Buddhism For Cubists

“I was conscious only of following my fancies as a butterfly and was unconscious of my individuality as a man. Suddenly I awoke, and there I lay, myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterlfly dreaming I am a man.”

Chuang-Tzu (c. 369 BCE – c. 286 BCE) (tr. Herbert Giles)

In the West, we tend to think of ourselves as distinct from Nature: I am I, an ego that is separate, distinct from– and often in conflict with– whatever is not me, my own “self.”  From the Buddhist point of view, the cause of our incessant conflicts and suffering on this earth is trishna, our craving to grasp and hold on to what cannot be grasped or held on to. Two illusions form the basis of this frustration: The first is– there is nothing “out there” beyond the periphery of your skin that you can hold on to because nothing is permanent–everything is changing, constantly and always. The second illusion is– there is no You, that is, no “self” as a separate ego distinct from everything else “out there.” The “self” seems to be real, but it is only a construct, a useful one, to be sure, as the Equator is also a useful construct. But is there any actual line on land or sea that you can point to and say “there it is, the Equator?”  For Buddhism, in short, there is nothing to hang on to, and even if there were, there is no “you” to grasp it.

More than a century ago, many artists began to realize that the tools they had inherited from the Renaissance to create the illusion of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional canvas, techniques such as linear perspective, for example, were inadequate to express the rapid changes of the modern world. The discovery of x-rays and quanta, the inventions of the the light bulb and the phonograph– to say nothing of the automobile and the airplane– forced artists to imagine new ways to depict the constantly changing world they lived in. Pablo Picasso and George Braque understood that one  drawback of traditional perspective was that it was based on only a single point of view. They wondered, was it possibe in a world of constantly shifting points-of-view, to give multiple points of view on the canvas? Their response was “yes,” and they constructed a new way of seeing, later called Cubism.

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