Sunday, October 21, 2007

And Let It All Out

For a long time I've been taken in by but tentative about Augusto Boal's theory that Aristotelian catharsis in art is socially damaging. Boal, creator of the Theatre of the Oppressed and author of a book of the same title, among others, claims that catharsis is damaging because it makes you as an audience think you're done. You may get deeply involved in a story, a play, a film—a plot, in other words—deeply invested in the outcome, but once you know the outcome for the particular situation in question, it's over. You feel no need to consider the further implications of the story on your social world—that, for example, the injustice portrayed onstage might in fact be part of your own society, and something that you could change—because in having a cathartic experience, you have purged your emotions about such situations, and therefore no longer have any stake in them, even though the art you saw was fictional and these circumstances or characters also exist in reality.

There's something to that, certainly. In most simplistic terms, how else to explain the preponderance of fairly popular political Hollywood films and the comparatively small amounts of political action or change in the United States? That's not the only explanation for the minor political action, of course, but it is one of the better existing explanations for the connection between arts and relative apathy. It explains, also, the American ability to relegate art to something cute, superfluous, enriching. I've spent a couple of years arguing, if not particularly well, against catharsis as a result of reading Boal.

After spending three weeks in August and September watching Six Feet Under, this view—mine and Boal's—feels incredibly limited to me. It's a strange reaction, not least because I watched Six Feet Under entirely on my own, not part of any collective audience when I'm certainly confident it requires a collective to create real social change. But the depth at which the show changed me, attacked and reformed my thoughts and assumptions, took me very much by surprise. My immediate action to the artistic aspect of it, which is pure evidence of how weird i am: the first power I was able to identify was its power to effect me, before I'd made sense of the way in which it effected me. But beyond that, it has changed the way I think about family, about maturity, about social worlds, and about several other things I am probably not capable of identifying at this time. It opened me to ways of looking at those things that I had not even considered until I watched the show.

I'd probably seen any number of movies or television episodes that tried to make similar points, but i honestly don't remember. That, I suppose, would be what I mean. I've cried, for example, over books, even really bad books, in which people lose siblings. Being a person with a sibling I love very much, the very thought can honestly reduce me to tears (why the hell is that a reduction, anyway?) if I'm in the right mood. To see the concept rendered concrete, however poorly, can then, reasonably, be ever more difficult. But Six Feet Under forced me to engage with, to truly know, some of the ideas associated with it that I couldn't have found in a lesser work—the attendant isolation, for example, the threat of truly going it alone, and the wrenching way in which grief has to be a selfish act. That's going to change the way I live in the world. It already has.

Even those are only the most concrete aspects of what I'm talking about, but they are far and away the easiest to write about. The conclusion to which it's led me, simply, is that it depends on how you let it out.

Which is to say that for me and most of my friends, growing up as Americans, we've been trained to have certain alleys and routes for processing our reaction to things we see. To continue to process things through those channels isn't going to make much change, either within or without us. But it's possible for new channels to open, and that's when art has the potential to create social change. It's not automatic, because it requires a number of factors for it to do so: in addition to the art being good enough to truly open the channels (and I think I'm referring to Daddy Day Camp as much as anything else here, though I'm not sure), the audience member of members have to be open to it, and there has to be information enough available, whether included in the piece itself or presented/offered in conjunction with it, for the audience to take another step. But art is capable of readying you for it.

My job as an artist and educator, then, at least one of the many, is to create things that open new channels. It isn't my only job; it's certainly true that sometimes I just want good-lookin' cheap shoes. But the overall goals of my work are to create real change, and working on and with this kind of catharsis is the best way I can currently see to do so.

Theater, films, television in which I have not been a participant have changed me. I've been involved with the experience of creating and navigating a lot of art, and that effect is obvious, but I have borne witness (with the weight of bearing it that I discussed earlier) to some, from Six Feet Under back to seeing Romeo and Juliet on the streets of Manhattan when I was four, that has reformed, by means of necessity, the way I thought about and lived in the world. I know that even for audiences art has the power to do that, and while I think Boal's caveat is worth keeping in mind—that kind of catharsis can certainly happen, and for me it certainly makes me think less of the work of art in question—it cannot be all there is to catharsis or to our perception of it. We can let these things out through existing channels and never think of them again, or we can let them out through a new channel into our world.


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