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Visual Artist . . . Shaman and Entertainer

by Gary John Gresl

Painter, sculptor, printmaker...Shaman? Magician? Outsider? In need of psychological counseling? Are we the supersensitive antennae of humanity and on the cutting edge of culture, or are we throwbacks to more natural animal states? Perhaps we are the astute observers of society and the crafty coyote of literature? And what must be said about our everyday lives of being parents, business people, educators, employees, and otherwise good citizens?
The oft quoted great contributor to the understanding of myths, Joseph Campbell, had intriguing, indeed, wonderful things to say about the role of artists in the world’s communities. He was author and teacher made especially prominent in the public mind thru television interviews with Bill Moyers, and thru his own well received books on the subject of myths in history and in the world’s contemporary societies. (See The Power of Myth, with Moyers, 1988.)  He spoke of artists as having an important essential place in communities, sometimes almost a mystical function, necessary as we explore and express what others do not sense, or express what others may sense but fail to explore.
Moyers asks Campbell (pg. 99): “Who interprets the divinity inherent in nature for us today? Who are the shamans? Who interprets unseen things for us?”
Campbell responds: “It is the function of the artist to do this. The artist is the one who communicates myth for today. But he has to be an artist who understands mythology and humanity and isn’t simply a sociologist with a program for you”. And on pg. 217: “There is a cauldron of plenty in the mansion of the god of the sea, down in the depths of the unconscious. It is out of the depths of the unconscious that energies of life come to us. This cauldron is the inexhaustible source, the center, the bubbling spring from which all life proceeds.”
It is likely that artists relish the idea that we might play such a provocative and important role, for if generally recognized it could elevate us to some more positive visible level in our culture. Of course, there are other opinions to be heard.
“... {these} artists do not claim they experience the world more deeply than others. They are not equipped with special antennae which permit them to feel what others do not feel. What these artists do possess, however, and what all artists - poets, dancers and musicians - possess, is the ability to take experience and make it concrete so that feelings may be shared...Always it is the sudden revelation in a familiar place, the moment of memorable clarity when what has been seen often is seen as if for the first time.”
(From The Artist as Native: Reinventing Regionalism, Alan Gussow, p.13)
Yes! There is much to be said and probably argued over. Especially if we add to the roles we play, to the artist’s face as seen by the public, the title of Entertainer. 
Whoa! You say! I am not an entertainer. That’s not my job and not why I create! I am above serving as entertainment for the masses! We are talking about Art with the capital “A” here, you of Humankind’s greatest achievements, and a process with product that supersedes mere “entertainment. Well, reader, before you trash that idea entirely, consider that in our idealized myopia we might be failing to see the whole picture.
When you think about the following artists, what images come to mind? Picasso? Dali? Pollack? Warhol? Sure, you see some of their notable art, but I am willing to bet cash that some of the images you have in your minds are observations of these artists in action, painting, captured on film or somehow otherwise mugging before a camera. And what of these other artists? Matisse? DeKooning? Christo? Chihuly? If you have been attentive to the media, especially television, you have seen these persons in the public eye...entertaining us with their art, their actions, their persona and celebrity. They might appear animated in Public Television art historical films or serve as sidebars in public topical scuffling such as the recent “Blue Shirt” controversy in Milwaukee (which made the national news because it was a more sensational subject and fun public entertainment).
Let us consider one contemporary artist mentioned above who has been truly recently elevated to world prominence. Dale Chihuly has clearly emerged as the most visible artist in the field of art glass since L. C. Tiffany in the early 20th Century. This has been the result of the exceptional objects emerging from his studio, and his unusual ability to organize and complete huge projects across borders and continents. He gained the attention, support and pride of communities and museums in the Portland Oregon area thru his successes, his likable energetic personality...and his distinctive eye patch.
Soon enough his success and uniqueness received national and world wide attention. How was that exposure achieved? Well, in good part because he developed one aspect of his production that few artists have established or even considered. He has created his own personal advertising engine producing publicity, publications and videos in an ongoing flood of promotion and successful exposure. He has developed an entourage of talented people dealing with design, execution and promotion. As he is talked about and extolled, so more expansion of his reputation occurs.
For example, I have personally encountered Dale Chihuly’s own company-made videos on at least 5 occasions over public television, and by chance seen them shown in at least 4 museums in Wisconsin. Multiply this by hundreds of such viewings across the US and World, and estimate the impact he has made “for himself about himself”. He and his entourage truly have “grown” him into a form of entertainment by making it so easy for the media to expose his genius by simply “popping in” one of his videos, perusing one of his large format “coffee table” books, or encountering one of his many press releases. Then fortuitously beyond that, having the word spread that his art is being purchased by museums and celebrities (like Elton John) further enhances an already full blown reputation. Chihuly has become an industry, and with an aggressive search for exposure, he and his entourage are a self conscious form of entertainment. For the record, he is not merely hype...his work is exceptional and his accolades well deserved.
Besides the direct link of visual artists gaining attention thru their publicized actions and promoted personas and reputations, there is a less distinct/obvious definition of entertainment that comes into play for visual artists. The Public seeks activities to fill in its day to day life. Persons look for activities for themselves and families, for enrichment, to learn as well as experiencing some pleasure. Museums and galleries serve as places for the Public to fill out its time, by having paintings, sculpture, photographs, etc. quietly “entertain”. The creative acts of the artists, the brush strokes and hammer blows, the intellectual and physical dances necessary to bring an art work into being, are witnessed later thru a normal delayed expression as they appear in galleries and museums. Our work entertains and enriches long after the active process of making it is over. 
A report heard recently on public radio informed the listeners that museums and galleries draw more people on an annual basis than do all professional sports venues combined. That is more people than attend football games, baseball, hockey, tennis, soccer...etc. These museum attending people often pay money for entry so that they will be enriched, entertained...and spend time for some form of gratification. 
