Nothing & Everything: The Influence of Buddhism on the American Avant Garde: 1942-1962

Ellen Pearlman, Author
Ellen Pearlman. North Atlantic/Evolver (Random House, dist.), $21.95 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-58394-363-2
Reviewed on: 04/23/2012
Release date: 04/24/2012
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In this eminently readable treatise, Pearlman, a founder of the Brooklyn Rail and early contributor to Tricycle magazine, explores Zen Buddhism's influence on the post-WWII American avant-garde, focusing on its practitioners, students, and resultant artistic movements. Beginning with the public classes of noted Japanese Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki, Buddhism was disseminated throughout the arts in America by Suzuki's famed pupil and composer, John Cage, as well as through the work of the Abstract Expressionists, the Beats (e.g., Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac), and Fluxus artists. Pearlman's study also touches on how Eastern cultures viewed the transplantation of their religious beliefs into the American arts, especially in the wake of the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima—the author notes that while America's artistic elite were embracing Zen Buddhism, artists in Japan were trying to move away from the school of thought, whose institutions were viewed as militaristic and corrupt. Given the book's brevity, Pearlman's survey is remarkably extensive. However, the sheer range of artistic works inspired by Buddhism's influence on the American avant-garde—from Cage's silent composition, 4'33", to Kerouac's energetic stream-of-conscious American epic, On the Road—is perhaps the best evidence of its dynamic and lasting impact. (Apr.)
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