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THE GRAND PARADISE – AN EXPERIENCE

Text: Heini Myllylä

"It's a wonderful thing to be chosen, isn't it?
The Grand Paradise, Third Rail Projects, Brooklyn NYC

ART AND EMOTION

Making and encountering art is about expressing and experiencing emotions and thoughts. A piece of art that is thought-provoking, emotional or challenging to the viewer instantly becomes meaningful. Whether the thoughts and emotions that the piece of art awakens in us are the same ones that the artist expressed when creating the piece or had intended the work of art to embody is, in the end, irrelevant; the most important thing is the presence of emotion. [1] Each piece of art is unique in its own existence as is each person interpreting the art. What we see in art depends greatly on our personal experiences and thought processes.

The question arises: why is the presence of emotion so important to art? To start with, art is an expressive act. What then do we express, if not emotions? Experiencing and identifying cognitive emotions are what separate us from mindless creatures; they are what make us human. What we most need from art is for it to be a pathway that leads us to ponder the important questions of life. Art can act as a philosophical awakening or as a means to process difficult topics and emotions.

CULTURAL EXPERIENCES AND WELFARE; A SCIENTIFIC PERSPECTIVE

In the study Cultural Experience and Health – the coherence of health and leisure time activities (2001), Boinkum Benson Konlaan deducted that attending cultural events correlated positively with a longer life expectancy. The study involved more than 15 000 Swedish participants whose lifestyles were monitored through questionnaires and clinical testing over the course of 30 years. According to the results, people who frequently participated in cultural activities – such as going to museums, concerts, movies and art exhibitions – felt themselves healthier and had longer life expectancies than those who did not.

These types of results might seem surprising at first since life expectancy is traditionally thought to be linked to physical factors such as genetics. However, with further analysis, the connection becomes more apparent. An art experience has the potential to affect an individual’s psyche in ways that have unpredictable consequences. Naturally, not all art experiences have profound effects as each experience is a unique entity affected greatly by factors such as the setting of the art work (time, space, etc.) and the individual’s personal perspective which is influenced by aspects ranging from their present mood to their philosophy of life and cultural background.

Overall, during the past decades a change in how welfare is measured and thought of has been emerging. We have come a long way from describing health as the absence of illness. In 1948, The World Health Organization redefined the concept of health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. Respectively, nowadays welfare is seen more as a holistic presence consisting of a myriad of elements from the obvious genetic, lifestyle and characteristic aspects to the less thought of but equally notable factors such as the ethnicity, culture, age and sex, level of wealth, work and social status of a person. [2]

The possible thought-altering effects along with the social aspects of experiencing art, then, can easily be seen as additions to the list. Another question entirely is, to what extent can the correlation between the arts and welfare be explained by the socioeconomic status of an individual since people with higher incomes are arguably more inclined to seek cultural experiences [3]. All in all, welfare is a complex construct that consists of countless variables. In this case, however, it is less important to reflect on the functioning of welfare as a whole and more beneficial to consider the reasons why having an art experience is so important to well-being.



THE GRAND PARADISE – IMMERSIVE THEATRE AS AN EXPERIENCE

In theatre performances, dialogue is usually built around a key philosophical thought. This might not be obvious to the viewer unless they pay attention to detecting the presence of this possibly subtle key note that carries throughout the performance. Moreover, the experience is naturally different for each viewer as everyone detects and interprets the happenings according to their individual persona. Nonetheless, sometimes a performance is so powerful and engaging that it is simply impossible to leave the show feeling like nothing has happened or changed in one’s thoughts. Immersive theatre is an example of ensuring that the viewer is not left outside of the ongoing thought processes of the performance. As each person participates in a unique story constructed of highly intimate goings-on, thoughts and emotions are bound to surface. These kind of immersive performances make the viewer truly engage in the theme of the performance while allowing space for personal interpretation.

At its best, the act of encountering art awakens emotions in us. Experiencing positive emotions is naturally a healthy, psychologically beneficial event to a person. However, emotions that can traditionally be seen as negative can be equally valuable for us to experience as we encounter art. These emotions, such as sadness, anger, confusion or even anxiety all exist on our emotional charts and are unavoidable at times. Art can help us process these difficult emotions. Indeed, a certain kind of emotional catharsis can be achieved by encountering art. Through art, we are allowed to feel negative emotions that we might otherwise not be able to or allow ourselves to experience and process. In addition, oftentimes art speaks to us through emotion: the stronger the emotion, the more intense the experience. In conclusion, art offers us a way to awaken and process emotions.

