Alligator Intellect

Sengai - Nan-ch'uan Threatening to Chop the Kitten in Two

Nan-ch’uan Threatening to Chop the Kitten in Two, by Sengai

[The ink painting above, by Sengai, pictures a scene from the famous Zen koan in which the Zen teacher, Nan-ch’uan, tells his students that he will chop the kitten in half if none of them can say immediately whether reality is (a) objective or (b)subjective.  This picture and the one at the end of this post are from Zen Painting by Yasuichi Awakawa (Kodansha, 1970)]

The intellect is a tool with limited value, and without values.  It’s a garden spade — it’s not soil, or water, or seed, or sunlight.  As Zen Buddhists and others have tried to make us see, if you trust in the intellect, if you give it primacy, you’re simply inviting another emotional, spiritual desire, invisible to you, to control what you do to yourself and to others.  You cut yourself off from feelings, sensations, and intuitions that might grow and feed life.  To blindly trust in the intellect, to give it pride of place, turns you into someone like Lucky in Waiting for Godot, spouting nonsense that sounds impressive, but that isn’t connected to essential or fruitful reality.  We see this in most academic and specialized writing on art, that drains and dries up the juice in its subject.

To give dominance to the intellect is like buying an alligator and giving it the run of your house, not understanding that the alligator’s actions will be driven by insatiable, individual appetite.  That alligator will eat every other living thing and half of the dead things in your house, and, finally, you.

The earmarks of intellect when it isn’t the servant of more important things are arrogance,  emptiness, and self-deception.  We see it all the time.  The categories used by the intellect – animals, Caucasians, neo-expressionism, modernism, enemy —  are nothing more than provisional fictions, practical ways to get others to look in the direction of something that we want them to see, like pointing to a pastry in the cabinet when we don’t speak the cashier’s language.  (Or, for that matter, as I am using “intellect” in this post!)  To the extent that people take such terms for adequate descriptions of living reality, they usually do so for self-serving reasons, with sad consequences.

What’s important is the substance of the person wielding the garden spade, because the spade can be used to plant food or flowers, or it can be used to dig up and destroy what you plant, and what others plant as well.  If you want to see how sterile and puerile the intellect can be when it rules, just consider most largely-conceptual art, in which the horse’s ass so often comes before the cart.

Sengai - Bodhidharma

Bodhidharma, by Sengai

 

About Lawrence Russ

Was the Alfred P. Sloan Scholar for the Humanities at the University of Michigan. Obtained a Master of the Fine Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where I was selected as a Writing Fellow in Poetry by the Program faculty. Have published poems, essays and reviews in many magazines, anthologies, reference works, and other publications, including The Nation, The Iowa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Parabola, OMNI, and the exhibition catalogue for Art at the Edge of the Law at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. Received a law degree from the University of Michigan, and have changed the law and created educational programs in the fields of arts law, historic preservation law, and public construction and contracting law in the State of Connecticut. My photographs have appeared in international, national, regional and state juried exhibitions, and have been selected for awards by jurors including Judy Kim of the Brooklyn Museum and Eva Sutton, Chair of the Photography Department of the Rhode Island School of Design.

Posted on November 24, 2014, in Art as Experience, Art in Society, The Art World, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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