Art and shamanism are often represented as timeless, universal features of human experience, with an apparently immutable relationship. Shamanism is frequently held to represent the origin of religion and shamans are characterized as the first artists, leaving their infamous mark in the cave art of Upper Palaeolithic Europe. Despite a disconnect of several millennia, modern artists too, from Wassily Kandinsky and Vincent van Gogh, to Joseph Beuys and Marcus Coates, have been labelled as inspired visionaries who access the trance-like states of shamans, and these artists of the ‘white cube’ or gallery setting are cited as the inheritors of an enduring tradition of shamanic art. But critical engagement with the history of thinking on art and shamanism, drawing on discourse analysis, shows these concepts are not unchanging, timeless ‘elective affinities’; they are constructed, historically situated and contentious. In this paper, I examine how art and shamanism have been conceived and their relationship entangled from the Renaissance to the present, focussing on the interpretation of Upper Palaeolithic cave art in the first half of the twentieth century—a key moment in this trajectory—to illustrate my case.
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