In a rather heated public debate on what cinema does, Francis Ford Coppola recently said that “we expect to learn something […], we expect to gain something, some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration.” The same can be said of all art forms; but let us delve into this idea a bit deeper. Good art can be “interesting,”, “entertaining,”, “thought-provoking,”, “original” (add to the list at will); great art is transformational. I like to think of it as a condensed exercise in Emotional Intelligence, only camouflaged. Here’s why.
Great art doesn’t merely represent what is; it has the ability to open our eyes to what can be. In coaching talk, this means it paves the way towards new mental pathways, by showing us both that it can be done and how. Possibility becomes both the means it employs and its implicit subject matter. A Moroccan artisan once told me about his craft: “People think it’s easy; but that’s only after someone else has conceived of it, put a lot of thought into how it can be made and has eventually given form to it.” After all, as Aristotle states in his Poetics, “possibility means credibility; until something happens we remain uncertain of its possibility”. Leave it up to the greats to make us stretch the limits of what we think of as possible. While our genetics and experience, current and past, have us predisposed to use (and abuse) set mental patterns, great art leads by example, by showing us how previously unthought-of mental pathways are actually within our reach.
“A thing is a whole if it has a beginning, a middle, and an end,” Aristotle defines, and this holds just as true for art as it does for anything else. Art stands as a representation of a moment in time (no matter how long this moment may last), complete in itself. We are always in the midst of our lives and, as such, every past experience can still be subject to change. Through great works of art, especially narrative art, we get to see the end and how it may color the past. It therefore gives us the benefit of the whole picture we have yet to see. As a consequence, nothing is left unresolved, the experience itself becomes cathartic and everything falls into place. As Alain de Botton very acutely points out in his Art as Therapy, “Art can offer a grand and serious vantage point from which to survey the travails of our condition.” As such, it can teach us how the past and present can be reframed, even in the face of uncertain consequences.
Its contribution to perspective-taking doesn’t stop there. Great art can also function as a skilfully used magnifying glass, shedding light onto something minuscule or seemingly insignificant. Through art, Alan de Botton says, “we start to be moved by the small moments of beauty that artists are very good at training our eyes to.”. It captures the microcosm that exists all around us and often escapes our attention, and urges us to take pause and appreciate it. It brings into focus what has escaped our conscious mind but has somehow registered – similar to what our dreams do – ; and then, it immortalizes it. Great art has the unique capacity of bringing to light the essence of things, that part of their purpose that we can’t quite put into words. Not only does it urge us to focus on the small and elusive gems of our lives, it also teaches us why we have to.
“In art,” De Botton goes on to say, “sublimation refers to the psychological processes of transformation, in which base and unimpressive experiences are converted into something noble and fine – exactly what may happen when sorrow meets art.” Case in point: Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Its grave tone, although far from “base and unimpressive,”, conveys an intense feeling of turmoil. But instead of causing us to demonize this otherwise unpleasant feeling, Beethoven explores it in all its glory. Ultimately, he dignifies it. While we might sometimes be fast to dismiss as negative anything remotely unpleasant, great art pays tribute to it. Beauty, through art, therefore becomes not an antidote to sadness, but part and parcel of it. It conveys “the noble story,”, a concept coined by Matthew Taylor, founder and CEO of the Noble Story Group, that hides behind negative experiences – those very experiences that we find most difficult to accept.
A prerequisite for this is what Leo Tolstoy referred to as the “infectiousness” of art. “To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself,” he writes, “then by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed through words, so to convey this so that others may experience the same feeling – – this is the activity of art.” Rachel Corbett, author of You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin, echoes: “Something produces a ‘gut feeling’ or triggers a flood of memory, like Proust’s madeleine.” Art has a unique way of igniting within us emotions that we identify with, either indirectly, through form (as does Moonlight Sonata), or directly, through its subject matter (where emotions are portrayed by actors or described by writers). What’s more, it does so risk-free: the audience can experience an emotional release without having to deal with any real-life consequences or requirements of follow-through – and often from the safety of (or confinement in) our homes.
At a time when we are stripped of certain luxuries, and our shortcomings, individual and collective, are put under a magnifying glass, what we need the most is meaning. Good thing we have great artists to remind us we are in no short supply. “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth,” Picasso says. And I add: great art is a lie that makes us realize what it truly means to be human.