Thinking (or Not) About Art

Review of “True Perception: The Path of Dharma Art” by Chögyam Trungpa and “Drawing is Thinking” by Milton Glaser Overlook.

Robert Del Tredici
1 February 2009

True Perception: The Path of Dharma Art
By Chögyam Trungpa.
Edited by Judith L. Lief
Shambhala Publications, 2008; 224 pp.; $16.95 (paper)

Drawing is Thinking
by Milton Glaser Overlook;
208 pp.; $45 (cloth)

I tend to assess modern art by its capacity to absorb energy from black holes. For me, Moby Dick has always weighed in with five stars on the Black Hole Scale. Goya, Van Gogh, and Kafka score high, as do Lewis Carroll, Odilon Redon, and Dostoyevsky. True Perception: The Path of Dharma Art, a revised edition of Chögyam Trungpa’s 1996 book, Dharma Art, collects texts from twenty-eight talks he gave throughout the United States between 1974 and 1982. The texts present Chögyam Trungpa’s core teachings on art in relation to black holes.

His approach sounds at first disarmingly simple: “People often start with art and discover dharma after that. But our approach is different: we begin with dharma, and then we try to find if there is any art in it.” The way of the dharma is the way of non-aggression. Out of non-aggression dharma art arises. But getting to non-aggression can be tricky. The mind—attached as it is to its surges and riptides, carnivals and curses, its feather boas and guillotines, empires and ingrown toenails—bears watching. That watching, Trungpa teaches, best happens from outside the mind’s own known points of reference:

When you begin to abandon all possibilities of any kind of reference point that would comfort you, tell you to do something, help you to see through everything, make you a better and greater person—when you lose all those reference points, including your ambition, the strangest thing takes place.… It’s as if you were suspended in outer space without a space suit or rocket ship. You are just floating and circulating around the planets forever and ever.… That experience of suspension is the canvas or the blackboard where you paint your pictures, your symbolism. It is the basic ground. You can only begin from there.

Trungpa refers to this state as a “black hole of egolessness and no-discursive-thought.” It is surely no picnic getting there, but it is in this timeless, placeless state of non-thought that dharma art is born.

Which is why the title of renowned graphic artist Milton Glaser’s new book, Drawing is Thinking, gave me pause. The book showcases two hundred and four of the artist’s favorite images culled from his fifty-year career. Glaser’s approach to making art matches Trungpa’s description of those who “often start with art and discover dharma after that.” Glaser explains:

What is most compelling to me about the act of drawing is that you become aware, or conscious of, what you’re looking at only through the mechanism of trying to draw it. When I look at something, I do not see it unless I make an internal decision to draw it. Drawing it in a state of humility provides a way for truth to emerge.

What truths emerge Glaser leaves to his viewers to divine. At first glance the images, done mostly with a rainbow/mango/pomegranate palette, create a jazzy, lambent atmosphere. At second glance, they address aesthetic challenges but few wider issues; they create delight in content, form, and color but trigger—at least in this reviewer—no epiphanies. Judith Thurman’s introduction encourages us to see that art in general, and Glaser’s art in particular, unsettles expectations and confronts us with fresh mysteries, and so renews our wild edge. But the edges Glaser uses and renews in viewers soothe rather than excite.

Most of Glaser’s images first appeared as commercial designs. To make his book more than an album of personal favorites, Glaser stripped his images of typography—often a key design element in his work—which frees him to sequence the pictures any way he likes. He opts for evocative ambiguity, arranging the mute designs, he explains, in semi-narrative, quasi-abstract, somewhat musical terms.

Glaser acknowledges that the commercial origins of this work could be an issue: “Because I am well known, the audience would think, ‘Oh, the old geezer is trying to show he is an artist.’ The history of my work and its context makes it impossible to look at it without those references.”

The context is of course Madison Avenue, where Glaser’s success has been stunning. No commercial artist has inspired more clients, swayed more customers, moved more merchandise, or become a bigger graphics superstar than he. His Pushpin Studio’s protean spate of logos and ad campaigns (“I (heart) New York” his hugest hit); posters for museums, restaurants, schools, operas, and concerts (Bob Dylan’s dark profile his best known); CD and record covers; menus; annual reports; book jackets; calendars; and illustrations for Fortune, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times have helped redefine advertising design the world over. But for Glaser there seems to be a catch:

You know, every time I speak to students, they always ask, “Do you do any work for yourself?” The presumption beneath that question is that since one works to assignment, the work is not for oneself. My view is that all the work I’ve done is for myself, and it also involves accommodating either a personality (the client) or problem that has to be solved. Such is the nature of the design profession.

Design may not be the oldest profession, but the uneasy tensions it has long sustained between creativity and commerce raise concerns about artistic integrity that cannot be easily dismissed. Judith Thurman moves to dismiss them in her introduction, pointing out that “the boundary between ‘applied’ and ‘fine’ art is a bit specious…especially in the case of an artist like Glaser, who navigates the marketplace of our visual culture, but without compromising his ideals.”

The elephant in the canoe, of course, is the fact that the commercial artist, whatever his skills at navigation or the condition of his ideals, must enter the client’s world, capture the essence of the product, and stay within the confines of the assignment while confirming assumptions, accommodating trends, and fulfilling expectations. Glaser doesn’t simply meet these preconditions; he knocks one job after another out of the ballpark. What, I wonder, might his prowess achieve if he weren’t going to bat for Madison Avenue?

