Normally, I wouldn’t recommend a book that’s out of print. After all, saying, “this is great, but you can’t read it, so nah nah nah!” is just kind of mean. But since you can still find a used copy for around ten bucks, and since it’s an amazing read, I’m going for it. This review is a little brief, but largely that’s because, despite the fact that I first read it four or five years ago, I’m still not sure exactly what to say about it, save that’s an amazing and thought-provoking read. I find that, years later, I’m still thinking about it. Frankly, that’s a pretty good recommendation in my book.
In Dreaming With Open Eyes: The Shamanic Spirit in Twentieth Century Art and Culture, Tucker looks at a broad sweep of modern art and finds, rather than the nihilistic cynicism, overt commercialization, and shallow objectification one might expect, a sort of hopeful ecstasy. Tucker makes a compelling argument that, at their best and most unfiltered, modern artists are the heirs to their ancient ancestors that painted on caves. They’re reaching into (forgive the pretentious cliché) an altered state of consciousness. As a result, they tap into something primal in the collective mythoconsciousness of humanity, something complex, symbolic, and profound.
In this book, Tucker has compiled a veritable encyclopedia of the literature of shamanism: literal (historic and anthropologic) and metaphorical, and draws compelling connections between the ancient and the bleeding edge. Modern artists working on the fringe of creative boundaries, Tucker argues, strip away some of the filters of contemporary experience and perceive the world in a metaphoric, archetypal way, as Aboriginal dream painters do. The result is art that reaches past the the filters of the consciousness mind to challenge the unconscious mind directly in its native grammar: the language of dreams and poetic inspiration, the language symbol. As a result, I’ve found that my own ability to understand and appreciate visual art as something more than mere illustration has grown deeper. I am beginning, at least, to appreciate that something profound happens in the communication between artist and audience, something that requires more than a casual read or glance.
Tucker argues that shamans, the first artists, have since ancient times been bridge-builders between worlds, visionaries whose journeys within the psyche bring insight, inspiration, and healing. Modern art is remarkable chiefly for what it reveals about the loss of meaning and spirituality in the modern world—and by what, at its best, it struggles to bring back. Modern art is trembling with shamanistic vision.
The language of the soul is metaphor and symbol. It’s no coincidence that, according to the Bible, God talks to us in “parable and dark passages.” The same applies, of course, to our own lives, both inner and outer. We’re not meant to understand at the most obvious, literal level, and to attempt to do so trivializes the messages of existence itself. The deepest communication, heart to heart or soul to soul, happens in a language that’s deeper. Most of the keys to that kind of understanding come from within, of course, but Tucker’s book offers some keys. He writes about visual art, but I find myself applying his ideas to music, mythology, and literature, and they work there just as well.
Dreaming With Open Eyes is a fascinating read, one that’s sure to make you question and perhaps even enrich and expand your own appreciation of the arts, and our own, truest desire to communicate and share on the deepest and most intimate levels. I urge you to pick one up while copies are still available and affordable. Check Amazon at the link above, or try abe.com. It’s worth the effort.