Sandra Cate. Making Merit, Making Art: A Thai Temple in Wimbledon. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2003. xiv + 218 pp. $52.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8248-2357-3.
Reviewed by Sid Brown (Department of Religion, University of the South)
Published on H-Buddhism (September, 2004)
Colors, Cultures, and Reflections
One look at the cover of Sandra Cate's Making Merit, Making Art: A Thai Temple in Wimbledon and you've begun to ask questions--a lot of them. It is a reproduction of a detail from one of the temple murals Cate investigates (The Defeat of Mara and the Enlightenment from a wall of Wat Buddhapadipa's ubosot), and it features, amidst a churning sea of Demons and yaks (giants), a Thai Airways International airplane, Vincent Van Gogh with paintbrush in hand toppling from and with a ladder, the NASA space shuttle, and a Guernica horse. One member of Mara's army wears a swastika.
What does all this mean? Who painted such an original Mara's army and why? What does the inclusion of modern Western elements with traditional Thai elements mean about this temple and about the world? What are the implications (for the artists, for the viewers, for the rest of us) of this being painted by Thai artists in a Buddhist temple in the United Kingdom? These questions lead to explorations of how ethnography and art history can inform each other, where Thailand meets other countries and communities, where art meets religion and they both meet the market, where tradition meets modernity, and where tourists meet religious practitioners.
One has to salute Sandra Cate. She has chosen a superb topic: the paintings are stunning, and the questions compelling. Paintings and questions both indicate that no line is definitive. Cate explores some of these theoretical issues largely informed by anthropology, and she treats the reader to glimpses of (and sometimes long looks at) people involved in the mural-painting project and her interactions with them.
We spend one chapter learning more about the two main directors of the project and artists: Chalermchai and Panya. Part of another chapter we spend side-by-side Cate as she sits on a balcony overlooking the Chaopraya River in Bangkok interviewing one of the people most responsible for raising the money that paid for the project. Predictably, these times are when the book is most alive. Chapter five, entitled "'Going Outside' and the Experience of Modernity" is particularly strong. It is well-organized, alive with specific examples; the claims are supported well while we learn about the lives of the artists. It is a robust chapter.
Exploring where the lines fail to divide things could have been where the richness of this book lies, but the book lacks a strong enough underlying theoretical apparatus to do the job well. Without that or a more sustained and invigorating narrative, it is somewhat patched together--as though it were trying to do too much and so could do no one thing well. The topic is fascinating, the stories are often fine, and the paintings are delightful. But the whole does not live up to its parts.
For whom was the book written? Scholars of art history? Anthropology? Religious Studies? None can be satisfied, I am afraid. Oddly and regrettably, a lot more of the richness and charm of this book is located in its footnotes and in the final pages of the book. At one point Cate explains the challenges of owning and displaying a distinctive black Buddha. In a footnote she notes that this Buddha image is said to prefer eggs and that some bring donations of ninety-nine eggs to the image, leading the caretaker of the temple, "an excellent cook" to "pride himself on his repertoire of recipes requiring lots of eggs" (p. 172, fn 57). Why is this amusing detail relegated to a footnote? That is an amusing bit that is hidden. More important aspects of Cate's explorations are also hidden.
Further, in the realm of things Buddhist, Cate often fails to address complexities. For example, she notes that "insight into the reality of things" is "the goal of Buddhist vipassana meditation techniques" (p. 6), but is that not an odd and oddly restrictive way to categorize "insight into the reality of things"? From one Buddhist perspective, is that kind of insight not the very key to liberation from all suffering? And while one can certainly argue about the prominence of meditation in the lives of non-cleric Buddhist Thais, somehow the view Cate seems to offer here is not clear and full. Certainly many scholars might argue that almost every text of the Buddhist canon is about "insight into the reality of things;" some would argue that that is really the point.
Another example of this kind of problem is when Cate notes that "monks obey the most vinaya rules" (p. 175, fn 3). One wonders why she notes this. One of the most problematical prejudices of Theravada Buddhists, one that relegates Thai maechii (the closest thing to nuns the mainstream of this conservative tradition of Buddhism allows) for example, to the sidelines, is this sort of prejudice about the value of taking a lot of vows. Why does she not question this or at least note the complexity here? Further, calling nirvana "cessation of being" without more careful explanation is also likely to send readers more ignorant about Buddhism back to early western misconceptions of it as a negative religion (p. 80). And that the goddess of the earth defeats Mara by wringing her hair of water is noted, but not why--that the water the Buddha is said to have used in his pious Buddhist practices (the Thai water-pouring ceremony) in all his previous lifetimes is the water that defeats Mara.
Other problems arise in denying complexities of ethnicity and race. For example, Cate notes that while the monks at Wat Buddhapadipa do not send temple monks to the surrounding houses for alms rounds because "such an activity would be inappropriate" (p. 114) and then notes in a footnote that Ajahn Sumedho at Amaravati Buddhist temple in England "sends monks and lay Buddhists on retreat to the village for morning alms rounds to maintainvinaya discipline" (p. 188, fn 49) and that the neighbors have gotten used to that. An important aspect of the difference between these two temples may very well be that the abbot of Wat Buddhapadipa is Asian (Thai) and the abbot of Amaravati is if not English in nationality (he was born in the United States) then at least white. Might the race of a Buddhist abbot in the U.K. have an effect on what is easy and what is difficult for that abbot in the social milieu? Which brings us to an even larger concern--Cate seems to unquestionably adopt the habit of referring to white English people as "English" as though the nationality or cultural category necessitates Caucasian race.
Like the issues of where art meets religion and where anthropology meets art history, the issue of where religion and ethnicity and racial issues come together is fascinating. But not addressed here in the kind of depth needed. Making Merit, Making Art is a good start and addresses an excellent topic. Readers will enjoy learning more about the Thai art world and its international aspects. I hope Cate's work will inspire more thorough investigations of these paintings in particular as well as of other intersections she addresses.
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Sid Brown. Review of Cate, Sandra, Making Merit, Making Art: A Thai Temple in Wimbledon.
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