The other night I caught Gillian Anderson in A StreetCar Named Desire from London’s National Theater on YouTube. During the COVID 19 lockdown they, and other theater companies across the globe, are presenting different plays from their archives every week. Watching Ms. Anderson’s performance as Blanche Dubois made me really appreciate the artistry that goes into live performances. It was a pleasant reminder that art is a deep level of communication that we rarely get in the world around us.
Watching Blanche transform from a woman down on her luck to one experiencing a psychotic breakdown, I could feel the depth of emotion that Ms. Anderson poured into that performance. I could not only see but also empathetically sense the triggers that sent Blanche past the point of no return, and the role that each of the pivotal characters had on her descent.
The performance brought to the forefront how we, knowingly or unknowingly, affect the lives of others. This play wasn’t just about a house disrupted by neurosis. It was also a reminder of the role we all play in the lives of others. Art helps us to consider such questions and get in touch with our emotions.
Rather than looking for distraction and a world far from reality, art gives you the opportunity to explore your own feelings and build your skills of understanding the thoughts and feelings of others. It gives you access to experiencing the pure emotions the artist is sharing. Surgi Rachmaninoff said that music is communication from the heart of the musician to the listener. No need for language to dilute the emotion.
No musician epitomizes this more than Pat Metheny. Watching and listening to him play guitar, you feel he is reaching out and sending you joy with every note and chord he plays. He and his band give you a bath of exhilaration as you experience the emotion that goes into every bar of a tune, not just from him but every member of the band as well. Like in this clip of As It Is.
Paintings and sculptures can affect you in a similar way, if you take the time to let them infuse you. Consider your mental and emotional impressions. Art may even give you a physical response such as shying away from or drawing you into it. Let the artwork wash over you. Think about what the artist and their art is saying to you. Consider their state of mind as they worked on their creations for days, weeks, months and sometimes even years. What compelled them to share this image from the thousands they had in their mind?
On a visit to the Getty Museum in California, I saw a woman looking at Vincent Van Gogh’s Irises with opera glasses. At first this seemed odd. That is one manic art lover, I thought to myself. Later, as I considered the scene, it dawned on me that she wanted to ingest every stroke and fine detail in Van Gogh’s work.
Maybe she was imagining him putting oil to canvas, in the field and then in his studio as he recalled the image from his mind. Perhaps she wanted to connect with the emotion he was feeling as he intricately detailed each leaf and petal. Perhaps she wanted to imprint those strokes and the finished painting in her mind as a living experience. Like with theater and music, the painting was delivering a message to her directly, from the artist’s heart to her own. This deep appreciation made her one with the painter as she interacted with his masterpiece.
Rather than just considering art a pleasant diversion from your daily life, take the opportunity to interact with it deeply and intimately. Experiencing these works on an emotional level and considering what the artist’s heart is communicating to you will leave you with a new perspective and a lasting impression that you can relive over and over again.
Nima Esnaashari has been living in Hyogo prefecture since 2010. He moved to Japan from the United States. He originally came to Japan on the Japan Exchange and Teaching, also referred to as the JET Program.