Art and Emotions

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Art and Emotions
Pinchas Noy (Jerusalem)
A lecture presented at the IPA Congress, Chicago, July 2009.
In a former paper "How Music Conveys Emotions" (Noy, 1998) I presented three different routes by which the artist may succeed in evoking in his or her audience an emotional response. In the present paper I want to propose a fourth route, based not, as the three former once, on what musical stimuli are able to convey or arouse, but on the emotions produced by the listener himself as the result of his active attempt to process the musical input in his mind. I would call such an emotion, which reflects in some way the sum-total of all the disparate and opposing emotions conveyed or aroused by means of the three basic routes, but at the same time being neither of them, as a meta-emotion. For demonstrating that higher level of emotion processing I will continue to stick to the case of music, but show further how these new principle may be applied also to the other arts.

One of the main differences between what is regarded as "popular" music and "high", "sublime" or "fine" music, is in their degree of complexity. While the first kind is mostly presented as a single melodic line without or with some accompaniment, the last is mostly structured polyphonically, presenting simultaneously two or more separate melodic lines. Almost all of the great composers in the last three hundred years took advantage of that ability of music to transmit several melodic lines at the same time, using each line for conveying a different emotion. By that they succeeded in ascending to a higher level of dramatic expression, not only to convey or arouse one emotion at a time, but representing also the conflicts between disparate and sometimes opposing emotions.

This development made music into one of the highest arts, as described by Susanne Langer (1942): "The real power of music lies in the fact that it can be 'true' to the life of feeling in a way that language cannot; for its significant forms have that ambivalence of content which word cannot have… The possibility of expressing opposites simultaneously gives the most intricate reaches of expressiveness to music as such, and carries it, in this respect, far beyond the limits of the other arts" (p. 243).

One of the first examples to demonstrate the ability of polyphonic musical structures to express the conflicts of life can be found in the opera Idomeneo. Here Mozart staged his four heroes – Idomeneo the king of Crete, Idamante his son, Electra the daughter of the king of Greece, and Illia the captured daughter of the king of Troya – to express their contrasting emotions not one after another as conventional, but by singing together. In this ensemble (No. 21 – "Andro ramingo solo"), each of the four participants expresses his specific emotion at that time - Idamante, his anxiety and resentment at being required to leave home, Idomeneo, his guilt feelings for knowing that he in his hasty oat to Neptune was responsible for that tragic situation, and so on. The royal family of Crete represents, according to several musicologists, the nuclear family of Mozart – Idomeneo his father, Idamante himself, and Electra and Illia the two women of his life, his mother and sister Nanerl. While the conflict around the forced separation of the prince Idamanta from his home that is expressed and lamented in that ensemble, represents the separation anxiety of Mozart himself, who at that age of 25 had to leave his Salzburg home.

This kind of "family dynamics" interpretation, inspired me to compare the listener exposed to a multilevel musical message to a family therapist, a simile that may speak especially to our profession. The sensitive listener, like a good therapist, is required to attend to all the messages and the different emotions conveyed, and in case he senses ambiguities, discrepancies or conflicts between the various levels, to cope with them. Most musical lovers find it too difficult to attend to different, and often opposing emotional messages at the same time, and tend to reject polyphonic music as "too complicated", preferring to listen only to popular songs. Even many of those musical lovers whose ear is open also to orchestral music, prefer to listen mainly to those pieces of music in which the various instruments are used only to accompany the main theme, adding rhythm, color, or harmony, like the 19th century ballets, waltzes, 'bel canto' opera arias, etc. They can be compared to the inexperienced family therapist that when attempting to attend to the conflicting messages of his clients, tends to identify mostly with one of them, and join him in his struggle against the other.

