An ambiguous poster caught my attention in a Phoenix coffee shop.
The title read Perspective: A Night of Shifting Space, announcing an art exhibit that was described with just one line that read "Movement & Sound by:" with eight names listed. Something told me that I needed to go. So I did, and I took along a new friend after warning her to expect "some weird performance art."
We arrived just in time to catch three back-to-back performances consisting, as the poster described, of movement and sound. But these were not dancers, and they were not dancing. And the sounds were not music, but more like noise compositions. Instead, the artwork on display was being conveyed through their bodies, through the way they moved, and paused, and listened to the sounds, and responded to the environment where they had placed themselves. The audience silently watched the first performance, where a single dancer expressed a frustrating relationship with the linear nature of time. Following this, a group of artists wandered through a dimly lit field, mimicking the physical movements and family dynamics of an elephant herd. And lastly, two women represented the nature of duality through repetitious movements in a divided space.
For someone not entrenched in the art world, like my friend who I brought along, the whole thing was just plain weird.
But as someone who interprets all artwork as a lens for social commentary, I was mystified.
Yes, these were not aesthetically, nor professionally, trained dancers here for our entertainment. The intention of the artwork was not to display a polished representation of beauty. The sounds and the movements were not created with the intention of capturing & keeping our attention for a prolonged period of time. I even found myself bored at moments, losing focus, and having to return my awareness to the art. But these performances made me feel like I was more deeply inhabiting my body. They evoked familiar and uncomfortably personal emotions, and they offered me a new perspective as to how I can live a better life, how I can help to create a better world.
Afterward, my friend and I discussed the works we just witnessed. She seemed slightly confused and almost annoyed at the lack of content that was exhibited. After I talked about how well-practiced some of the artists were, how the group of elephants had skillfully expressed the body mechanics and the personalities of a species so different than humans, she said,
"Yeah, they did a really good job pretending to be elephants. But so what? What's the point?"
I was surprised that she hadn't stopped to think about the most important part of any art form: the WHY! Why do any of it at all? Why spend weeks working with a group of people, pretending to move around like a family of elephants? Of course, you could ask this question of anyone, not just artists! Scientists - who spend all day counting grains of sand under a microscope. Yogis - who spend mornings and nights stretching their bodies and slowing down their breathing. Actors - who spend weeks memorizing fictional characters and stories. Writers - who spend years writing the stories in the first place. Meditators - who spend mornings in silence, listening to the delusions of their own mind. Why do any of it?
Of course, when talking about art you could always argue for the sake of beauty. And that's all fine and good. But to me, true art, art that is worth spending your time making & appreciating, serves a purpose. What makes "good art" is the Element of Change, in the audience and in the maker.
If an artwork neither inspires the viewer to create a change, nor does it allow the artist herself to evolve into a better person, then it has failed to serve its purpose. Of course these are my own opinions. I simply just don't think it’s worth my time if it’s not going to make my life or someone else's life better in some capacity. And to strive towards better is to strive towards change.
Perhaps that's why people mostly want to see beauty in art forms, because they are so overwhelmed with the ugliness in the world that they are craving some way to change that dull perspective.
But the most important point that I want to make here is the value and the necessity in appreciating art. So if you're like my new friend and you don't know how to interpret a work of art, then ask yourself this: "Why would the artist make this? How does this work inspire me to create change in the world?"
Personally, I was incredibly moved by the elephant performance. Not only did the artists effectively portray the physicality and gentility of these complex creatures, but they also shed light on a peacefulness and interconnectedness that our own species is lacking. I felt a sense of belonging, and I was able to see how elephants might be able to teach us humans how to live more harmoniously - if we all slowed down a little, became a bit more sensitive to the needs of our community, and learned to be more present within our own bodies.
I know that not everyone walks into an art gallery or a museum looking for life-advice.
But even still, it’s there.
We just have to be open to it.