Friday, January 2, 2015

Graven Images and a Birthday Buddha

by Drew Martin
I remember this like it was yesterday: I was a tween/young teenager and my father had asked me for some feedback on a gift he had just bought his brother/my uncle for his birthday (or perhaps it was for Christmas). We were standing in our laundry room when he unwrapped a small, golden Buddha statue. I thought it was so strange and bizarre looking that I suggested he return it for something else. He did; a safer, wood inlay picture of a sailboat.

I have always felt bad about my reaction, and I cannot fully understand it to this day. It was at a time where I appreciated sculptures but I think it felt too occult to me. The town I grew up in was mainly Catholic and Jewish, while I was raised Protestant.

For this Christmas I sent my uncle a small cast iron Buddha in memory of this reaction, more than thirty years ago. What had bothered me the most about the incident was knowing how much more my uncle would have liked the statue than the sailboat picture. We spoke on the phone yesterday and I relayed the story to him. He asked me if it was because I was Christian. I never have felt very religious but the fact that I was raised in bare Protestant churches had a lot to do with it. I was always shocked when I saw religious statues in cathedrals, or objects and ornamentation in churches and synagogues. At that time I had not been in a Buddhist temple. The most we had was the minimalism of a bare cross, and stained glass windows but never a carved human form, which seemed excessive, if not grotesque.

Around that same time I spent the summers camping as a  Boy Scout for two weeks up in New York state. We did not have electricity and most of the structures in the region were canvas tents on wood platforms. Religious services were held outdoors. Once I missed the Protestant service so I tagged along with another scout to a Catholic ceremony. The priest and the small congregation were making so many bizarre gestures with their hands, and kneeling that I ran away crying, thinking that it was some kind of devil worshiping.

I never understood the term graven image in the context of an idol. I thought it implied something serious, of the grave, or sorrowful, like a graven face. But it is a technical term meaning carved (as opposed to molten) and shares its origin with engrave, and graphic.

I found this explanation on a religious site interesting: 

The progression of idolatry in a pagan religion generally starts with the acknowledgement of a power that controls natural forces. The presence of the force is then thought to indwell an object, like a stone, or a place, like a mountain. The next step is altering a naturally occurring object, like a standing stone, a deliberately planted tree, or a carved Asherah pole and asking the force to indwell it. When the idolatrous culture has had time to contemplate the personality of the god, they then make corresponding physical images—a statue that looks like a woman or a relief carving that looks like an animal.

While I now like Buddha statues, I still appreciate the minimalist/conceptual approaches to religion that are less involved with graphic markers. That being said, it is curious how a kind of worship of images and sculptures has persisted in the art world even though the religious meaning of the objects have been drained away since the Renaissance.