In his book Art As Experience (1980; 42, 45), John Dewey presents the concept of an “integral experience,” which has an aesthetic quality that is set apart from other experiences by its unique nature of unity and fulfillment. An aesthetic experience is contrary to stasis as it is moving towards closure with pattern and fulfillment. Notably, Dewey (1980, 43) categorises emotions as qualities of an aesthetic experience while simultaneously pointing out that, “experience is emotional but there are no separate things called emotions in it”. In line with Dewey’s concept of the integral experience, a successful encounter with art can be described as possessing flow, a term used by Mihail Csikszentmihalyi (1988, 4–5) to describe a state of optimal concentration. The state of flow is achieved only when complete immersion within an experience happens. Csikszentmihalyi describes the flow experience to be one of ultimate enjoyment, therefore possessing qualities that enhance a person’s psyche. Art offers a feasible platform for having these kinds of saturated, or in Dewey’s words, integral experiences. The personal and engaging style of immersive theatre, moreover, virtually calls for the presence of flow, allowing the viewer to become thoroughly immersed in the experience.

The engaging nature of immersive theatre makes it an excellent example for drawing the connection between art and welfare. In the case of The Grand Paradise, a participatory theatre performance by Third Rail Projects playing in Brooklyn, NYC, the viewer is thrown into a seemingly stand-still paradise, a guilt-free and anti-discriminatory love nest powered by the fountain of youth. At first glance the performance seems to be a hollow masquerade that relies solely on sex as its selling point. Although mesmerizing, the highly erotical dance routines seem to lack meaning or purpose. However, this is merely the prelude to an unforgettable and core-shaking experience – the kind of integral experience that Dewey talks about. After wandering about for a while in a semi-awkward and lost-like manner, the viewers start to lose their identities as spectators as they are guided through intimate and oftentimes eerie scenarios by the actors who represent the citizens of the paradise. Participants are guided to secret rooms and passageways by a soft voice, a passing touch, a beckoning look in the eyes of the person who commits the act of choosing individuals from the crowd. This act of choosing works perfectly towards the covert theme of The Grand Paradise and also plays with one of our most basic emotional desires: the wish to be noticed, chosen and loved by someone.

After experiencing a few of these intimate scenarios, which are often built around a thoughtful yet mysterious monologue delivered by the actor, it becomes clear that the seemingly unrelated moments are in fact intricate designs in a deeply philosophical mesh. Standing in a room, listening to the countless stories of lost love told by an almost famous small-town star while she prepares for a performance. Stepping into a shack filled with hourglasses, faced with the escaping nature of time; where would we stop time if we could – at which moment in our lives? Being prepared for our own funeral, confronted by the simple yet all-important question of whether or not we are, in fact, ready to go. Having our palms read and our gazes held by the ritual of pouring water endlessly from an empty container into another as we listen to the hypnotising voice ask us if we should even try to embark on the doomed mission of obtaining fulfillment over accepting and embracing the ever-present emptiness, the eternal thirst. Watching lovers find and lose each other, experiencing rejection and vulnerability, being seduced, facing regrets, being exposed to the fleeting nature of connection. The Grand Paradise makes us not only think about but also experience searching for – and finding – human connection. All in all, art can make us feel a connection, a fleeting sensation made tangible in the moment, much like the other emotions that it awakens in us.”

THE AESTHETIC EXPERIENCE

Satisfactory human connections are, to my belief, one of the main ingredients when it comes to welfare. Arts and culture can work as a platform in gaining this kind of social capital. Usually cultural events are attended with company, which makes the experience social to begin with. Moreover, in the case of theatre, each performance is addressed especially for the spectators or participants of that particular show. The dialogue in a theatre performance aims to convey meaning to the viewer personally but also opens itself up for interpretation, and such acts are even more present and apparent in immersive theatre.

Ultimately, the conversational nature of a performance, or any artwork for that matter, is a major factor in explaining the connection between the arts and welfare. The experience of encountering art is determined in part by the artist’s vision and act of expression which is conveyed in the expressive object through the materials used. The end product of this process, according to John Dewey’s aesthetics, is the actual piece of art. However, the overall aesthetic experience is formed in the dialogue that takes place between the art object and the spectator. As Dewey (1980, 48–49) notes, “The word [a]esthetic refers [...] to experience as appreciative, perceiving, and enjoying. It denotes the consumer’s rather than the producer’s standpoint”. Any piece of art is defined by its nature as being interpretative instead of instructive.

            "The work of art [...] is not only the outcome of imagination, but operates imaginatively rather than in the realm of physical             existences. What it does is to concentrate and enlarge an immediate experience. The formed matter of [a]esthetic             experience directly expresses, in other words, the meanings that are imaginatively evoked; it does not, [...] merely provide             means by which purposes over and beyond the existence of the object may be executed. [...] It is not just a stimulus to and             means of an overt course of action. [...] [A]esthetic experience is experience in its integrity."

                                                                                                John Dewey, Art As Experience (1980). 2005, 285.

To summarize, each encounter with art is a unique combination of the artist’s vision and the spectator’s personal inclinations. A work of art sends a message to the individual recipient. This message is interpreted differently in each dialogue in accordance with the viewer’s worldview, history, persona and emotional state. Consequently, any aesthetic experience is individual in its nature.

