Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What is a Transcendent Art Experience?

A friend wrote me recently saying that he did not see me as an art consumer -- the kind of person who would fly to NYC to see Kevin Spacey play Richard III on Broadway.
Actually, I'd love to fly to NYC to see Kevin Spacey play RIII - I'd even take an overnight bus from Toronto.  But indeed, I'm definitely not an art "consumer" - I'm not much of a consumer of anything.
Increasingly, the only art events I want to experience are ones that are transformative and transcendent.  Unfortunately, one usually has to show up first and fully experience an art event in order to be transformed by it.
Transcendent art experiences for me include the Met's 2006 Live in HD performance of The Magic Flute and Stratford's 2005 version ofThe Tempest with William Hutt.
How were those performances transcendent?  They took me beyond myself, outside of time.
  • I felt a joy and lightness in the present.  I couldn't stop smiling.
  • I felt connected to Shakespeare and Mozart and to all performers who had played in those works in the past
  • I seemed momentarily to understand truths that would still be true in the future
Have you had a transcendent art experience?  What was it?  What did it transcend?


  1. Sergio writes from Brazil:
    "There was a time I could have been described as an art consumer. This time was important for my "formation" as an artist and a thinker because I saw everything I could. I am far from being an art consumer nowadays. And the reason is that I don't have the patience to see shit any longer.

    Have you ever seen or read "The Unbearable Lightness of Being"? I haven't read the book, but I believe this passage is there too: Sabina (wonderful Swedish Lena Olin) is pissed off because she's just fled Prague after the Soviet invasion. She's in a chichi restaurant in Geneva dining with her Swiss boyfriend. She asks the waiter whether he could change the music. The waiter apologizes and replies that he can't. Then she explodes: "How can people eat while they listen to shit?"

    I have the same questioning as you have. The other day I went to a comedy that is sold out every night in Salvador. It was a piece of shit: the text, the acting, the concept... and yet the public laughed their pants off. We may conclude that consumption doesn't equal good taste. OMG I am aware there's no accounting for taste. But how can we compare, let's say, Leonard Cohen and Barry Manilow? Or Arthur Rubinstein and Richard Clayderman?

    I completely understand what you mean when you say art should be transformative and transcendent. How can I describe my own experience? I see something and all of a sudden I figure out something about the world and myself that I hadn't perceived before. So art for me is not only about the creation of fantasy; to me it's all about truth. Most of my PhD colleagues stone me for this statement. But here goes: In my personal experience, ever since I was a kid, there were artworks (including theatrical events) that changed the course of my life. The only reason they did it to me was that they spoke to my heart. Yes, they did suspend me from everyday life, but they also brought me to the concreteness of a reality beyond the utilitarian view we are brought up to cultivate somehow inescapably. Henri Bergson's view is completely assimilated in my train of thought.

    I have seen a few Shakespearean productions that were transcendent and transformative: two of them by Peter Brook (Hamlet and The Tempest), one of them by a Basque troupe (A Midsummer Night's Dream), and two by internationally acclaimed Brazilian directors (Romeo and Juliet: one of them with The Beatles as the soundtrack. Can you imagine Juliet "leaving home after living alone for so many years"? Shakespeare is actually rarely done in a way that brings the poetics of the sublime to the flesh of the actors and from there to the audience.

  2. Thank you for reminding me of other transformative art experiences (TAEs) - I saw a very high tech production of Hamlet at the St. Lawrence Centre in Toronto in the early 1990s that moved me deeply. Hamlet spent a lot of time in his room on his computer writing sonnets and being moody. It was perfect.

    Articulating how various art experiences are transcendent and transformative is difficult, but you know when it happens. The K'naan concert I saw in Fall 2010 definitely ...
    and the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival on September 13, 1969 absolutely ... transformation, though, can be related to the personal events surrounding the TAE as much as to the art itself.

  3. Lil's update: I went to New York City in late February and saw Kevin Spacey play Richard III at BAM - the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was edge-of-seat, nail-bitingly rivetting.