Art is a crisis. In the moment of making it & in what it elicits. The crisis of art causes those in the midst of it to forget for a while the unpaid bills, the kids’ soccer schedule, the gossip from the night before. The persistent rattle of the day-to-day, with all its compelling little nothings, fades. & in its place, rising up, instead we hear the essential questions about who we are & what we should do & why.
It often seems there’s no time for these questions outside the frame of organized art. In the space of a concert hall, a theater, a museum, art-participants join together to look down the barrel / over the cliff-edge / into the storm-center of all we most hope & fear. Time caught in this extreme has a different texture. It slows. It becomes less linear. It collapses & expands in ways we couldn’t see before.
When we mutually engage the essential questions -- in the thick of a performance, a poem, a dance or a piece of music, something happens. We breathe differently. We drop into another space. We are reminded of something -- oh yes, that. That thing about what matters. That thing I forgot I want more than anything in the world. That thing that I must give myself in order to be happy. That thing that makes me fully myself. In the crisis of art we edge up against meaning.
The lure of the crisis runs deep. That action movies & TV shows like "24" tap into our innate longing for it explains their appeal. They remove us from mundane concerns & unbend a bit of time as we watch the characters in a round-the-clock crisis of, say, chasing someone intent on blowing up the world. We revel in the vicarious feeling of having a great deal at stake. Entering this kind of simulated crisis shadows our desire for the real one.
Tennessee Williams, in the forward to his play Camino Real describes creating art as equally suspenseful & breathtaking. “It is amazing & frightening how completely one’s whole being becomes absorbed in the making of a play. It is almost as if you were frantically constructing another world while the world that you live in dissolves beneath your feet, & that your survival depends on completing this construction at least one second before the old habitation collapses.”
Terese Hayden, my perceptive method acting teacher at Circle in the Square, once said that some people take risks with money & some gravitate towards physical risk, but artists are those who are compelled to take emotional risks. Meaning we choose to do battle with madness, loss, rejection, fear, grief, death -- & make ourselves vulnerable to the equally frightening hance of hope & joy. “Great actors,” my mentor Nikos Psacharopoulos used to say, “hate being emotionally idle.”
So then, not all crises are of the same order. Synthetic crises = things like gambling / skydiving / car racing, etc. The risk is experienced as fully & dramatically as a real crisis. The individual feels he or she must operate at peak performance in order to ‘survive.’ But survival is never really in jeopardy: it's a choice to make a thousand dollar bet or a bungee jump. This kind of crisis is an illusion: it can be averted.
Next are the brave people who put themselves in harm’s way not for an adrenaline rush but for the common good. Cops, doctors & CTU agents - our President - choose on a daily basis to put themselves in the path of danger. They react to crises of human origin, the bad things that people choose to do (or could choose not to do): murder / terrorism / child abuse / et al. These are arbitrary crises. Because no matter how persuasive the rationale, it’s human choice that makes war inevitable -- even though an individual doesn’t always have a choice about participating in it. We value people who take these kinds of risks far above the gambler / daredevil / magician.
& finally, the existential crises: those we don’t choose & cannot avoid. In most cases, human choice does not create disease. We cannot choose not to be sick & we cannot choose to live forever. We cannot choose to avoid loss -- of people, of time, of dreams. We cannot choose when an earthquake or tsunami will happen. We cannot choose to escape suffering. Art, as opposed to popular entertainment, insists on confronting the inevitable crises, rather than simulated or arbitrary ones.
For the performer, the crisis often begins with the anticipation of overcoming a towering obstacle: taking up these essential, existential questions while being observed by hundreds or thousands. (I think of writer’s block & stage fright as simulated crises, too; they mask the fear of the real thing.) Success means that the artist has scaled the importance of the question far over & above the power of the obstacle. Elevating the the importance of the task obliterates the artist’s inhibitions, cools the heat emanating from the presence of those watching. Voids self-consciousness.
Real crises operate the same way. An act of heroism transcends self-consciousness because something bigger is at stake -- the saving of a life, or a country, or an ideal. In the throws of a natural disaster, a war, a long hospital vigil, normal activities are suspended & seem inconsequential. The new order claims all the space & time available. These events, dreaded as they are, also serve to bring out the best in us. Which is why in looking back on them, they are not remembered only as something terrible.
When written in Chinese, the word "crisis" contains two characters. One represents danger & the other represents opportunity. Grappling with these brings out the best in the artist, & when all goes well, the best in the spectator. When the artist successfully inhabits the crisis, especially in a live performance, for hours or even days after, those of us present also reap rewards. We too get the chance for our best self to emerge & be activated.
The concept of the art-crisis, exquisitely expressed in this passage from Zadie Smithe’s novel On Beauty:
Mozart’s Requiem begins with you walking towards a huge pit. The pit is on the other side of a precipice, which you cannot see over until you are right at its edge. Your death is awaiting you in that pit. You don’t know what it looks like or sounds like or smells like. You don’t know whether it will be good or bad. You just walk towards it. Your will is a clarinet and your footsteps are attended by all the violins. The closer you get to the pit, the more you begin to have the sense that what awaits you there will be terrifying. Yet you experience this terror as a kind of blessing, a gift. Your long walk would have no meaning were it not for this pit at the end of it. You peer over the precipice: a burst of ethereal noise crashes over you. In the pit is a great choir, like the one you joined for two months at Wellington in which you were the only black woman. This choir is the heavenly host and simultaneously the devil’s army. It is also every person who has changed you during your time on this earth: your many lovers; your family; your enemies, the nameless faceless woman who slept with your husband; the man you thought you were going to marry; the man you did. The job of this choir is judgment. The men sing first, and their judgment is very severe. And when the women join in there is no respite, the debate only grows louder and sterner. For it is debate—you realize that now. The judgment is not yet decided. It is surprising how dramatic the fight for your measly soul turns out to be.
The crux of the crisis, I agree with Ms. Smith, is the fight for our measly souls. I don’t mean this in some kind of religious way, I mean it in the way of understanding our lives, our place in the universe, our suffering.
Without art as a means to enter the crisis, it has no way of expressing itself. The metaphors, the images, the stories allow us to enter into our own metaphor, image, story. Perhaps what the artist does best is embrace the crisis of being human. So as to facilitate someone else doing the same. So as to walk hand in hand with another soul headed toward that terrifying pit.