Therefore each aesthetic experience that takes place is different from another. The process of experiencing art offers an alternate perspective to the person encountering the art. It could be said that the creation and interpretation of some art approaches philosophy in its metaphysical nature. Hence, experiencing art can significantly alter an individual’s understanding of the world by altering the thought processes and possibly even the world view of a person in a challenging, eye-opening or harmonizing movement.

ART AS A SOCIAL PROCESS

One aspect that should not be overlooked when talking about the social nature of art is the fact that art is, to begin with, an inherently social process. Without the existing and agreed upon definitions of language, with its implications and relations, it would be impossible to interpret or even create art. Moreover, it can be said that out of all the ways of communication, art is the most effective since it does not necessarily require verbal language and refers to our imagination as a means of communication. Indeed, even consciousness, the existence of which is imperative to the creation and interpretation of art, is a social structure. The experience of encountering art, then, is essentially social in its nature.

Another factor that increases the social nature of the experience is the potential feeling of togetherness created among the people experiencing a certain artwork. Even strangers can share a sense of intimacy while experiencing the same event or studying the same object while existing in a particular space at the same time, even if the experience is unique to each person. Furthermore, something as simple as conversing about art can be a part of sharing an experience. Naturally, an encounter with art can also be a very private experience – either because the individual having the experience does not wish share any of it with others or does not feel that others can understand the artwork in the same way, or any other suchlike reason. However, it becomes clear that increasing social capital can be a factor when it comes to experiencing art – a matter not to be overlooked since social capital is considered an integral element of welfare.

All of the above-mentioned social factors are more or less present in any art encounter. In immersive theatre, however, the communicational nature of the performance is a key element around which the piece is constructed. Hence, immersive theatre as an experience is a powerful one with a definite connection to welfare. The key elements that are present in this connection between art and welfare include the social, shared and conversational nature of the experience and the invitation to philosophical thought that are undeniably present in immersive theatre.

CONSTRUCTING WELFARE THROUGH ART

Welfare is a complex entirety consisting of a myriad of different things such as an individual’s health, lifestyle, culture and social capital. Cultural experiences are a factor among many, however, they are none the less important because of this. Moreover, it is important to note that a person’s upbringing and status in society has an effect on how likely they are to pursue cultural experiences. However, an art experience definitely is one factor among many in constructing holistic welfare. Experiencing art enables an aesthetic experience to take place and hence opens a pathway to an altogether more philosophical way of thinking for the viewer, but whether this opportunity is taken advantage of or not is up to each individual. Art in itself holds a key to a more meaningful way of existing, should we allow it to expand our minds.

Furthermore, art can provide us with tools for coping with the realities of the world. For example, one could say that experiencing negative emotions through art is counterproductive since there is already enough suffering and misery in the world; art does not need to add to this. This argument, however, does not take into account the point of view that art can in fact prepare us to encounter negative experiences and emotions. Art can serve as a theoretic ‘playground’; a safe setting that allows us to practice facing and dealing with unpleasant or scary matters. Even emotions and topics that may possibly be considered as taboos can be expressed and experienced through art. As aforementioned, art can allow us to experience an emotional catharsis which in itself can be meaningful when it comes to welfare. Furthermore, the experience of being fully immersed in something, be it a theatre performance, a conversation about art or simply a private encounter with art, is valuable by its very nature.

FOOTNOTES

[1] More about the connection of art and emotion referring to and moving from Tolstoy’s and Collingwood’s philosophies on Noël Carroll’s Beyond Aesthetics: Philosophical Essays – Part IV: Art, Emotion, And Morality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2001.

[2] For further material see f.ex. The Black Report 1982 and the Acheson Report 1998.

[3] Clement Greenberg offers ground for further conversation on in his 1939 essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch. First published in Partisan Review (1939).

REFERENCES

Beardsley, Monroe C. (1981). Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing.

Carroll, Noël (2001). Beyond Aesthetics: Philosophical Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dewey, John (1980). Art as Experience. New York: Perigee Books 2005.

Konlaan, Boinkum Benson. Cultural Experience and Health: the coherence of health and leisure time activities. Umeå University 2001.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly 1988. Optimal Experience: Psychological Studies of Flow in Consciousness (edit. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Isabella Selega Csikszentmihalyi). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1988.

The Grand Paradise, a performance by Third Rail Projects. Brooklyn NYC, 2016. Seen on June 30th 2016.

(August 12th 2016)

World Health Organization 1948. Preamble to the Constitution of the World Health Organization as adopted by the International Health Conference, New York, 19–22 June, 1946; signed on 22 July 1946 by the representatives of 61 States (Official Records of the World Health Organization, no. 2, p. 100) and entered into force on 7 April 1948. (August 22nd 2016)

Language: 
english