The Artist as Shaman in an Age of Uncertainty Southeast College Art Conference, Nashville, TN, October 26, 2006

Southeast College Art Conference
Nashville, TN, October 26, 2006

The Artist as Shaman in an Age of Uncertainty

"The maker of the universe and the object He makes are like the human maker and his artifact. The order and harmony of the cosmos are like the beauty in art. Somehow man participates in the ordering of the universe in his power to make and respond to art." - Albert Hofstadter

We live in a time of desperate uncertainty and unbounded possibility. The religious structures that have provided vessels for our spirituality, as well as structures of explicit existential meaning for the members of each religious tribe, have been slowly crumbling for more than three centuries. The resulting insecurity has often left us - humanity - feeling alone, adrift and afraid, or scurrying unthinkingly towards the apparent safety of traditional and even fundamentalist religious institutions.

However, as traditional religions have crumbled, some other indomitable aspect of the human spirit has begun to emerge. Over the past three hundred years, there has been a concomitant growth in the highest aspects of the human spirit, as they are exemplified in the realm of human affairs. The 20th century prophet Simone Weil said: "Justice, truth and beauty are the image in our world of the divine order of the universe." The positive aspect of our age of uncertainty can be seen in the growth of these very divine markers, as human rights, labor rights, minority rights, peace movements and democracy have flowered into society, while religious institutions have loosed their hold.

Part of the reason that these vital markers of spirituality have blossomed is a particular aspect of our contemporary zeitgeist: the post-modern "cult of the individual." Perhaps the positive aspect of the growing sense of worth and power of each individual human is best summed up in this statement by Nelson Mandela: "If God does not show more initiative in leading humans to salvation, then humans will have to take matters into their own hands." Instead of praying and waiting for God, post-modern men and women often start a mass movement, begin a non-profit group or simply agitate individually to transform the world for the better. In a post-religious era, each individual feels emboldened to help make the world a better place, instead of operating hopelessly within some lock-down religious institution.

Given the insecurity as well as possibility of our epoch, we are desperately in need of shamans to help light the way. Historically, artists have played the role of pointing the human gaze towards the highest aspects of the human spirit. However, in the past, they have done this from within the normative symbolic and spiritual expression of a major religious tradition. With these symbols losing their meaning for many in western society, however, the artist must re-envision this task. While he or she must be driven by the same historical impetus, they must base their artistic output in post-modern forms of individual self-worth and empowerment. That is to say, the post-modern artist must devise personal manners of reaching into the individual spirit of the audience, to point the way to spirituality beyond religion, where the post-modern denizen can find true meaning in a world beyond traditional structures.

I have spent my own artistic career exploring spiritual issues within the context of this post-modern worldview. While our age does hold great promise, it is also pockmarked with tremendous valleys of nihilism and narcissism; at its worst, our age might well be the final chapter in the human experiment. As such, I have felt a personal responsibility to develop an art that fuses historical spiritual obligation with the post-modern worldview.  My goal as an artist has been to marry spiritual themes, a personal, contemporary visual vernacular and the post-modern aesthetic to move my art and its message not only back to answering an historic obligation of artists to express humankind's highest aspirations, but also to infiltrate these ideas into the mainstream of society. Now, more than ever, artists must help light the way, playing a prophetic role that will insinuate the highest aspects of our shared struggle back into the wry, detached and ironic population that defines the "general public." Ultimately, this shamanic role is evinced when art is seeded into the general population, inspiring action based in a spiritual appreciation of human obligation.

As I have deepened my exploration along the precipice where high art, the spirit and activism meet, I have found that my ideas about spirituality have changed from classically based, to a more post-modern understanding, mirroring the growth of my visual language. I hope that this exploration of the development of my spiritually-based art will help cast light on the nexus of post-modern thought, art and timeless matters of the spirit - and point to novel shamanic potentialities in contemporary art during this age of uncertainty. Far from simply mirroring the ritualistic tendencies of the human spirit, as did past generations of religiously-based artists, today's artist must offer a new and universal conception of spirituality, and insodoing move out of the field of "storyteller" and into the realm of shamanic purveyor of new spiritual forms.

My initial impetus for working with spiritual themes was to show how age-old conceptions of mystical attainment are relevant today - and perhaps even more vital than in the past, given the tremendous technological ability we have to destroy ourselves. I began this study almost a decade ago, attempting to visually reinterpret ancient systems of wisdom so that today's citizen might reconsider them.

I first tackled the ideas of Meister Eckhart (a 14th century Christian mystic), Baal Shem Tov (an 18th century Jewish mystic and the founder of Hasidism) and the Sufis of Islam, exploring their brands of mystical understanding in paint. I had two specific goals: to represent these timeless visions of the spirit in a contemporary visual language, thereby causing viewers to reconsider their messages; as well as a more activist intent, of exhibiting the underlying similarities between the three Abrahamic faiths, thereby providing an impetus for peaceful relations between the religions.

