Modern Art, by Michelle Welch

I recently had an opportunity to visit the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum, a collection of modern art in Washington, D.C. While viewing the exhibits, trying to find a good way to look at them, a thought occurred to me: there’s something remarkably Buddhist in the approach I ended up using.

Some of the Shambhala training I’ve been studying focuses on the idea of letting go of concepts, dropping any preconceived thoughts you might have about things you encounter and getting closer to the direct experience of them. If you feel frightened, for example, stop telling yourself why you’re frightened or who’s to blame for it or what to do about it, and just feel the sensation of fear, where it is in the body, what sort of energy underlies it. It’s a fairly radical approach, compared to our usual way of doing things.

Modern art, in my view, has a similarly radical approach. The trend of art from the Renaissance up to the modern era was largely focused on technique and perfecting that technique to yield the most accurate representation possible, and art criticism for this era is mostly about evaluating the artist’s skill. Modern art was a huge change from that. That’s why it’s so hard for many people to look at modern art; they may be used to judging art based on its skill in representing its subject, but with modern art they might struggle even to figure out what the subject is.

I’ve been to numerous museums and I’ve always had a fondness for modern art, although in the past I’ve also been perplexed about how to judge some of the pieces. This time, though, I kept my recent Shambhala teachings in mind. I dropped the concepts about what I was seeing and my attempt to figure it out. I just stood back and let the impressions hit me. I took off my glasses and didn’t read the explanatory notes posted on the wall next to each piece until I’d really gotten the sense of it. Feeling the reactions – which ones were peaceful, which ones claustrophobic, which ones dark and unsettling – was very powerful.

It was also exhausting, which is probably why we don’t let ourselves experience the world like this very often. It was rewarding, though, and I think it could be the basis of a valuable practice.