Friday, August 23, 2013

Art Therapy: Hellenistic Style

Sextus Empiricus, the Skeptic philosopher from the 2nd century CE, recounts this story of Apelles, a famous Hellenistic artist:

“The Sceptic, in fact, had the same experience which is said to have befallen the painter Apelles. Once, they say, when he was painting a horse and wished to represent in the painting the horse's foam, he was so unsuccessful that he gave up the attempt and flung at the picture the sponge on which he used to wipe the paints off his brush, and the mark of the sponge produced the effect of a horse's foam.”
(Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Book1:Chapter 12)
Skepticism, from Sextus Empiricus' version, encouraged a suspension of judgment through the psychological technique of always  presenting opposing thoughts and perceptions to consciousness and holding them in our minds until we become mentally paralyzed. Only then could a person finally achieve ataraxia (<a(not) &  tarassein (to trouble)). Ataraxia was a state of tranquility, or untroubledness, through the breaking out of the box, like the effect of contemplating a Zen koan. Apelles' art therapy resulted in his state of ataraxia by his giving up on visually representing the horse's froth through detailed reconstruction. Rather, he spontaneously developed the technique of "action painting" through tossing a paint-laden sponge onto his picture.
Apelles was our first action painting abstract expressionist, predating Pollock and de Kooning by over 2000 years. Sometimes skepticism, which seems these days to be heavily intellectual, can instead nurture a spontaneous, impulsive and non-dogmatic creativity.

Friday, August 16, 2013

A Cosmopolitan Meditation

One of the reasons that I savor the accumulated wisdom of the people of the Mediterranean is that there are so many sage meditations, reflections and epigrams from this region that help us today. The Greco-Roman world, from the Hellenistic culture spread by Alexander the Great to the Late Antique Roman Empire, was decidedly cosmopolitan. Encountering the diverse cultures of the Mediterranean, the Near East and Persia, the Hellenistic Greeks and later the Romans chose to broadly incorporate indigenous religions and philosophies rather than suppress them (unless they posed a political threat). Even the word, cosmopolitan, is derived from the Greek, kosmos and polites, roughly meaning citizen of the world.
The concept of cosmopolitanism was originally proposed by the founder of the Greek Cynics, Diogenes of Sinope (Greek colony on the Southern Black Sea coast) and a contemporary of Alexander. When Diogenes was asked, "Where do you come from?",  he responded, "I am a citizen of the world".  Later, the Stoics embraced this notion of world citzenry--most notably a stoic named Hierocles, circa 100-150 CE who left a marvelous meditation to train our souls to encompass concern for all beings. I list here a modification of Hierocles' meditation adapted to our context:
"Imagine a series of concentric circles with yourself at the center point. The first circle would be your mind and your body, the next your family, then your community, friends, your communal associations, your city, country and all the world. Now, allowing the most distant circle to contract toward yourself and the inner circles to expand to encompass all beings."

This reads almost like a Buddhist Metta meditation. You almost wonder whether Greco-Roman cosmopolitanism adopted aspects of Buddhist ethics in its encounter with South Asian culture. But that is another story...

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Beyond Belief: An Exhibition of the Spiritual in Modern Art

                                                    Teresa Fernandez Fire 2005 SFMOMA
San Francisco is a marvelous city for discovering the idiosyncratic. A art exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum assembles many artworks from SF Museum of Modern Art that reflect the uncanny overlap between spirituality and modern and contemporary art over the past 100 years. Having abandoned its association with organized religion at the onset of the Enlightenment, modern art has sought meaning in subjective spiritual experience and in the conveying of Divine presence in the material of the art. This exhibition does just that to the viewer, transporting us through  various qualities of the spirit: genesis, abstraction, presence, meaning-making and hiddenness. Schleiermacher, an early 19th century theologian, wrote an apology for religion to his Romantic artist friends in which he posited that  religion was grounded in feelings, namely, a feeling or intuition of utter dependence on something beyond oneself. Experiencing this exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum rivets the soul with this sense of dependence on the infinite and complex expressions embedded in great art.
                                      Ana Mendieta Tallus Mater/Stern Mother 1982 SFMOMA

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Yurok Spirituality

The Yurok people, living in their ancestral homes from Trinidad to the mouth of the Klamath, have retained, revitalized and reclaimed their indigenous religion and language. They dwelled along the coast of Northern California in harmony with the bountiful redwoods, Sitka spruce, and Douglas fir. A sense of animism pervades their  world--an animism that both endows personhood to individual crags, locations, trees and rivers and spurs a relational ethos to these spirited beings. The "New Animism", a term that encompasses a multitude of spiritual beliefs and rituals, from some Neopagans to Pantheists to adherents of African Traditional Religions, fits with the notion that relations among beings, broadly understood, has traction over a monistic worldview--the local precedes the global. So it is a wonderful thing that the Yurok are teaching their language in public schools in Northern California. A striking example of the Yurok relational way is the carving of redwood dugout canoes. The canoe displayed here is from the reconstructed Yurok village of Sumeg at Patrick's Point State Park. It was carved by the Yurok elder, Dewey George, and has carved ornaments depicting the heart, the two kidneys and the two lungs of the tree spirit.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Jesus as Zealot: Reza Aslan's New Biography

Reza Aslan has written a splendidly crafted story of Jesus' life and ministry in which he argues that Jesus was a proto-Zealot who sought to overthrow the hegemonic Roman rule of 1st century CE Palestine. Aslan's Jesus is a political rebel who overturns the tables of the moneychangers at the Jerusalem Temple court. Aslan depicts Jesus as an "Occupy the Temple Court" sort of leader rather than the mild-mannered minister conventionally portrayed in the religious education classes and sermons of liberal Christian churches. Aslan supports his narrative with a caravan of religious and historical scholarship, posing the basic question of what kind of crimes were punished by Roman crucifixion? For those of us who are aficionados of the TV series, Spartacus, the answer, of course is sedition, crimes against the Roman state.
What is most enthralling about Aslan's book is the skill with which he recounts the narrative. Aslan, not only has a PhD from UC Santa Barbara in the sociology of religion, but also has an MFA from U of Iowa in fiction writing, and it shows! Aslan has mastered the highlighting of conflict and character development in Jesus, as well as created a detailed social historical context for Jesus' peasant revolt against the Roman rulers and the complicitous landowners and priests of Palestine. Moreover, he traces the budding conflict among the early Jesus followers between the "Hebrews" and the "Hellenists", between the Jerusalem church of Jesus' brother James and the Hellenistic Diaspora influenced Paul, who, according to Aslan's story, caused the theological rift that would forever separate Christianity form Judaism.
An interesting twist to Aslan's personal narrative is that he, a week ago, was interviewed on Fox News by Lauren Green, their religion correspondent. In a lamentable display of xenophobia, Green lambasted Aslan for being a Muslim writing about Jesus despite Aslan's scholarship in religious studies. I often wonder whether the "Religious Right" freaks out over ambiguous or multiple identity--how can Aslan both be a Muslim and a Christian religious scholar? How can Jesus be a zealot, a prophet and a wisdom instructor, all at the same time?