In Terms Of

Night of the Shamans

This text is the second of two that reviews a panel on photography and painting, held in 1983. Read the first report.

Painting and Photography: Defining the Difference
Friday, April 29, 1983
Artists Talk on Art, New York

The event evoked another, allegorical commentary.

Moderator: Craig Owens

Panelists: Joseph Kosuth, Jack Goldstein, Sarah Charlesworth, Barbara Kruger, Mark Tansey, Robert Mapplethorpe

Once upon a time in a constantly collapsing and re-rising city, the inhabitants made buildings with large spaces where people sweated to make things for others to sell. But one day they painted the spaces white and displayed mysterious and precious objects there. At last, on a night in spring, 1983, many people gathered in such a space to hear messages from shamans who made the precious objects. They worried about a tool producing these objects quickly and easily, and wondered if the new objects would be precious in the old way. So they gathered to DEFINE THE DIFFERENCE. On the walls were canvases with scenes of the Far West painted by a person with a new kind of organ transplant—50mm lenses permanently in both eyes.

The shamans sat down on chairs on one side of a long skinny table with glasses of water on it and were lit by spotlights. The rest of the people sat on the floor on the other side of the table in the dark. A scribe who wrote important words about shamanism sat with the shamans and said the people on the floor were probably there to enjoy dissension between shamans who used brushes and those who used the new tool, but he was there to make peace and had personally picked these shamans to address the issues.

However, the first shaman, an acclaimed user of the brush, hadn’t brought his magic objects with him, saying that, anyway, holy objects made with a brush were now meaningless, and even worse, decorative, but unscrupulous folks attributed false values to them so people who had lots of money but inadequate wardrobes would buy them and feel like emperors.

The other shamans showed their precious objects and told of their powers, but no one could define the difference, because they had forgotten or never knew the old way of making something unique yet universal. Mostly they talked shaman shop talk and complained that there was too much of an abundance of their product and that they were saturated, alienated, repressed, politically “other,” and lost in multiplicity, while yearning for singularity or maybe irregularity and had a headache that night.

Because of these feelings, they used images they just found lying around. They ripped off some and copied some onto canvas in a larger size. The one who did that was so demoralized he said he didn’t trust his intuition any more, which may have been why he didn’t make the copies himself, but hired others to do so. Learning that this fellow had helped himself to images, like fruit in the Garden of Eden (denying existence of originality and authorship), one hopeful questioner from the other side of the table asked if these were political acts. This might be a very brave and principled shaman who denied, not only authorship, but also ownership and the putting of price tags on holy objects. But that one was very silent about the authorship of his bank account.

It turned out that all the shamans had, in one way or another, been using the new tool or its products. One modest shaman in rumpled Ivy League jacket and tie (although the evening was hot), who told in a low voice of changing photos into paintings and putting old shamans into new paintings of old paintings, had evidently seen Woody Allen frightening Susan Sontag. Another shaman harked back to the Russian Revolution. She advised that the propaganda of the culture should be turned against it and warned that in times of political repression people lose sight of the pleasures of multiplicity. She herself seemed to have suffered this loss because, although she uses the camera-tool and the printing-press-tool, her magical objects are nevertheless, one of a kind. She also stressed the importance of increasing the number of spectators with her kind of reproductive organs. The last shaman made no bones about it. He said he used the camera instead of a brush or a chisel. He thought he was good at helping his subjects show their fantasy or reality. And then he showed his work, which reflected his life: outrageous rock stars, men with magical erections, famous androgynous women, flower studies, and male members of the races embracing. Even a few children, although he admitted to not liking them. It wasn’t Rembrandt’s Saskia as Susanah, but there was an echo of the same process. “For whom do you do your work?” someone asked. Robert Mapplethorpe replied, “For the people I love.” And put his dark glasses back on.

Then everyone went out onto the sidewalk where a loud argument had earlier made it hard to hear the proceedings, much of which had been mumbled, as if the shamans found it very hard to communicate.

In Terms Of count: unknown.


Written by Gladys Osterman, “Night of the Shamans” was originally published in Women Artists News 8, no. 5–6 (Summer 1983); and reprinted in Judy Seigel, ed., Mutiny and the Mainstream: Talk That Changed Art, 1975–1990 (New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 1992), 222–23. In Terms Of thanks Midmarch Arts Press for permission to republish this review.

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