But the experienced therapist is able to maintain for a while some distance from the immediate impact of the emotional messages, to internalize and contain them, trying to solve the ambiguities or conflicts first inside his own mind before he creates his emotional response. That response is mostly a kind of a general emotional attitude, a mood, or emotions aroused as the result of rational considerations, and may either fit the stance of one of the parties, or be a compromise, or represent something entirely new, not included in any of them. For example, a family therapist may be exposed to a couple involved in endless disputes and quarrels, trying each to gain his sympathy and identification with his stance, but after listening for a while to their argumentation begins to feel an ever growing compassion to these two people, who are loving and dependent one on another, but unable to extricate themselves from the bleak spirits of power quarrels taking control of them. An opposite development may also be possible. The therapist listening to the members of the family who keep praising and glorifying each other, may feel himself more and more repulsed by these hypocritical people unable to face their real emotions.

So is the response of the sensitive musical listener exposed to one of the great symphonies, chamber music or operas – swept away in the drama presented by that music, open to the impact of the contrasting emotions conveyed, and able to solve them by creating something new.

I believe that these ideas about the conveyance of emotion in music, can be broadened and applied to any form of high art, as Anton Ehrenzweig (1967) wrote: "All artistic structure is essentially 'polyphonic'; it evolves not in a single line of thought, but in several superimposed strands at once" (p.xii). The art of painting, as Ehrenzweig (1953) had shown, may use the natural perceptual tendency to differentiate a picture into ground and figure, or exploit any other possibility for division of ground or figure for conveying different a emotional meaning on each level. Modern ballet uses the discrepancies between the dancer's movements and background music, between the dances and the atmosphere portrayed on the stage, and also between the rhythm and movement between various groups of dancers.

In spite of the verbal medium being considered as capable to convey meanings only on a single level, even the verbal arts may succeed in developing this polyphonic capacity to transmit different meanings and emotion on several levels concomitantly. The art of poetry attain it by manipulating the various auxiliary properties of language, like rhythm, rhyme, velocity, etc. and using them for the conveyance of meanings on different levels. Literature, by using such tricks as presenting two or more narratives interweaved together, inserting flashbacks, exchanging scenes rapidly, etc. And obviously multimedia arts, most of them especially designed for enabling to present multiple contents on the same stage. In fact, all the arts on their higher ranks have developed their specific techniques for manipulating their expressive means to make them suitable to transmit a wide spectrum of diverse emotions simultaneously. And the creative artist is that one who knows how to use these means in the best way.

However, there is a crucial difference between the creative artist and clients of the family therapist of our example. Both bombard the listener with a mixture of ambivalent and contrasting emotions, using everything in their power to entice him to be empathic and to identify with each, but the artist, in contrast to the clients who are only using the therapist for their own sake, takes care to provide him also with the suitable means to cope with that mixture. The creative artist, when provoking by music, painting, poetry, theatre, or literature with the most exiting, distressing, and shocking conflicts of life, will always offer them wrapped into a package of perfect form. That package typically includes the required means to assist the art consumer in organizing the inner chaos produced, in reducing any anxiety aroused, and in attaining the supreme goal of any creative artist – to convert any excitement, distress and anxiety, into pleasure, enchantment or elation.

The "greatness" of a work of art is judged neither according to its deepness and complexity, nor according to its perfection of form, but according to the right balance between both. The greatest creations of art, those that have attained the ideal balance, remain preserved in the archives of culture as "symbols of integration", [to use the phrase of Anthony Storr (1972)], as a representation of unity, order, reconciliation of opposites, and as proof that such an integration is attainable.

Art is the most potent medium of communication to arouse an emotional response. Music can drive us to dance for hours without getting tired, or literature – to carry us on the waves of imagination to far-away countries. But the higher arts offer us a higher rank of satisfaction; not by being the passive recipients who get the emotions, but by challenging us to take part in the very process of "working through" the artistic message. Besides this challenge, there is a promise - if we are really ready to participate in the task, we may earn a new experience – a higher rank meta-emotion representing the ability to integrate the contrarieties inside us and to reconcile opposites.

Here we may again compare the creative artist to the experienced therapist. The same as the therapist – he doesn't provide direct interpretations, but only invites the client to work together on the problem. He serves the client only by assisting him to clarify the problem to work on, and by presenting him the suitable means for working on it, but if he succeeds to progress - it remains the client's achievement.

That is our bonus in consuming one of the higher arts – it provides us a with a feeling of competence, an experience of being a little more integrated, and of being a bit nearer to perfection.

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