Melissa Kerin, assistant professor of art history at Washington and Lee University, has been awarded a Mednick Memorial Fellowship Grant to conduct research on an aspect of Tibetan Buddhist shrines in India that has been overlooked by art historians.
Kerin will travel this summer to the Western Himalaya in northwestern India, an area that is politically part of India but culturally Tibetan Buddhist. She will document the visual material at the shrines through photography, interviews and assessments of how they are constructed and how they have been expanded over time.
Some of the shrines Kerin will study are at Buddhist temples while others are family shrines. According to Kerin, these Tibetan Buddhist shrines are a very rich yet untapped area of study with an accumulation of both high and low art.
High art is defined within art history circles by its antiquity, how well it is crafted and the materials used. Low art is largely associated with mass produced imagery that can be widely circulated and made of materials that aren't especially precious.
Tibetan Buddhist shrines are sites where people make devotional offerings to deities of objects that Kerin called "incredibly layered," including statuary, paintings, texts, photographs, lithographic prints, textiles, clay-tablet mortuary offerings and butter lamps. Kerin considers these "low art" offerings to be overlooked by art historians.
"Oddly enough, very little of the material at these Tibetan Buddhist shrines or the actions of giving have really been studied," said Kerin. "That has a lot to do with the fact that we are dealing with mass-produced imagery. Often art historians are trained to look past the mass-produced imagery to get to the singular object of importance, that piece of high art."
Kerin maintains that the rich visual and material worlds of the shrine are reflective of aesthetic and cultural conventions (such as gift giving) as well as devotional practices. By not looking at the material that constitutes a Tibetan Buddhist shrine, historians are saying that this art, low and high, shouldn't be part of the narrative written about Tibetan Buddhist art history.
"All this kitschy stuff that art historians don't pay attention to is a legitimate part of the shrines," she said. "My project is to look at these shrines honestly, not just to comb through them to get to the singular 11th or 15th century piece of high art. I will study them in an integrated, holistic fashion to see how all this material culture is working together to maintain devotional and ritual practices and to express religious identities."
Kerin explained that she is less interested in making the argument that mass-produced photography and lithographic prints are "art." But she is interested in paying attention to it because the material has a story to tell. For instance, she is particularly interested in the way photo-icons of religious teachers are incorporated into shrines as a way to update and extend iconographic programs at temples, as well as to express cultural identities, especially for those Tibetans living in exile.
"By ignoring this material culture we art historians are ignoring a whole realm of Tibetan Buddhist art and that's dangerous. There's a tendency in the Western art market and academic circles to uphold a certain romanticized idea of Tibet that's pre-modern and pre-photography," she said. "It's an antiquated image, and that sensibility is one of the reasons why this incredibly rich material culture of the Tibetan Buddhist shrines has not been looked at. It's because Western academics don't know how to deal with all these mass-produced images in relation to Tibetan and Himalayan culture."
Kerin pointed out that recently-published catalogues and images featuring Tibetan Buddhist shrines don't show shrines with modern mass-produced imagery such as photographs and lithographic prints. "These shrines have been completely sanitized," she said. "As a scholar who works in the field, I find that unacceptable. That's not a Buddhist shrine, that's the Western perspective of how beautiful Tibetan Buddhist shrines should be and how they should look according to Western aesthetics. But they don't. We need to stop romanticizing Tibetan Buddhist culture."
The Maurice L. Mednick Memorial was created in 1967 in honor of a young Norfolk industrialist who died from accidental causes. His family and business associates wished to perpetuate his name by establishing a memorial that would emphasize his and the donors' strong interest in higher education.
The Mednick Memorial Fund is administered by the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges (VFIC). It exists to encourage the professional development of college teachers and improve their academic competence through fellowships for research and advanced study. A committee of VFIC business trustees and college presidents oversees the selection of research proposals for funding on an annual basis.
Kerin earned her B.A. in women's studies from Trinity College, Hartford, an M.T.S. in Buddhist studies from Harvard Divinity School and her Ph.D. in art history from the University of Pennsylvania.