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Artist as Shaman

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Artist as Shaman
  Artist as Shaman Politics and religon are dead; the time has come for science and spirituality. -- Sri Jawaharlal Nehru [Nehru] "Nothing new here." -- fellow artist Asa Kontio when looking at one of new works which i considered a major breakthrough.Through a Ritual, Darkly: Translating Art into Ritual Terms. The independent film director Fred G. Sullivance -- best known for his production of the film "Cold River" (based on the novel by )and the biographical art film "The Beer Drinker's Guide to Physical Fitness and Filmmaking" (aka "Sullivan's Carnival") -- posed the question that haunts all artists: What motivates us as adults to pick up a brush and create art? He reminds us that as children it seems absolutelynatural to do so. Indeed, we are always guided by Picasso's statementthat "I have spent my entire life trying to remember what it is like to be a child".That picking up of the brush probably comes the closest to "the calling"that creates the shamnan as anything that we can point to. Thispaper explores some of the formal aspects of ritual (as gleanedby anthropologists, hisorians, and pschologists) and uses the lightof that way of understanding to glean new perspectives on art, andin particular the role of the artist as shaman. Art literature isrife with the model of the artist as shaman/gleaner/etc, of themuseum as "sacred space", and other such bridges from the worldof ritual to the world of art. Not unsurprisingly, anthropologistsuse the terms "ritual", "sacred space", and "shaman" in a very specific and technical way. This paper presents some of my on-goingresearch into the nature of art and what we do as artist; yes, i amguilty of the greatest of art crimes: I am an art theorist. In approaching the formal study of ritual i came with that sameself-assuredness and nievite that is our characteristic as children;of course i can dance, of course i can sing, of course i can paint,of course i know what ritual is -- again recalling Picasso: If youask a child if they can sing or dance they, will say "Of course"; itis only as adults that we say such things as "No, I can't sing. No,I can't dance". And naturally, i approached blank and vast canvasof riual studies with that bravado and arrogance that we must whenconfronted with anything larger than the "student-sized" canvas orany art materials more costly than "academic-grade" paints, brushes,etc. Regardless, we should try to have respect for those areas ofknowledge which confront, confound, and siren-like entice us. Thatwe all (in that most hidden recesses of ourselves) cringe beforeanything that is wider than our grasp is part and parcel with whatwe do. If i stood and ackowledged the secret terror of self doubtin front of a canvas 7' tall (hung at a height so that its top isat the very reach of arm) and 27' wide -- then, i would NEVER be able to pick up the brush; more importantly to make the first mark.As David Newman reminds: That we as artists should think that our  works can change the world is of course absurd; and yet, it is essential to the enterprise. Let us pick up our brushes (whether they be boarshair, modeling clay, water paints, corregated cardboard, or battleship linoleum - and begin.Formal Aspects of Ritual********* (insert van gennep & turner stuff here) ***********An important distinction to make is between tribal history and fictional stories. There is a tendency in the Western traditionto either take stories as hypocryhpical and imaginative retellingof real events, as moral tales, or as factual beliefs. Almost undoubtedly all human narrative is a mix of these. That some of these stories are intended as just that -- A story of Fiction -- is givenclearly by the late, great ethnographer of Native American narratives,John Bierhorst:But in the stories themselves a different world came to life. "There was a bark lounge," the storyteller would begin, and at once the listeners would be taken back to the days when their ancestors had lived in longhouses framed with arched saplings covered wiuth elm bark, with a bark-flap door at either end. ...Yet despite obvious differences [between the lifestyles in the 1800's and the time the story was from], Iroquois storytelling sessions in the 1880's had much in common with those of the long-gone past. Professionalstorytellers still went from house to house and ecxpected to be paid withb small gifts of food, tobacco, or other items. [Bierhorst, 1987, P. x]And indded it is difficult to sometimes distinguish between stories of fiction and those of healing -- as it would be for other tribes to understand our stories; eg, the Lord's Prayer vs. Fabels and other cautionary tales. For example, Susanne K. Langer relates:While religion grows from the blind worship of Life and magic "aversion" of Death to adefinite toem-cult or other sacrementalism,another sort of "life-symbol" develops in its own way, starting also in quite un-intensional processes, and culminating in permanent,significant forms. This medium is myth. Although we generally associate myth with religion, it can not really be traced, likeritual, to anything like a "religious feeling," either of dread, mystic veneration, or evenfestal excitement. Ritual begins in motor attitudes, which however personal, are at onceexternalised and so made public. Myth begins in fantasy, which may remain tacit for a long time; for the primary form of fantasy is the enitrely subjective and private phenomenon of*dream*.  ...There is another tale [of Papauns of Melanesia]which begins: "One day an egg, a snake, a centipede, an ant, and a piece of dung set outon a head-hunting expedition..."...No sane human being, however simple, could really"suppose" such events to occur; and clearly, in enjoying this sort of story, nobody is trying to "suppose" anything. To imagine the assorted hunted-party really on its way through the jungleis perhaps just as impossible for a Papuan as for us. The only explanation of such stories is, thatnobody cares whether their *dramatis personae* actin character or not. The act is not really proper toits agent, but to *someone its agent represents*; andeven the action in the story may merely *represent* the deeds of such a symbolised personality.[Langer, Pp. 171-173]Indeed, compare this to the story of the wolf eating grandmother whole,only later being split open filled with stones and then ultimatelydrowned - in keeping with the moral dimensions of the social requirements of "the happy ending",Training of the ArtistWhat IS Art? What is the artist?We are continually reminded that the artist as artist per se is a relatively new phenomenon; perhaps going back little more than 200 years. We naturally must consider the art as crafter as wellas creator. Prior to currenbt times, apprentices would have beenused to create majors parts of a work of art -- especially the more extensive works. In resolving these issues, we are naturallyled to the realm of so-called primitive art.