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A Mad Artist and a Buddhist: Viewing Alexander McQueen at the Met

Have you seen the exhibition, “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty,” at the Metropolitan Museum? If so, I would like to have a conversation with you. If you haven’t, please go and see it, and then talk with me.

It doesn’t matter if you care for fashion or not. It is an extraordinary exhibition. And I would like to discuss it from a Buddhist point of view.

Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

As you may know, Mr. McQueen was an eccentric British designer who galvanized the house of Givenchy in the early 90s. Later, with his own Alexander McQueen brand, he established a unique world: so dark, so romantic, so dramatic, and so hollow.

I still remember the day when he committed suicide, February 11th, 2010. It was the first day of New York Fashion Week, and we all were in the Bryant Park tent waiting for the Richard Chai’s show to start. The news spread like a draft of strange cold air. Suddenly, people started frantically typing on their Blackberries, anxiously making calls. Some looked pale. “He hung himself!?”, I overheard somebody whispering in disbelief.

The exhibition at the Met can transport people into a similar state of shock. Even my British husband, who rarely shows emotion, commented that the show “is interesting.”

As I observed meticulously embroidered and then deformed dresses, sculptured hats, super model-filled runway video archives, and jelly-fish like towering high heeled shoes (which Lady Gaga promoted in her music video), I had the same thought over and over. “His own demons forced him to push the dressmaker’s art into the realm of genius. His art was a product of his demon, and he became the victim of his genius.” Like Robert Johnson, who according to legend sold his soul to the devil and received miraculous blues guitar technique in return, Mr. McQueen must have surrendered to his demon and created mad art. His anger, desire, passion, despair, resentment, insecurity, envy, greed, hatred, confusion, all integrated into his art and made it transcendent.

Here comes my big question. Can a Buddhist create this crazy yet emotionally charged art? On a Buddhist path, a practitioner observes thoughts and feelings. As one simply observes them and doesn’t react, one will be able to let them go. We are trying to make our minds as serene as a placid lake.

As we tame our minds, must we sacrifice some of the momentum that can carry us to the border between creativity and insanity?

I am sure if McQueen had followed a Buddhist path and become a serious student, he would have not taken his own life, but maybe this exhibition would also not have existed. 

The exhibition closes on August 7th.

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Does it Touch your Heart?

Some of his work is interesting. And some beautiful and striking. But there is a lot of mostly shock value and clashing patterns that say look at me but nothing about not a lot about flow or connection. His ability to make the stereotypical model figure look at times bulbs in unusual places and strangely out of proportion is interesting. The fact that he was able to experiment with such repeatedly on the runway speaks to his popularity. But like many well known "avant-garde" artists, once you start down the road of shock and awe, that's what people expect, that's what you are known for and it's hard to get away with making something simple beautiful and touching, though it continued to come up in his work occasionally. Though it is unusual for the main stream there still seemed to be quite a bit of aggression and striving and trying to please by living up to an expectation he had created for his line. Clothing is a very interesting art form because the energy, expression, body type (not that they are ever any different in his shows) can change the feeling of a piece completely. That said, I still pose the question, does his work Touch your Heart?

The "Tortured Artist" is a Myth

You’ve passed a myth along to others.  Sure, there are dysfunctional artists because there are dysfunctional people.  But there have been plenty of creative people, throughout history, who’ve been highly functional.  Rossini wasn’t tortured; he was a rich fat cat who retired young and partied at his country estate for the rest of his life.  By all accounts Shakespeare did quite well for himself; and I’ve heard no stories about Mamet leading a tortured life.  Dickens was prosperous and happy and Joyce Carol Oates has spent her life churning out one great American novel after another while enjoying an illustrious teaching career at Princeton.  Dali was a genius as an artist and a genius at self promotion.  And richer than God.  As for meditation interfering with the creativity, read some of Thich Nhat Hanh’s poetry or (dare I say it) some of the sutras and that theory flies out the window.  I meditate routinely and in the past year I’ve produced three e-books which will be published this fall; and a new book of poetry is well under way.  If an artist or scientist or entrepreneur fails to create good work it’s not because of meditation; it’s because they lack talent. 

McQueen gave to the London Buddhist Centre

I'm not sure if you are aware of this but McQueen gave 100,000 pounds to the London Buddhisi Centre.


Thank you very much for the

Thank you very much for the information. I vaguely remember that he left some money to his dogs and housekeepers, but not to a Buddhist center.

you raise interesting questions

Having one's demons fuel his or her art isn't necessarily at odds with a Buddhist path. Art can be the ultimate way noticing of one's thoughts and feelings, and a process by which someone eventually learning not to identify with them so much. 

And again, there is nothing wrong with our perceptions in and of themselves, they're only probelematic when we relate from them instead of to them.

chogyam trungpa rinpoche

talks a lot about being outrageous and being brave enough to be a fool in his book on dharma art ("True Perception.") "Outrageousness is a sense of being fearless in your celebration and your sense of humor. Sometimes it could be somewhat absurd and stubborn, but that seems to be the necessary eccentricity of this approach."

essentially, he's saying that art should come from clear seeing, not from a sense of exhibitionism or a desire to prove something or to fulfill the role of "artist." it's more about stripping away habitual perceptions and seeing with fresh eyes what is there.

I think art that challenges perceptions, that deconstructs the obvious, that makes us see things in a new way is very Buddhist -- as long as it is done with the intent of exploration and curiosity, not merely to draw attention or become famous/notorious.

now ... who's to say what the true essence of a thing is? is my view of a flower's essence the same as yours? and does that make it the flower's essence -- or the viewers'?

so many interesting questions. thank you.

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