albrecht Dürer at the turn of the 16th century. This wider-angled course on medieval art is called, “Art and Architecture in Europe from 300 C.E. to 1500 C.E.” I also offer limited enrollment seminars in particular topics, including single painters (e.g., Jan van Eyck, Hieronymous Bosch, Pieter Bruegel, Jan Vermeer and Rembrandt van Rijn) or subjects (e.g., the theory and practice of contemplative beholding). For several years I have collaborated with my colleague in the Department of Physics, Professor Arthur Zajonc, to offer first-year students at Amherst College an introduction to the possibility of a contemplative way of knowing that would re-claim our full human potential of erôs and insight together as integral components of cognition and being (see Amherst Magazine, Erôs and Insight).
Having taught with the Associated Kyoto Program in Japan during the spring semesters of 1986 and 1993 and the fall semester of 2007, I have sought to include in all my teaching generally and in specific seminars a particular form of artistic knowing I have called “ai-no-ma” that would challenge and expand the limitations of an exclusively western oriented ‘art,’ thereby opening the possibility of a more universally human aspiration to artistic awareness and wholeness.
As a complement to my teaching involvement with ‘art’ as it emerges throughout the History of Art, I am currently working on a contemplative guide to Netherlandish painting that will seek to open my classroom efforts to a larger audience. Similarly, I am organizing my work in Japan into an extended essay called “Ai-no-ma: Constructing Space in Japan” which will be illustrated with my on-site photographs.