The recycled graphics in Drawing is Thinking do not answer that question. Leafing through the book, I can’t shake the feeling that even after his pictures have been stripped of their commercial references and combined in somewhat narrative, slightly abstract, rather musical ways, they are still angling to activate not only my mind but also my credit card. Is it possible to teach an old dog no tricks?

Chögyam Trungpa would weigh in with a nuanced, definitive Yes. “The name artist is not a trademark,” he states. “The problem of the twentieth century is that everyone has become merchandised, everybody is a mercenary, everybody has to have a label…. And the label of ‘artist’ is the biggest problem of all… because that means you are limiting yourself purely to artwork in the literal sense, as something very extraordinary and unusual. But from my way of thinking, and from what my training tells me, when you have perfected your art and developed your sensitivities, you cannot call yourself anybody at all!”

True Perception “is not a book about how to make art. You have to start by paying attention to reality,” Trungpa states in the book’s opening pages, sounding the gong on the theme he will develop at length: how to approach living a life and expressing an art not conditioned by poverty, enmity, or regret—free of the static, panic, and cocoons that occlude our vision. The key to such a life and its art is an inner alignment beyond the capacity of any artistic technique:

Once we stop rejecting the world, the world begins to pounce on us. Symbolism is imposed on us. Realizations and perceptions of all kinds of realities begin to take shape. There is symbolism right and left and front and back.

For me Trungpa’s most revolutionary teaching on the making of art has to do with the surprising image-forming dynamics of a psyche not identified with its neuroses:

We no longer regard a work of art as a gimmick or as confirmation, it is simply expression—not even self-expression, just expression. We could safely say that there is such a thing as unconditional expression that does not come from self or other. It manifests out of nowhere like mushrooms in a meadow, like hailstones, like thundershowers.

For decades I admired the street photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson. I memorized his pictures and searched the streets for “Cartier-Bresson moments”—and found not a single one. This taught me that shooting pictures was a profoundly personal act. Cartier-Bresson has described his working method by saying: “I do not take the photographs; the photographs take me.” I hear in these words the voice of dharma art. I am confident Trungpa would agree. In True Perception he tells us, “I don’t think you learn dharma art, you discover it.”

In the interview included in Drawing is Thinking, Milton Glaser speaks with passion about developing artistic skills in students by training them early on in hand-to-eye coordination. Trungpa rarely mentions art techniques; his focus is to develop mind-to-reality coordination. Such coordination cannot be taught by rote:

In relating with the world, there are some very tough questions: what is the world, whose world is it, and what does relating mean? The basic point is that this is nobody’s world, since there is nobody as such. The energy that is constantly taking place does not belong to anybody but is a natural, organic process. Nevertheless, we function as if the world does belong to us, as if I have myself, as if I do exist. From this point of view, the nonexistence of ego—that primordial state of thisness or solid fixation—is not a philosophical matter, but simply a matter of perception. Perception is unable to trace back its existence to its origin. So each perception becomes sheer energy, without a beginner of the perception and without substance—just simple perception.

The illusory existence of the ego has got to be the toughest of all nuts to crack. Trungpa maintains it is best to do no more than hint at how to approach such a task. His way of hinting includes teasing and stretching and sometimes exploding habitual modes of thinking—as when he describes the big nipple that keeps us close to home, the spider/fly agenda of aggressive art, and the sitting bullfrog mode of being with perceptions without accepting or rejecting them. He talks of the need to have a fool’s perspective in observing reality, and he describes the giant question mark that rots and dissolves into a period. He tells how arriving at square one may make one feel like a punched-out, cross-eyed golden owl, after which one might graduate to square zero. And he refers to a fan that is held, opened, then waved as the threefold activity behind all good works of art.

Thus condensed, Trungpa’s imagery might seem opaque. Even with clarifications, a certain opacity stubbornly persists. Trungpa is after all describing something outside our normal frame of reference, as well as the resistance we put up to letting this same “something” in.

I need to take back what I said about Milton Glaser’s pictures not triggering epiphanies. There is one image near the end of his book—an illustration he made to The Divine Comedy—that I find haunting. It shows, in the gloom of purgatory, a monkish figure in red, hunched, approaching a dark wall. Hovering in the air between man and wall is a bough of green. Behind the wall leap jagged tongues of flame. I feel that Glaser is here depicting someone who has at first been inspired, then became wary, and is now being inexorably drawn, almost against his will, into an encounter with the hidden power of living art.

True Perception: The Path of Dharma Art is missing one thing: good examples. Because Trungpa does not discuss artistic technique, this is all the more reason to include a luminous array of dharma artwork. The book does contain twenty photographs of Trungpa and his students engaged in dharma art, but the images are not well reproduced, none are in color, and they have all been put into a single section. The visual dharma of which Trungpa speaks deserves better; it deserves its own coffee table book, done radiantly right. Until such a book gets made, we will have to make do with the verbal treasures that fill True Perception and bring the world-altering perception Trungpa speaks of delightfully within reach. In the chapter entitled “Self-Existing Humor,” we read, clear as a bell, words to live with and make art by:

Visual dharma is based on having these three foundations:
a non-individualistic sense of humor,
a sense of all-pervasive space, and
an appreciation of the play of phenomena.