A Tibetan monk walks into a bar … the future of creativity

Thangka painters have an entirely different conception of art to most Western painters. What should art do for us? Rosino/Flickr

Beyond questions of its value and its sources there is a question less frequently contested about creativity: its relationship to us.

One evening some time ago, I was walking down Chapel Street in Melbourne’s South Yarra with a Tibetan monk who had just arrived in Australia. Namgyel had been brought out from China by a Buddhist centre in Melbourne and it was one of a number of outings we made as he got a feel for the city he had been transplanted into.

Noticing a small gathering inside a brightly-lit shop across the road we went over to take a look. It was a small boutique-y gallery and there was an opening underway, people standing around inside the white cube holding glasses of chilled white wine. “You might find this interesting,” I said, knowing he was a painter. “Let’s go in.”

We didn’t take a glass of wine – he was a monk and we were interlopers anyway. We made our way around the wall. There were about 20 watercolours, seascapes, in a style usually described as “realistic” or “traditional painting” in Australia, as opposed to modern, abstract or contemporary. They were all of modest size, a little bigger than a laptop screen.

Back on the footpath he asked me, “What was that for?”

“It is the first night of the exhibition,” I explained.

“No, what are the paintings for?” “They’re for sale,” I said.

“I know that,” he replied, “but why? Why do people buy them?”

“They’re nice to look at, aren’t they?” I said. Namgyel is an artist, but he had never been in a gallery, and had never before come face-to-face with art that was not religious. His painting practice has a clear purpose, and it isn’t the reproduction of pretty scenery.

I recount this episode as a reminder of the many ways art is viewed across the range of contemporary publics – local, national or international. Where does that diversity leave us?

In answer we might want to head somewhere below any temptation to announce that it is simply a matter of “each to his or her own,” “let a hundred flowers bloom,” or the market logic of “sink or swim”. Familiar responses like these sidestep the question of our relationship to art.

The three eras of art

In the recent history of art in the West there have been, broadly speaking, three eras.

French philosopher Jacques Rancière called them “three regimes of art”:

  • the ethical
  • the representational
  • the aesthetic

We might take the art of the thangka painter Namgyel as an example of the ethical regime, where images are “questioned for their truth and for their effect on the ethos of individuals and the community”. The watercolour seascapes belong to the representational regime and its “sphere of imitation … subject to a set of intrinsic norms”.

With the aesthetic regime the previous norms are overthrown and a form of autonomy emerges that is not that of the work of art, but of a mode of experience.

In this latest mode we have left Namgyel and the water-colourist, the icon and the image, behind. We can understand historical forms of art as meaningful, but right now we want something else. We want, essentially, to be transformed.

According to Rancière, three further scenarios ensue.

Art can become life. Life can become art. Art and life can exchange their properties.

The exchange between life and art

The question of the overlap between life and art can be understood in a number of ways. And it is a paradoxical question too, in that art had to be separated from life before it could return to the kind of relationship with life that Rancière identified.

Compartmentalised, religion went into Sunday, art went into museums.

A life lived as an artist means giving up the dominant norms of success that prevail around us. For those who are making the sacrifice it can seem very unromantic, particularly when curators and administrators are bringing in “highly desirable” salaries – but what about if it applied to all of us?

And so we turn to the surrealist economics of Georges Bataille and The Accursed Share, a theory of economics first published in 1949, in which he engages with the question of “excess energy, translated into the effervescence of life”.

A convoluted and lapidary argument, his reflections grow from a single realisation:

it is not necessity but its contrary, luxury, that presents living matter and mankind with their fundamental problems.

What does this have to do with the artist and creativity?

Throughout The Accursed Share Bataille is conscious of the co-option of the artist in service to a “traditional sovereign world” in which non-sovereign art produced the appearance of the splendour of the king, a splendour that was “the domain of the architects, painters, musicians and writers that surrounded him”.

Only a few artists glimpsed the possibility of art beyond appropriation, a sovereign art free of subjection.

The price for this? In Bataille’s words:

In this world, the man of sovereign art occupies the most common position, that of destitution … [T]he sovereignty of art requires that anyone who bears that sovereignty within him comes down in the world.

There is no other way of resisting what Bataille calls “the immense hypocrisy of the world of accumulation”.

Why does art appear to offer a solution?

Holding onto Bataille’s theme of sovereign art and non-appropriation, let’s finally turn to the place of poverty in Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life (2013). Agamben’s purpose is to challenge the absolute institutionalisation of production, consumption and instrumentality, taking the legacy of the Franciscan friars as a counter-model that invests in use over ownership, in form-of-life over alienation.

And art?

Agamben suggests that “the monastery is perhaps the first place in which life itself – and not only the ascetic techniques that form and regulate it – was presented as an art”. Use and form-of-life also reside in art.

Agamben’s pointing to the possibility of raising use over ownership, form-of-life over alienation, runs close to Bataille’s concern with art’s subversion of the usual relationship between labour and consumption, and also close to challenges we shall all face “when all the West’s forms of life have reached their historical consummation.”

This challenge is not upheld as the measure of the artist; the existence of the artist becomes a challenge to the way we each measure ourselves.


Read other articles in our creativity series here. The author will deliver a paper on “total artification” in Melbourne on March 11. Details here.

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