Saturday, November 06, 2010


Last weekend I just managed to make it to the final day of the Otsu Museum exhibition of sacred sculptures and paintings from various temples in Shiga Prefecture, all designated national cultural treasures or national cultural assets. As I walked around admiring the rarely exposed works on display I felt my eyes drifting from the holy faces, which were pretty much all the same, as holy faces tend to be-- I've seen so many holy faces in sacred places all over the world, and they've all been... holy faces. A standard thousand-yard stare - up, down or straight ahead - with a soupcon of the ecstasy that surpasseth whatever the local dogma stipulates. Faces exquisitely crafted, breathtakingly so in some cases, but monolithic: not leading into diversity, but expressing one thing infallibly: worshipful artistic skill.

Generally speaking, holier-than-thou is a bit of a turnoff in the real world; why should art be any exception? If you've seen one holy face, you've gotten the idea: the depicted individuals have made it to the summit of the spirit-hierarchy. At this exhibit though, I could sense that the artists hadn't had any fun limning the same old sanctity for the 10th generation. It was almost as if they were saying: "This holy stuff is a bit of a cliche; what we really enjoy is the artistic delights down below, where we depict the baser angels of human nature."

For in fact my eyes were inevitably drawn from the standard blissed-out faces up top to the fascinating and varied demons beneath the sacred feet. Now this was invention-- this was art. The sacred face is prescribed territory - a lifted chin here, half-closed eyes there, maybe a subtle lipcurl and that's about it - but gargoyles, demons and imps obey no rules; they go all the way...

Here was where the artists could dive right in and give free rein to their imaginings, embody their arts in those demons thumbing their noses at the sanctimonious, rasberrying the overlords of righteousness, carrying on up to their necks in the fundamentals; maybe they are half monster and half human, maybe they do have hands and feet that are half paws, maybe bulging eyes above sharp fangs beside big humanteeth, plus pointy ears and tail, maybe they do have spots, lumps, ridges - even scales - but they are where the art is.

These sculptors were among the greatest artists of their day; and by the time they got the chance to create these statues they had carved a thousand holy faces, as had their forebears for generations-- all the lineaments that depict enlightenment, divinity, tranquility, good will, peace, love-- the sacred gaze had become artistically uninspiring. As well, it should be pointed out that without those vulgar gargoyles and personal demons to give them a leg up, those glazed-gazing saints would have had nothing to achieve; nor would the artists who came later. Here was where the sculptors and painters could pull out the stops on their creative imaginings, this was where the art was, with the sacred standing on the top, as though victorious.

This was a big statement from all those silent artist voices, a visual comment perhaps unconsciously passed on to us today from ages gone before, when there were demons and angels instead of Hollywood and TV-- i.e., that there's not much creativity involved in depicting the sacred per se; that the fun of creativity, the spark of life, is in the star supporting players, the bedrock of all that we hold sacred: the hardworking, put-upon imps and demons. Without them, the righteous has no basis; without them, nothing is sacred. Besides, they're where the fun is; you can learn things from demons that you can't learn anywhere else. To widen your sacred horizons, you've gotta hang with demons at some points along your way; just don't linger too long, and never believe you've left them behind.

Later on, when you honor the sacred, be sure also to honor those baser angels, for which those ancient artists were so painstakingly thankful.


Apprentice said...

So what you're saying is we can't truly know the Yin until we at least rub shoulders with some Yang.
As always though, you just say it so well.

Robert Brady said...

Thanks Apprentice-- The ole yin and yang do make some sparks together don't they... I try my best to keep em both in action, don't want to get too holy... ;)