Monastic Technologies (part 2 of 2 @ the Transpositions Art & Monasticism Symposium)

Posted by on May 6, 2012 in Otherhood | No Comments
Monastic Technologies (part 2 of 2 @ the Transpositions Art & Monasticism Symposium)
[I wrote this originally for the online Art & Monasticism Symposium, April 30 – May 5, through Transpositions, a collaborative effort of students associated with the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at the University of St Andrews. This is part 2, and part 1 is here. It was featured alongside great posts by Christine Valters Paintner, Cole Matson, Preston Yancey, and Sr Mary Stella McNamee]

In terms of hardware, community is one of the biggest pieces. But a monastery, whether Benedictine or Kagyu, is not just any intentional community. As a structure in space, a monastery has intentionality designed into every square foot. As a structure in time, a routine that carries practitioners toward greater balance, compassion and wakefulness, a monastery must be flexible and free enough to adapt to changing circumstances and to give monks time to be quiet and still, yet rigid enough to keep monks active and productive. Thus an Art Monastery is not just your average artist colony. It is informed by the history of monastic architecture, as well as the routines that have guided monks for hundreds of years.

Monastic discipline is another piece of technology we apply to art-making. At certain times of the year we get up at the same time, work together to sustain ourselves as well as to make art (be it dance, music, theatre, painting, sculpture, performance art, etc….), and engage in contemplative activities like meditation, chant, and reading together throughout the day. Our meditations focus our minds and give us insights that we can apply to our individual or group creative work. In turn, the process of art-making benefits our progress along our personal spiritual path, which may differ greatly from Artmonk to Artmonk.

At an institutional level, we focus on practice as much as on product. We consider ourselves an alternative form of art institution, and thus prize new ways of thinking about art: as devotion, as offering, as gift, as sacred act, as ritual, as individual expression of the divine, as teacher, as priest, as sacred text, and as sacrifice. Similarly, we are an alternative economy for artists and Artmonks alike: we practice resourcefulness and community in order to liberate artists from the prevailing economics of art, one that either commodifies a work or disregards it as dangerous or political.

We apply monastic forms of governance to our community living: we experiment with monastic rules and vows. This year, for example, four of us have taken yearlong Artmonk Vows to practice gratitude, fidelity, and resourcefulness. We think about art as a lineage, or as a number of branching lineages, some of which are directly applicable to our vision of personal awakening and cultural transformation. Like other monastic traditions, we experiment with functional (rather than absolute) hierarchies. Each Art Monastery could have an Abbot or Abbess, as well as a spiritual director and an artistic director.

For the past three years, we have run three public and two private Artmonk Retreats, laboratories for connecting silent contemplation and creativity, inspiration and expression. We experiment with asceticism and renunciation, as well as ecstatic abundance.

Like many monasteries, we are interested in being both removed from the world and actively engaged to make it better through service and hospitality. We have a commitment to the places we live. Like many eastern monastic traditions, we work with philosophical dialogue and debate to bring about conceptual artistic and spiritual understanding.

This process is just a few years old, and we have much to learn. For example, even though we have been occupying a few rooms in a medieval monastery in Italy for the past couple of years, most of us have more experience with meditation retreats in Tibetan and Theravada Buddhist lineages than with the realities of western monastic life. And while the ideas for much of what we do are borrowed from other monastic sources, they often have to be rebuilt from the ground up to be useful and relevant to us. How can we honor tradition, even as we borrow from and adapt it to our unique mission?

These are the kinds of creative problems Artmonks love most.

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