In recent conversations with thinkers and painters about the difference in societal reactions to art between Europe, Asia, and North America the conversation came around to the role of the artist within a society or culture. This also relates to questions about the value of art, and all the related questions: what is art? Is art dead? Is there such a thing as art for art’s sake?
I want to come at this topic with a comparison that some people may find uncomfortable because of some of the associations that are evoked. I would just ask that the reader take these words at face value and treat them almost like math variables: just symbols that carry an arbitrary meaning for a few moments while a concept is explored.
Here is the chiasmus: shaman is to spiritual as priest is to religion.
Holding that comparison in mind, I return to the question: what is the role of the artist in society?
For the past few years, I have subscribed to the idea of “the artist as shaman”. That is, the artist is the tribe member that lives outside the normal experience of daily life and, whether due to natural talent, hard work, the help of psychedelics, or just lunacy, explores inner worlds which “ordinary” people do not. It is the journey to “that undiscovered country from which no one returns unchanged”.
The shaman undertakes this journey with the understanding that she will return and share as much of that journey with the tribe as possible. That is, the “wisdom” won in the journey becomes a gift to the tribe in the personhood of the shaman. The price of the journey is to become changed in a way that never allows her to fully rejoin society: to have a “job”, to operate comfortably with the status quo, to live with the violence of play become law.
Critically, in the shamanistic system there is no “middle man” between the person who has undertaken the journey and the individual or tribe interacting with the shaman.
The shaman stands outside the society, paying the price of not belonging in order to be able to say: “I see us from the outside”, “I see the system for what it is”, “I take on the terror for the prize of knowing, but the knowing is non-verbal, and the agreement is that I will try to express the knowing to you, but I won’t be able to do it with language”, “this is Us”.
And here is a major barrier to the shaman/tribesperson relationship: the experience is ineffable and can never really be verbally conveyed. The message can really only be conveyed in the embodiment of the shaman.
In this way of looking at it, the artist has a tool for communicating that the shaman may not, and it is the language of art. It is the non-verbal record of the inner experience, the inner journey, that the artist shaman has undertaken. The resulting painting is the receipt of the experience, the signifier, the symbol which is shared with the society at large.
I believe it’s important that there not be a language of judgement around this. That is, the shaman is neither “better” nor “worse” than others. Just profoundly different. I like to see this in a way that makes the role played by the artist/shaman as important to the culture as the role of a doctor, a scientist, a teacher, a mother. It is a role that has value, but only if the society can see the value…which is where the priests come in.
In this comparison, the priest becomes a middle man between the shaman and the farmer. The priest is an entertainer, a gatekeeper, a signifier of class distinction, and the social representative of the language of judgement.
As I began this entry, I would like to finish it: the comparison may limp (omnis comparatio claudicat), but I believe there’s something worthwhile in the exercise of exploring the equation. I can do nothing but to leave it to the individual to determine whether they prefer priests or shamans, or which of the two roles a given artist chooses to inhabit.