Of course we recognize that the performing arts provide entertainment, and I do not recall a single instance of ever hearing performers publicly complain about being known as entertainers. The actor, whether on stage, TV or film, and whether or not possessing great skill, is paid to give a entertain us. The actor, of course, is an artist acting as conduit for authors, novelists and/or screenwriters, who themselves participate in the entertainment field providing reading material to enrich and flesh out our lives. The Director, costume designer, the sound effects artist, the stage crew, all these contribute to the entertainment that the public pays to see. Do we hear the performing artists making statements that they are aloof from the ticket buying public? Do they take a stance that they can exist without the interaction of viewers...viewers who they entertain?  
Perhaps we visual artists, E.G. painters and sculptors, have been, and still are, in some state of denial about our roles. Original creative motivations initially might seem totally removed from an entertainment endeavor as we work in our studios and garrets, but...why is the art created? Is it not created to communicate? Is it not created, usually and generally, so that some other persons can see it and in some way interact? Is it not created to express feelings, moods, and ideas in a similar fashion to the performing arts? Is it not presented to other people so that they will spend some time...some thought...and maybe even some money?  This interaction between artist and viewer is so close to a form of entertainment that there may not really be a difference. When elevated to the heights of promotion and exposure as in the case of a Dale Chihuly, there cannot be much doubt at all that visual art and artists can be entertainment.
There are professionals in our American society who are generally respected, some held to very high esteem, some with stereotypes of their own. Take for example the doctors, lawyers, plumbers, architects, accountants, teachers, lawyers, electricians, and so forth. These people have “special knowledge”. They have training and experience in specialized fields which are usually considered indispensable in society...but as professionals, they are not considered entertainers. (Forget the fictitious soaps and other TV programs about doctors and lawyers).
Artists also may be professionals in their field, pursuing studies, with explorations and experience that give them special knowledge, but they also often carry the baggage reputation that artists are “weird”. Does the word eccentric come to mind? It cannot be denied that certain prominent artists of the past have been obviously out of the ordinary. At the top of the famous “odd category” we can find Van Gogh, Picasso, Warhol, Dali, Pollack. While their art production may or may not have set them apart in their own time, their lifestyles, quirky natures, and sometimes perceived outrageous actions certainly extended the public perception of artists being peculiar. Of course, anyone achieving visible status in the public eye, no matter what field they are in, will have more scrutiny applied, thereby revealing secrets which would otherwise have remained unbroadcast. It also must be said that those reporting about artists have excelled these reputations because reporters have relished exposing quirks of personality, making for a good story.
And, yes, there are the artists who consciously and intellectually have made the choice to run risks. These are persons willing to test boundaries, to really attempt to extend sensibilities, to shock and even to outrage. Often such artists perceive characteristics of their cultures as being flawed, in need of exposure, discussion, and alteration. Along with this willingness to treat that which is observed with humor, disrespect and/or an outsider’s point of view, there is also the desire to gain the attention for promotional get themselves and their work noticed. They know that outrageous behavior and controversy garners desired attention, and sometimes to useful end.
“Countercultures have been a constant manifestation of human life in all types of human societies. They constitute the experimental task forces which call attention to the need for changes and thereby help humankind to renew its social structures.”
             From “Beast of Angel? (Choices that make us human), pg. 185, by Rene Dubos
As for the bulk of artists, it is likely that for every noticeably odd personality in the ranks there are dozens of fairly normal acting men and women. Do we have scientific studies that distinguish whether or not there are more artists under psychoanalysis than other professions? How many of us can mention an oddball doctor, dentist, lawyer, or peculiar plumber? How do we know that even our quiet neighbors are not harboring some closely held unusual personal habits that just don’t gain media attention?  (Think Psycho).
Our quiet friends and neighbors, relatives and strangers who do not seek attention will not usually garner it. Artists, for the most part, need the exposure and attention to communicate their ideas and increase their visibility. Having their art work presented to people by whatever means, even if it is just placed in front of the public for quiet consideration, does seem to introduce that art work as a form of entertainment, with the creator being the entertainer. Certainly, the art may be more than that. Art might be a revelation of ideas and techniques. It might be a form of education. It may warrant the place in cultural history of being among the highest aspirations and achievements of Humankind. However, it does not gain any place, let alone become a cultural icon, without some means of placing that work in front of the gain attention and attract enough notoriety so that the scribes of Media capture it in books, film and on hard drive. Uh-huh! “Let us entertain you”.
Is that it, then? Are artists entertainment for those who are seeking exciting stories in the media? Are we looked upon as sources of fun and enrichment by the public? Do some artists seek the limelight, even sometimes being consciously eccentric for personal and professional reasons? Yes! Of course! Who could be more entertaining than a Shaman? Here is the mystic, the clown, the doctor and the magician wrapped into one.
So, may I suggest to my fellow visual artists that we should take heed? Performing artists naturally seek the attention of media and recognize that to attract viewers they must act as entertainers. They don’t seem to question that at all. Are there performing artists who look forward to intentionally performing their art without an audience? At the very least, is not a painting, sculpture, etc. a not so silent entertainment for viewers attracted to it, and is not the creator of that object the performer in that interaction?
Look at your fellow visual artists who have gained recognition and visibility during or after their own time, and consider what extra efforts might have brought them to the forefront. Was it just thru talent and working alone in their studios? Was it merely good fortune and having a champion for their work? Was there an investing of time, thought, effort and some money to draw attention to themselves...and could that attempt to gather attention be considered some form of entertainment?
Really, now...let me ask you that question again. Is it entertainment?

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