Shamanic artists in our midst
Robert Genn

September 28, 2010

Dear Rodney,In "The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art," David 
Lewis-Williams tells us that cave art may have had more to do with early religions 
and shamanism than objects of the hunt or demonstrations of creative prowess. He 
makes the case that caves were deeply spiritual places--dark entries into the 
earth that directly sustained the lives of these early people. Dimly lit by 
torchlight, the animals and other motifs emerged, ghostlike from the cave walls. 
He suggests these walls were like thin membranes between the fearful and gullible 
Cro-Magnons and the spirit world behind. 

He theorizes that Upper Paleolithic Man harnessed altered states of consciousness 
to fashion his society and used imagery as a means of establishing social 
relationships. Shamanic trances and vivid mental imagery, early manifestations of 
what we now call the religious state, made it important for them to paint these 
images on cave walls. He feels that there's a creative spillover between neural 
circuits in the brain induced in meditation, rhythmic stimulus, fasting etc. These 
conditions, in degree, are common to both art and religion. Thus his speculation 
that both religion and art may be hot-wired in the human brain.

The book has enlightening ramifications for artists. 

A lot of us have noticed it's precisely when we get into the business of magic, 
mystery and metaphor that our art becomes interesting. This observation might also 
explain why some connoisseurs go bananas over otherwise questionable art and are 
willing to pay big bucks to possess it. Furthermore, there's the persistent idea 
that the making of art--and the consuming of it--is in itself a religion. 

If you're picking up what this author is putting down, you may be spinning out a 
few ideas. For starters, here are some possible considerations for a modern shaman:

Make apparitions emerge, dissolve, arise.
Make talismanic, totemic or iconic images.
Make your passions visible and tangible.
Go for material that exalts and inspires.
Convey your spirit, your magic, your trance.
Make meaningful motifs out of slim evidence.
Find a reliable order in the midst of chaos.
Pay special attention to birth, death, and rebirth. 
If all else fails, tell a tall story.

Best regards,


PS: "Physical entry into the caves reflected the entry into the mental vortex that 
leads to the hallucinations of the deep trance state." (David Lewis-Williams) 

Esoterica: If ancient shamanic artists were in the business of coaxing animal 
images through from the spirit world into this world, might not today's easel 
painters be doing somewhat the same thing? The tendency seems highly evident in 
abstract art. Even in realistic art, there are unique forms and images that 
miraculously appear from the artist's hand. Is something else driving this hand? 
Or are we merely a brotherhood and sisterhood of calculating manipulators 
inflicting our magic on our followers? Are there deep-seated messianic tendencies 
over which some of us have little control? Is it worthwhile getting control of 
this tendency?