To bring these ideas to a contemporary audience, I developed abstract responses to the three different teachings, and then exhibited each series individually along with sayings from the mystics themselves. In this manner, the works greeted the audience with the "familiar" cant of the post-modern visual vernacular, and then through the associated sayings taken from the mystical masters and exhibited along with the art, hopefully force them to reconsider these medieval teachings in a fresh light. It was my intention that the art provide an entrée into the world of mysticism, and that the viewers experience the timeless sayings as relevant to their life and thought. This work culminated in an exhibit of all three series together, at the Swords into Plowshares Peace Center and Gallery, in Detroit, Michigan, in September 2002, under the title of "Cousins."

Next, I wanted to explore what actually happened when people of such tremendous faith came in contact with the real world. The medieval masters I profiled had been contemplatives, operating within known religious systems. But what would take place if such persons of divinely inspired faith in justice, truth and human rights came in contact with the contemporary world, as it is lived in the 20th and 21st centuries?

This investigation led to my Human Rights Painting Project, in conjunction with Amnesty International, which highlighted the lives of people who had put their faith in humanity's highest ideals ahead of their personal, temporal gain and even safety. Far from retreating to mountaintops or into quiet sanctuaries to achieve a personal union with God, the people that I painted felt compelled to bring God to life in this world through their actions.

In painting these heroes who saw mysticism as right action, regardless of the potential danger to their own person, I began to reconsider my own ideas of spirituality, as it pertained to our post-modern era. Far from the narcissistic "realization" yearned for by classical mystics, these great women and men felt compelled to wrestle the highest human values into our world, with a complete disregard for their own personal welfare. Their only concern was seeing humanity's highest abilities realized in the practical, mundane world in which we live, thereby marrying the spirit and social activism in vital and novel manners.

In many cases, these activists sacrificed some or all of their lives, being confined, disappeared, maimed or killed for their efforts. As I painted through the figures from all over the world, such as Gandhi, Chinese Democracy activist Wei JingSheng, Nigerian activist Sowore Omoyele, the Dalai Lama and many others, both well-known and unknown, I grew ever more amazed by the human impulse. After all, which impetus is more human, that which will risk everything for humanity's highest ideals, or the powers, not only in Africa and Asia, but also in Europe and the United States, that oppress those that fight for truth and justice?

From here, my exploration of the human spirit moved into plumbing into the realm of the powerful. After all, those who lust for power represent the most immature human impulse - using exterior markers to justify their existential quandary of being. Additionally, it was these political figures against which the heroes of the last series struggled.

Through my Response to Machiavelli series, I explored the intersection of mystical faith with the spiritually bereft world of politics, looking at not only at the worst political impulses, but also the greatest social thinkers of our shared past (Simone Weil, Clement of Alexandria, Chuang Tzu, Thomas Merton etc.). Firstly, I painted a series of works based in these thinkers, to imagine what it would be like to bring the highest aspects of the human spirit in concert with the world of politics. The question that I explored with this series was what kind of questions would be necessary to ask to reconcile the two - spirit and the public exercise of power.

The paintings themselves were reactions to specific morally based social comments by these great masters. After reading about these issues, I use both figurative and abstract images to explore them in paint. Broken and slatted wood supports (metaphor, perhaps, for the abysmal state of politics today?) were contrasted with beautiful color, mysterious glyphs and the cartoon-like representation of a better way - a politics based in responding to the truly needy, and not in making the powerful, more powerful still.

Ultimately, the paintings offered a counterpoint to a political system that is, at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, truly Machiavellian - where American politicians from all points of the political spectrum will say and do just about anything to achieve and retain their personal power. What the great masters offer, and what I attempted to express, was a different manner of leadership, one in which the concerns of the people were truly at the fore.

Next, I looked at the negative energies that drive politics today - and created a series of large figurative works based in the Machiavellian world of our public square. Felix Varela posited: "All good people fear political parties," and this work explored why. Our political system is colonized by the least spiritually realized among us, those that desperately need a sense of personal power to feel as if their lives have meaning. If we examine the American political landscape in even the most cursory of manners, it is not hard to discern the preponderance of self-serving maggots snuffling about in the public trough, standing for little more than their own victory in the coming elections.

This series of paintings examined the specific "energies" that rule our public square, regardless of the particular name of the politician or their party affiliation. The works evinced specific aspects of the lust for power, from issues concerning accepting personal responsibility (or not), such as "Undersecretary of Absolution," to other "leaders" that betray the public trust and forgo principle for personal aggrandizement ("Respectful Opposition," "Reformer," "Man of God," "Un-indicted Senator" etc.).