****** Robert Plant Armstrong quote & Primitvie art quot here *******Indeed, as Umberto Ecco reminds us: Context is King. As Cynthia Freeland puts it in "But is it art?" For example, my direct experience of African *nkissi nkondi* fetish statues from Loango, in the Kongo region, which are bristling with nails, is that they look quite fierce -- like the horror-movie Pinhead from the "Hellraiser" series. The initial perception is modified when I learn 'external facts' [ie, facts outside of the art object itself - but, internal to the culture within which the work was produced]: That nails were driven in over time by people to register agreements or seal dispute resolutions. The particpants were asking for support for their agreement (with an expectation of punishment if it is violated). Such fetish objects were considered so powerful they were sometimes kept outside of the village. ...  [The srcinal] users would find it very odd for a small group of them to be exhibited together in the African Art section of a museum. [Freeland, Pp. 64-66]That we as outsiders have no more idea as to what the *meaning* ofa work of art is a chasm of ignorance that can not be overcome without direct knowledge of the social, environmental and cultural markersof the sociey withion which it was produced is clear; or as thephilospher Douglas Adams often put it "[we] no more understand thisthan a tea leaf knows the history of the East India Company". None-the-less, we must proceed. And this lack of "understanding"does not limit us much as it might seem. For example, we are allaware of the impact on Modern European art the import of "primitive"works had the impressionists and all later artists. ****** picasso & dogan mask quote here *****The key difference here is this: For the shaman the object (as ritual object even when produced in an artistic manner -- see below) *must* be known thoroughly to them to be used properly. For theartist, simply knowing that the obect (as art object) *has* ritualmeaning is sufficient to proke new areas of creativity, understanding,and art works extending and reflecting the srcinal work -- evenif the meaning, context, and intent are distorted by the improper and insuffient mirror/lens of ignorance.Another key element is that the idea (especially for the modern artist)is often as important as the art object the idea might lead to.For example, the power of words: To simply write on a piece of paperwords like "loyalty", "freedom", "consumerism", "war" and tack them up on the gallery wall would be sufficient to create art (and hence the art experience). This kind of a-cultural art can clearly be seen in the sand paintings of the Navajo Indians. Even if we do not understand one whit of the whatness of the ritual, we can gleam from it formal aspects of the work (line, colour, volume, etc) -- because we have been trained in the language of art; in exactly (or at least analously) the samne way as the shaman has been trained in the formal structures of the "art" [ie, technique/craft] of ritual. Thus, the shaman might look at our "notes on the wall" and speak to another shaman about the "evocative", "spiritual", and "healing" aspects of our notes; eg, the font and stroke-work of the words "war" and "peace" may well be radically different. In the same way we might talk about the sand painting as having a "Kupka architectural feel as opposed to a Matisse use of curved line", or "a Stella/Noland use of geometry and colour as opposed to a very Frankenthaller use of colour, pallet, and composition".As Susan Training of the Artist & ShamanArtistic Materials and "the Work" and its Interpretaion.If, we may use current artisan practices in existant tribesas a guide to the ancient practices. Then, it is likely that  (other than decorative art; eg, pottery, clothing, etc.)art was created along guidelines laid down by either the tribe's shaman and/or a master artist skilled in the symbols,techniques, and materials at hand. As we have seen the objects and especially the places involved are closely linked to thepurposes that these art objects were put to. One of the oldest existant examples of these concepts is of course the LascauxCaves in modern-day, southern France. We as artists naturally study these as part of the cannon of art history. However, from an historical point of view, researchers are much less prone to the imaginative leaps of *interpretation* that we allow ourselves. For instasnce, the British historian JohnMorris Roberts has this to say on the subject of the caves:[The work consists] of three main bodies of materials: Small figures of stone, bone or occasionally, clay (usualy female), decorated objects (often tools and weapons) and the painted walls and roofs of caves. In these caves (and in the decoration of |objects) there is an over-whelming preponderance of animal themes. The meaning of these designs, above all in the elaborate sequences of the cave paintings, has intrigued scolars. Obviously, many of the beasts so carefully observed were central to a hunting economy. At least in the French caves, too, it now seems highly probable that a conscious order exists in the sequences in which they are shown. But to further in the argument is still very hard. Clearly, art in Upper Paleolithic times has to carry much of the burden later carried by writing, but what its messages meann is still obscure. It seems likely that the poaintings were connected with religious or magical practice:African rock painting has been convincingly shown to be linked to magic and shamanism andthe selection of such remote and difficult corners of caves as those in which the Europeanhave been traced is by itself strongly suggestivethat some special rite was carried out when theywere painted or gazed upon. [ROBERTS, Pp. 19-20]Indeed modern shamanistic practice demonstrates that almost all objects are embued aministically with special powers, meaning, spirituality, and presence. That the interpretation of the world around us requires a deep knowledge of hidden symbols and meanings,as well as a vast knowledge of matters spiritual, sacred, profane,and secular/tribal/cultural. In much the same, we as artists require these same ways of seeing -- although probably not to anywhere such a deep extent. For the artist, a space of three years is a vastexpanse of time; eg, with Krasner's encouragement this was the time it took for Pollock to perfect his calligraphic control over the drip technique. [Choay, Pp. 293-294]Another problem involved in translating the role of the artist into the role as shaman is that of the mirror that we use. For example, the shaman's exact thinking and practices are unlikely to be wellknown or understood outside of their culture. I would say that the
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