Thursday, September 28, 2006

The artist as Shaman

Shamanism is not a 'religion' but rather a world-view system or a 'grammar of the mind' having many intercorrelations with art, culture, ecology and economy.-- Juhna Pentikäinen (Professor of Comparative Religion, Helsinki University Museum)

The central idea behind shamanism is the contact with the supernatural world by the ecstatic experience of an inspired intermediary, the shaman. There are four important constituents of shamanism: (1) the ideological premise of the supernatural world and the contacts with it; (2) the shaman as an actor (an intermediary) on behalf of a human group, (3) the inspiration granted him by his helping spirits; and (4) the extraordinary, ecstatic experiences of the shaman. In shamanistic rituals, the shaman uses different objects; some are natural, such as precious stones, bits of metal, teeth and claws of animals, bones, plants, and so on (“ready-mades?”). Then, there are man-made amulets (sort of sculptures), which include medallions, small figurines, carved knives, drums of all sizes, wheels and masks. These serve as objects for invocation, divination and healing. Since shamanism uses diagrams to establish cosmological renditions of the universe, one could think of these diagrams as aesthetic materials. My point is that in our secular societies of the West, art can be seen as a symbolic condensation of our environment, a way to depict and evaluate our milieu. Artists produce objects that have an aesthetic function for a receiving audience. Think of the parallel between the altar and the artist's studio (or the white cube for that matter) as places of art-convocation. It may be that (as sociologist Jurgen Habermas has suggested), artists have the role of "translating chaotic everydayness into ordered aesthetic symbols for public understanding."


Bryan F. said...

The image of a shaman if somewhat taboo or misunderstood in society. It is somewhat analagous, at least in my mind, with a witch doctor or something of that nature. There is certainly a great amount of art used in ceremonies and garments, etc. I would not consider a shaman an artist as much as someone who brings art into common use and common knowledge. Also it seems that the use of art by a shaman is in a very strange manner often not understood by the public. This makes it a bit difficult for the casual observer to appreciate or understand what each aspect of a ceremony or performance means or is symbolic of. The other thing that keeps this concept from the public eye is the closeness to religion. As people have the tendency to only pay attention to their own religion, i think shamanism turns away many would be observers by its very nature. I think the only artistic purpose that many of the objects associated with shamanism serve is, as stated in the original posting, drawing the audience in, visually.

Dominic Halley-Roarke said...

Artist as anti-Shaman:
1) Avoid transcedance; base one's career on repeatedly making work that refers to the same psychological hang up or trauma, without suggesting a resolution.
2) Deny any possibility of sensual extasy by emphasis on the visually ugly, disagreable, dull, monotonous, ordinarily grotesque (as opposed to the type of monster/vision that can be stimulating).

maya aujla said...

I agree with Bryan that the whole idea of a shaman is “misunderstood by society.” After first learning what shamanism really is in one of my art history courses, it took a bit of explaining for me to completely comprehend the concept. I think that the majority of society associates shamanism with acts of voodoo. I am by no means an expert on either; however, I do feel they share similar qualities and characteristics. When I first learned of shamanism, I directly associated Voodoo (proper spelling is Vodun or Vodoun) with it, but then I discovered that Vodoun is actually considered a religion in West Aftrica. From my understanding, a shaman acts as a middle ground between spiritual realms through the use of ready-made or man-made objects. Although Vodoun worships deities as well, it is a recognized practicing religion by over 30 million people in West Africa. As far as the shaman as an artist, I think the objects that shamans use to invoke spirits are made with the aesthetics as a primary focus. I would think that the appearance of the object is important to draw in the spirits or pull the deities to our world. I think that our society has become attracted to art that is different and is not seen in every gallery. This is probably why the tools used by shamans have become so popular.

Christie Llorente said...

Shamanism to me seems to be a metaphor for artists and how they're viewed. To some extent it seems like artists can behave like actors, their performance being there work and the audience, those who view the work. Maybe artists are influenced by supernatural forces. I mean an important part of the abstract-expressionist movement was to paint from the subconscious. Artist that belonged to that movement were painting not so much what they saw, but how they reacted to what they saw. (maybe this was a supernatural spirit of some sort) Or maybe it was the supernatural spirit from within the individual artist? I could see the translation of the shamanistic rituals versus painting rituals, along with other methods of making art. The whole concept of Shamanism is still unclear to me, as I've never studied it before. Although it seems interesting and so foreign.

Ernie Marc Selditch said...

Shamanism and the Sixties

My first awareness of shamanism came at the end of the psychedelic sixties with Professor Timothy Leary talking about self-realization thru the use of LSD, and the first installment of Carlos Castanada’s book The teachings of Don Juan a Yaqui way of knowledge. Love-ins and concerts were happening all around the country. The breakaway movement that Leary told to “Tune in, turn on, drop out” was transcending from a subculture to a political movement was creating its own aesthetic from music to art to protesting a very unpopolar war. Michael Harner’s book The Way of the Shaman introduced the ayahuasca shaman who used an intensely hallucinogenic experience to cure other people and divination.

Professor Manny Torres, an art historian from FIU, worked with archaeologists in South America on numerous shaman burials from about a thousand years ago. Each mummy was buried with a pouch that contained a hallucinogenic snuff bottle, a snuffing tray and a hollow snorting tube. There was also a movie, starring Richard Chamberlain titled The Last Wave ( which was a peephole into the aboriginal Australian culture, which produces unique x-ray drawings of animal and spiritual walk-about maps.

You may ask, “What does this have to do with art?” The movie The Last Wave was inspired by the shamanic aspect of the aboriginal Australian culture. In other cases art was associated with the hallucinogenic experience. The shaman burials with the DMT snuff had brilliantly colored hand-woven textile bags and clothing and intricately carved and adorned drug paraphernalia. Mark Harman imported some shamanic created paintings of their psychedelic journeys. Love-ins and concerts promoted free-love, tie-dyed fabrics and fantastic poster art. Carlos Castanada, opened up the cultures of Mexico with their ancient and colorful artistic traditions, an example being the Huastec brightly colored yarn paintings. Leary’s advice to use LSD probably directly caused the Beatles to record their Sergeant Pepper album and the Stones, their Satanic Majesty’s Request album. Not to mention Peter Max(Please!!!) All in all the sixties was fertile ground for art and change.

Caro_Marquez said...

I believe it is important to truly grasp the concept of Shamanism to be able to relate it to the Art. Shamanism is based on INVISIBLE FORCES THAT AFFECT THE LIVES OF THE LIVING, this essential in making the connection between Shamanism and Art. For all of us who create art, in any form, let us ask ourselves what our purpose is? Personally, I try to communicate my "emotions" (invisible) by creating a tangible image/object. I want to cause change, create an impact on someone (living).
If I have not misread the comments posted, I believe most of you are arguing that Shamanism is "lost in translation," and that the public doesn't really understand the concept. Well, I dare to argue that it is not the concept that the public should understand, but rather the products of the ceremonial art making process. Furthermore, I do not think that Shamanism or Artistry must be understood by everyone in order for it to have achieved its purpose. I dare say, that I receive more satisfaction when a few people are thoroughly moved by my work than when a lot of people praise me.

Dominic Halley-Roarke said...

As a (modern) Pagan, I prefer a different approach from this idea of the Shaman as a mediator between the so-called "spiritual" realms or the "non-physical." Instead, I think of those vague and undefinable concepts as simply being dimensions that have not yet found a science to explain them--so the Shaman is a sort of experimentalist. The analogy to art here is that there is still a great deal unexplained about how and why art affects the brain/mind; like psychic phenomena they can be experienced but the process of that experience is not yet fully explained.