Art of Tibet at Newark

John Brzostoski
© 1968

On one of the loftiest plateaus in the world, atop the Himalayan mountain range, a culture of almost mystical qualities existed among the rocks, airs, and snows which exists no longer. History catches history and feudal theocratic society has vanished into the complexities of the twentieth century. Tibet was one of those last direct links with an almost prehistory attitude of people and culture; a no-history attitude about the past or future except in terms of religion, spirit, and sheer existence. Various remnants are left. One of these is the arts and crafts, saturated in difficult reverberations of lofty concepts. This art was found throughout Tibetan life, everywhere. This had to be so, for without it, life would hardly be worth living. The apperception of the world sky, wind, or mountains, in their startling color changes, was more than an appreciation of nature. It was qualities of mind,modes of consciousness, the actual creation of it. All this existed outside individual conceits and was tied into an interdependent vision of the world. It was simpler than that. Tibetans were aware, and reminded themselves through their art, that men and women always saw through their own eyes and the eyes of everyone that had existed or perceived before them. This larger perception of accumulative history always kept an entire, historical, evolutionary, common perception before them, even though history itself was shrugged off.

All of Tibetan culture came into its arts, religious or secular, even though the line between the two blurs, very early in any comparison of them. A living religious art and a living secular art basically had one important element and that was the spark, flash or lightning stroke of life itself. Sometimes dusty scholars think that there was little originality in the art of Tibet. That is simpleminded and blind. It comes from only seeing some work here or there, and then, on top of that, missing the point altogether of why it exists. The Tibetans were very versatile in materials and manner of work. They were not concerned with the pompous inflation of their own personalities through art. It was an area of activity which was too important for them to do that. They would think it was foolish to invent a completely new, individual language every generation as well. They would find completely unique spelling and grammar idiotic or amusing. Their art was involved in a tight tradition, which was based on experience common to men and women, not to dogmatic rules set down by ancients. A great deal of this had to do with that kind of phenomenon which we, in the West, would call religious or mystical. They would call it something which pertains to the mind; or better still, existence or better still, nonexistence; or more accurately, Shunyata, a beyond experience, usually translated non-helpfully as "nothingness." We debase it by calling it "true" reality, for then we get into the merry-go-round of "true" nonreality, or "true" nothingness, and certainly "true" foolishness in talk. The Tibetans avoided that as much as possible by having art. Let us say that again. For the Tibetans, art was the only absolute way to avoid the esoteric dogmas of religion, mythologies, and superstitions of the verbalizing, rational mind. The rational mind was fine, but it could not deal with reality in the same total and completely instantaneous fashion which was possible through art. And since reality was not something just for temples or holy days, their art came completely into their lives. It was no coincidence that with the tankas (banner paintings) and sculptures of Tibetan Buddhism, the great visualizers were also the great lamas (superior ones). Great reality makers or great artists, however you wish to label them, were the most spiritual and religious of beings; this in direct connection to their ability to avoid limiting words, symbols, or schematics through an all-encompassing vision. Most artists in the West have suspected something akin to this all along but hesitated to bluntly say that visual workers ranked before writers, poets, or musicians. We have a more democratic attitude.

The art of Tibet that we have seen in our hemisphere is usually represented by paintings and sculptures of the greatest perceptual density. Their effect has been so strong that frequently people are thrown off by the impact. There is too much to see. There is too little energy on the part of the observer to deal with them. They are thrown off. But time after time, these seemingly symmetrical images draw viewers back, and they are drawn in and touched. The effectiveness of pieces of cloth as whirlpools or thunderstorms of consciousness and thought change cannot be questioned, for it has happened too often to be ignored. The tankas are like mental machines (yantras), which eventually make noises and chants (mantras) back at the viewer. In Tibet the images pray in unison with the "worshipper" (viewer). This sounds a bit peculiar, but the Tibetan artists knew the relationship between colors, forms, and the other senses, and utilized it to reveal the interchangeability of these seemingly real things. It was not for the sake of games. It was for a human survival, mental and physical. This "music" goes into the everyday world and its wares. Golden Buddhas come disguised as a teapot or an iron seal for wax, shining metallic letters on dark blue paper, striped textile fabrics, or belt pendants and earrings.

Most museums do not have the good fortune of The Newark Museum, New Jersey. For most of this century the museum has had a Tibetan collection. It s broad in its approach, thus suits the reality of Tibetan art and culture best. Buildings did not leave Tibet. However, in Newark, they are brought to us through the photographs of various expeditions, putting the actual material in the complete context of architecture and landscape. Seeing is believing, but in this case it is almost enough to stop belief. What would appear common elsewhere is here transformed: the Tibetan boot, the Tibetan saddle, the woven belts, the tooled silver, the set jewels. People wore perceptual scriptures. They sat within the stripes of consciousness creation. They walked upon solidified (about to vaporize) chants. They saw it on their tea tables, on their beer jugs, and within their flint pouches. They inhaled it from their wooden snuff bottles, felt it in the embossing on their saddles or the carving on their matchlock gun handles. Their money clinked silver mandalas (magic diagrams) and crinkled colored enclosures of lion-like thoughts. It was not religious symbolism saturating into the everyday world of art and seeing. It was art and seeing (without any symbolism necessary) forming the backbone of religion and existence. These things were all made by a person who was a "see-er." And this see-er gave all these things to all persons so they could see.


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