I expanded this work into a public art project, as a manner of personally bringing spiritual impulse together with social activism. Working from the sayings of the past wisdom masters (that is to say, the more positive aspect of the Response to Machiavelli), I created a series of text and abstract image prints, which I placed in bus stops in Tempe, Arizona. Co-opting the media of advertising, this work reached into the daily life of the general public with sayings from our highest wisdom masters. Here, simply commenting on current issues gave way to the shamanic possibilities of contemporary art, as matters of the spirit were infiltrated into the banal lives of the Tempe commuter.

Continuing to marry spiritual issues with activism as the highest expression of the Shamanic spirit in this post-modern era, I moved on to the Shalom/Salaam Project, based in the interrelationship between Jewish and Muslim mystics from medieval times down to today. Through my own research and writing, I discovered a story of spiritual intermingling so strong that these two distinct systems are really hybrid versions of the other. Through this project, I hoped to raise awareness of these issues and use them as an impetus for peace in the Middle East.

I exhibited a series of wall-borne images, plus text taken from both Jewish and Sufi mystical masters, showing the strong interrelationship between the two systems. I chose to exhibit this work in a public space, the Gelman Library at George Washington University, thereby bringing the art to the audience, instead of hoping that the audience would visit the sterile walls of a gallery or museum. Part of the important role of the shamanic artist is to find new and creative manners of exhibiting work, and making the ideas germane to the general public. In this particular instance, the art inspired a symposium with the heads of the Islamic and Jewish studies programs at George Washington University, discussing the historical relationship between Jewish and Islamic mystics. This talk was followed by an interfaith Ramadan break-fast, showing in further manners how shamanic art can inspire healing activity in the general population.

Finally, my current series, In the Garden of the Mystical Redoubt, moves beyond looking at how the spirit interacts with the public sphere, to how these ideals are played out within the individual, in our post-modern milieu. This series of abstract and figurative work, plus writing, approaches the very ideas of classical mysticism from a post-modern worldview, exploring the true narcissism and spiritual repression of what has historically been thought of as "mystical attainment," and positing a new mysticism of action.

Classical mystical realization has been defined in virtually all religions by the denial and even denigration of the experience of "self." Mysticism holds that emotion attachment and sensual love are the mark of ignorance, and tether us to the "human;" while mystical attainment, which attempts to deny the "I" and move to some airy region where personality is diaphanous and emotion untouchable, somehow leads us toward God's ultimate purpose.

This is wrong. 

This kind of narcissistic vision of a personal salvation is antithetical to the true purpose of spirituality: to help heal the human being, not just the personal soul of the egocentric mystical adept. If the universe bequeathed us anything, it certainly gave us our tendencies. If we believe that it is our ultimate purpose to outrun these tendencies through a kind of mystical repression, this seems fallacious and illogical. This universe has created us in a certain manner and, as such, it is through our very human quirks and five senses that we can most clearly come in contact with the universe that birthed us. The desire to turn tail and hide beneath some absurd cloak of non-action is just a deeper form of human ignorance.

I approached this subject through two different series of paintings. A collection of 85 black and white solitary images explored the horror of classical mystical attainment by limning a collection of different images representing mystical "adepts" in various stages "on down a garden path" towards personal, ego dissolution. These four feet by two feet "portraits" show the grotesque individual energies of classical, narcissistic mystical attainment, with such titles as "Hanging Around Mystic," "Pregnant Mystic," "Cocktail Party Mystic" and many others.

The companion piece - a 24-panel, 72-foot long by 6' high piece - expresses the interior experience of the mystic, a seething core of humanity, crushed to its breaking point beneath the calm, repressed interior experience of the "realized" mystic. Here, the experience of classical mysticism is revealed as an empty, narcissistic and rudderless journey, leading only to a cul-de-sac of a-human experience, insane and incorrect.

I plan to move beyond deconstructing classical mysticism, to rebuilding the idea as a mysticism of action. This next work, planned for the near future, will be entitled "Manifesto," and explore this new mysticism of action, in which post-modern individuality is fused with the shamanic spirit.

Ultimately, the spiritual values that underpin, but do not define religions, are only existent in this world when they are brought to life through action. A spiritual art in this age of uncertainty, therefore, must move beyond simply expressing a conception of spirituality, to actively helping to create one through the shamanic impulse of the artist. I have chosen to do this by using the mystical consciousness as the impetus for my work, though fusing it with a post-modern activist impulse, believing that by approaching and attempting to heal specific human problems through my art, I am answering an historical call with a contemporary response.