Overstating the religious?

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Times Staff Writer

Interested in becoming a Buddhist? You’re in luck. Now through Jan. 4, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is offering general instruction in Vajrayana Buddhism, a Tantric variation of the religion that is common throughout the Himalayan Range of Southeast Asia.

Why is a county art museum offering a public course of religious study? Beats me. But that’s the novel -- and inappropriate -- organizing principle behind the otherwise impressive new exhibition “The Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art,” which opened Sunday at LACMA.

The show, which travels to Columbus, Ohio, in the winter, surveys a wide array of extraordinary objects. More than a quarter of the 157 paintings, sculptures and other ritual objects come from LACMA’s own important holdings of Buddhist material, especially the great Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck Collection, acquired in the late 1970s and early 1980s.


In addition, a number of exceptional treasures have been lent by the National Museum, Katmandu, Nepal, remarkable works seldom seen outside the remote mountain kingdom. Given the context, the aesthetic and historical significance of LACMA’s collection of Buddhist art has rarely been as plain as it is made here.

But the exhibition is bizarre. Tantric Buddhism is an aesthetic of perfection, designed to bring about the removal of egoistic desires and the development of total compassion. Rather than present these objects as works of art, as one might expect, the museum has chosen them instead as fine examples with which to articulate “the Middle Way” -- the arduous path between sensual indulgence and self-mortification that led Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, to enlightenment 2,500 years ago.

Guest curators John C. Huntington and Dina Bangdel, professors at Ohio State University, worked with LACMA curator Stephen Markel to organize the show, and they also wrote the massive, beautifully illustrated, 560-page catalog. (Their densely written text is not for the faint of heart.) Traditional artistic concerns of art museum exhibitions -- style, historical context, connoisseurship, artist biography, etc. -- play no part in their presentation. Instead, LACMA’s galleries unfold as the articulation and embodiment of a religious philosophy.

Of no interest here are the differences between, say, an elegant Chinese sculpture of a specific Bodhisattva figure from the Yuan dynasty, circa 1,300, and another of exactly the same manifestation from the Ming dynasty, a century later. Nor is the dazzling chromatic splendor of a painting of another Bodhisattva, who sports a thousand arms and 121 heads, painted seven years ago by Nepalese artist Mankaji Lama. A spectacular trio of 15th century carved and painted figures has been reunited here from different collections principally to create an essential temple group.

In these and other instances, their material qualities as objects made by artists are set aside. Those concerns apparently represent the individualistic ethos of the Western world, not Buddhism. You will leave this exhibition having not a clue who these artists were (or, in the case of Mankaji Lama, are), and how (or if) their imagery evolved. Instead, the reason for the art’s inclusion is to instruct us in various aspects of the embodiment of perfect compassion -- that is, to provide experience with critical theological nuances of “the Middle Way.”

The exhibition opens with an introduction to the Buddhist religion. Didactic panels and television monitors throughout the show explain the complex iconography. The strangest is a panel that uses a lesson in modern particle physics to illuminate “the non-duality of male and female in Tantric meditations,” as if Western science offers proof of the authenticity of an Eastern faith. The funniest is a presumably inadvertent design feature of the installation: The televisions are set inside wall niches, where objects of veneration are usually placed.


One gallery emphasizes the necessity for a disciple to find a suitable teacher -- “Don’t try this at home,” so to speak -- and its array of historic examples is further illustrated by recent photographs of eminent American and Asian monks, including the revered Dalai Lama. The art of spiritual evolution unfolds in painted and sculpted visualizations of aspects of the Chakrasamvara Tantra -- the circle of bliss. Finally, at the end of the show, the museum has opened a quiet, dimly lighted room where you are invited to sit on floor cushions and meditate before a mandala.

Like I said, bizarre.

How so? Imagine, if you will, that a Western religion, rather than an Eastern one, were the subject of the show. Let’s say this fantasy exhibition is called “Soteriology: Catholic Veneration Art,” and it’s about the genuine beauty of the idea behind art made for the Catholic Church.

Its aim is to gather paintings and sculptures by Michelangelo, Raphael, Giacomo Manzu and other artists through the centuries who have worked for the Vatican. Popular examples made throughout the world by practitioners of the faith have also been assembled. The plan is not to examine art historical taxonomies but to create for museum visitors a specific course of papal instruction in salvation, as effected by Jesus Christ.

Doctrinal interpretation of the patriarchs and the New Testament is explained on touch screens, while photographs of John Paul II and important contemporary cardinals are displayed. Side chapels are formed with marvelous paintings of the Virgin Mary and finely carved sculptures of various saints. An exquisite 18th century confessional with intricately carved decorations stands nearby, awaiting use. At the end of the show, visitors are invited to kneel at an altar rail and partake of wafer and wine, the body and the blood.

At the opening of such an exhibition there would be, I suspect, pandemonium in the streets. Americans United for Separation of Church and State would form a picket line down Wilshire Boulevard outside the county-funded institution, deploring government sponsorship of religion. Suspended Chief Justice Roy Moore would drag his 5,300-pound monument of the Ten Commandments all the way from Alabama, demanding equal time. Larry King would be called in to referee for the cameras.

That “The Circle of Bliss” will likely pass by with barely a ripple of consternation is merely a function of our intransigent Euro-centrism, as is the fact that the show was organized in this manner. For the art museum is a European construction (ironically, given this show, a product of the Enlightenment). We know what is supposed to go inside -- those rare and exotic things we call masterpieces of art.


An art museum exhibition offering everyday Western religious instruction would create a blatant dissonance, from which we would recoil instinctively. But a show offering Eastern religious instruction -- now there’s the element of exoticism we expect.

“The Circle of Bliss” should not be missed, precisely because of the extraordinary material quality of its individual objects. As an exhibition, though, it is built upon a fallacy. The catalog claims it is part of an emerging trend (help!) to design shows along thematic lines that reflect the cultural concerns and values the objects represent. If that were true, LACMA’s special exhibition galleries would be empty, for an art museum cannot be a Buddhist shrine.

The unspoken idea, which offends modern democratic sensibility, is that faith is essential to the appropriate experience of any work of art made for a religious purpose. But you don’t have to partake of Tantric Buddhism to respect and comprehend the spiritual magnificence of, say, a ferocious double-manifestation of violence and anger fabricated in solid bronze by unidentified Tibetan artists in the 18th century. Any more than you need be Catholic to hold the Sistine ceiling in your heart. All you need for that is to be alive and willing.

Of course, I’m still stuck in egoistic desire. And clearly, total compassion as yet eludes me.


‘The Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art’

Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

When: Mondays-Tuesdays, Thursdays, noon-8 p.m.; Fridays, noon-9 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Closed Wednesdays

Ends: Jan. 4

Price: Adults, $9; students and seniors, $5; children, free

Contact: (323) 857-6000