Can the Arts Make us Enlightened?

Via on Sep 2, 2010

Bearing Witness to Auschwitz, Homelessness and Media.

Zen Masters whack students with sticks or unexpectedly shout or find other ways to push the students into Not-Knowing.

Tracks leading into Auschwitz death camp.

Once we are not longer stuck in our comfort zone, we can Bear Witness to what’s really happening around us (to use the terminology of the Zen Peacemakers).  Zen Master Bernie Glassman innovated other “plunges” that achieve the same thing, by leading retreats on the streets or at Auschwitz.  These practices are part of a path of spiritual awakening, helping us let go of attachments and realize the oneness of life.  What would a plunge look like in the arts?

As I was thinking of my Elephant Journal posts and our website, I wondered: how can I create a plunge experience online? That is, an experience that overwhelms the sense of business as usual, knocks the viewer out of their comfort zone and puts them into direct contact with something in front of them. Or as we say at Zen Peacemakers, puts them in a state of Not-Knowing, so that Bearing Witness can take place? Of course, there is nothing like actually being on the streets, or at Auschwitz or in Rwanda (where Fleet Maull started leading plunges) … but are there proxies in media?

Indeed, isn’t Bearing Witness one of the primary objectives of all art? Isn’t it the goal to get the viewer to identify with a character and get the audience so wrapped up in the story that they forget they are watching a movie or reading a book, as they plunge into the constructed world and go through the emotions of the character? Are the techniques for achieving this similar to the techniques of the Zen teacher or the Bearing Witness Plunge?

At Auschwitz, you are overwhelmed with horror and sadness as you witness relics of a ghastly scale of cruelty. On street retreats, you experience aspects of the city that you are so used to overlooking and ignoring. What happens in the arts? Can that experience be created online?

What are the elements of a plunge? Defying expectations, direct and strong appeals to the emotions that bypass the head and go directly to the heart… what else? In media, and especially on the web, this means avoiding distractions that remind the viewer that they are viewing media and not experiencing something directly. Of course, the web is different. Most web site are non-fiction resources intended to convey information and not story-telling devices. Or are they?

About Ari Setsudo Pliskin

Ari Setsudo Pliskin is Zen Yogi who works to actualize the interconnectedness of life online and on the streets. While once addicted to school, Ari has balanced his geekiness with spiritual practice and time spent on society’s margins. As a staff member of the Zen Peacemakers, Ari assisted Zen Master Bernie Glassman in his teaching around the world. Ari studies Zen at the Green River Zen Center in Greenfield, MA and is an Iyengar-style yoga teacher. Ari loves comic books as well. Ari currently serves as the Executive Director of the Stone Soup Café . Connect with Ari on Facebook or Twitter: @AriPliskin.

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7 Responses to “Can the Arts Make us Enlightened?”

  1. Katie says:

    Good Questions Ari. I especially like the 3rd paragraph about getting absorbed in the "illusion" of a piece of art. I am reminded of a one-woman show I saw in Brooklyn. The whole piece was a trilogy, and after seeing the first show, I returned years later to see the last instillation. I was somewhat confused, when in the second part of the play, she broke down the illusion and revealed her personal story and how it had inspired the premise for the show. I must say that though I still enjoyed it, I was a little disappointed to have the illusion broken. Then again, it begs the question – which is more real? Her performance or her story?

    In terms of media and art and distraction, I found this ironic, as the little ads on the side of the blog post were really distracting as I was trying to read! My thoughts are that there is too much flashy clutter on the page.

  2. John Genyo Sprague says:

    These reflections are interesting to me, Ari. When I think of the arts, I definitely feel that spiritual plunges are not only possible, but where the arts at their best are meant to take us. As an improvisor, I do plunges all the time with the arts — in improvisational music and dance, which are all-encompassing experiences of non-duality, being at one with oneself, ones environment, and one activity.

    But being online is a very different, and much less embodied form. Before reading your piece, I had never considered online media as being art in quite the same way as being at a concert, or dancing, or an art gallery can be. So when I think of art and plunges I think of live experiences of art, not online.

    However, your quesition about online media is intriguing to me, because we are online a lot, and I myself am developing a new web site, which I want to be as moving as possible to others. One criteria I am considering for myself is whether an online experience, lead to greater engagement with ones embodied, not-online life. This is what true are always does, awakes us to our lives. So if our online media can awaken us more fully to our lives, then I would say it has passed the test we are investigating here.

    • Ari Setsudo Pliskin Ari Pliskin says:

      Your distinction between embodied live music and dance and the internet would be true not only for the internet, but also TV, movies, and even books, right? I'm totally fascinated to explore where this line of thought can lead.

  3. Ari, is a kind of shock experience-like a visual koan, the only positive use of the arts? I think your article is great but I feel that art (I'm an artist) and I"m biased-can be uplifting. Not in a superficial feel good way, but in such a way that it causes or precipitates a "spiritual" experience or even awakening. And yeah even feel good. Right now Ari, so many– even in the west feel really bad, we are in a state of overwhelm leading to shock and withdrawal from problems….you know? I see that in how people are actually reacting to life these days.
    It' almost like you and I are climbing the same mountain but by different paths, perhaps karma, society, gender, temperament causing us to choose our respective paths. Things that come to mind are the Enso? paintings of circles, yantras (which I create,) and mandalas etc. I actually see that black, grey and white ink painting of the plums on vast white space…
    Anyway what I'm really pointing to is not about art, it is: shock or a slap is one way and may work for one personality, some may come out of their shell of withdrawal and fear by a more nurturing, supportive approach in general…

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