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Experiencing the Arts as Spatial Self-Awareness

August 4, 2013 | LETTERS FROM HANOI

The visual and performing arts have more in common than I think is discussed in writing. Some philosophers distinguish the two areas by referring to the performing arts as the temporal arts and the visual arts as plastic arts.  They think physical time makes the difference, that the audience determines the timing of their experience with visual arts but cannot with the productions on stage.


Let’s shift the paradigm.  Instead of time let us think about space and not physical space but sensual space.


Think of the person who says, “sorry, I need to be alone now in my personal space”. I think that this space could also mean that your mood, your life, and your spirit are feeling less confined, a sort of opening up of yourself into a bigger universe.


When we’re looking at two-dimensional visual art we experience it in ways that include the spatial perspective within the art work.  Mountains get smaller in the distance, reds and yellows come forward and green back, and railroad tracks converge.  Formalisms of that type help us to imagine the space depicted in the art work and we are less aware of the art work’s surface.  This virtual space in the art work may impact our sense of emotion in the work and within ourselves.  However this visually induced virtual space is not the one I am referring to.


Other things affect our emotional space at the same time.  For example, we may be unaware that we are experiencing many things inside the physical room where we are standing, such as the atmosphere and light quality.  Maybe our mental focus is wandering around thinking about the artwork and also thinking about other things at a subconscious level, our hunger, thirst, next day off and so on.


The sense of our emotional space has a profound effect

You can experiment.  First try asking yourself how you are breathing, and feel that your life is filled with a restful space as you let the other thoughts and feelings go.  Look at the art work now while focused on your breathing,  and you may get a response to the art work  different from your first impression.  Next ignore your breathing and  try to focus all your attention entirely on the one artwork and eliminate your subconscious rumblings, and you may get a third  response, because your sense of space and time has changed subtly.  Self-awareness helps us to define the immediate experience we are having, and through that, we become more aware of the tightness or looseness of the space or breathing in our life.  Moreover, we can become aware of how a visual art work may define our emotional space.  Additionally referring to different experiences and thoughts while looking at an art work will cause you to respond to the work at various intensities and associations.


Let’s cross-reference that to the experience at a temporal event, a concert.  My wife and I went to a concert of the rock band Queen a few years ago because my son bought us almost front row seats.   As you might guess, there were many moments when the sonics of the band and the shouting of the songs lyrics by the audience of 10,000 was deafening and yet very exciting.  At those peak moments it felt to me that the space and breathing in my feeling had become compressed.  Maybe even a happy tension does that to us.  But it doesn’t always have to be loud, fast and intense.   I attended a concert by the Chicago Symphony doing a performance of Franz Schubert’s 8th symphony with a slow movement performed at an even slower (and in my opinion, more boring) pace than is typical.  To me, though it may have been a spatially open experience for others in the audience, the boredom collapsed my sense of space.  I felt confined and oppressed.


Here is an opposite experience I have had in music.  My emotional space opened up to the point that I felt like I was soaring in an unlimited sky.  It was a performance of  Mozart piano concerto.  This time I was on stage as the principal bassoon player.  Our orchestra, The Milwaukee Symphony,  was using an interim principal flutist, who was on loan from the New York Philharmonic.   She seemed a strong player with an interest in the artistry of expression ( back then not so common an interest as you would assume).  In the slow second movement there is a dialogue, or counterpoint of melodies between the flute and the bassoon.  I can’t explain how this happens, but now and then, in that type of moment, I will shift a slight emphasis in time or dynamics to bring a greater magic to the melodic phrase.  It is tiny almost un-measurable things but very apparent to oneself, the other musicians and the audience.  It happens now and then to some of the other non- sectional players of ours and any other orchestra.  It is what can make a concert an even more memorable event.  But this particular time something else happened.  The flutist somehow immediately responded to my little deviations building onwards and tossing it back to me for more of this stunning happening.  That is normal in the context of a string quartet but exceptional in a big orchestra.  It was a moment one doesn’t even know enough to dream about. But when it does, it is amazing, comes from nothing to be something, and you think for sure you are seeing into the greatness of the universe.  That time my personal space was as large as I have ever felt it.


I am not sure how most people think about the emotional feeling of their space as they go from moment to moment in everyday life.  But I am sure that the arts effect this feeling in each individual and to a large degree.  In that regard, performing arts and visual arts impact people and through that bear a common crossing point between these alternate forms of human expression.  Seeing an art work while aware of your spatial feelings creates an even more dynamic viewing experience.  Doing the same when listening does similar things for you.  Seeing some art then listening to music opens up your responses to the art and also works in reverse.