Last fall, I was walking with a friend on the expansive brilliantly white patio outside the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.
It was a hot day, and when my friend needed to take a call, I snuck out of the sun to stand under the large flat roof of the building in the shade, next to the cool marble walls. The building is huge, a true monolith, and as I was looking up at the architecture, one of the many quotes they have engraved on the Kennedy Center’s walls caught my eye:
“This country cannot afford to be materially rich but spiritually poor.”
This quote, spoken by John F. Kennedy during his State of the Union address in 1963, stuck in my head (and has been percolating in there for all of these months) in large part because I was struck by the fact that this particular sentence, at least verbally, has nothing to do with the arts. It mentions art not at all. Instead, it has to do with the spirit, the health of which is, generally speaking, thought to be in the hands of the church.
Of course, we compare ourselves to church all the time (there was a whole conference on it)—and every once in a while, there’s a real backlash against comparing ourselves to church—as indeed Ben Cameron did during his speech at Americans for the Arts, where he brought up that theatres, like churches, are trying to mediate a relationship in an age of disintermediation. I’ve been on the fence on the church metaphor, though I have previously written about an experience of mine at church as a way into talking about the power of the arts, but with all the writing I did last week about the fall of the middle man, I’ve been thinking about it more.
Recently, I was invited to sit down and speak with the leaders of 25 or so of the country’s best professional choruses. It was an intimate round table at the Chorus America conference, and we were meant to be discussing the two topics that take up most of my time now: impact and excellence. After doing a PowerPoint-free variation on my intrinsic impact presentation, my co-presenter and I opened it up engaged in what I felt was an extremely electrifying conversation with these leaders about the power and purpose of their art. The confrontational leaders said things like, “We don’t need to measure excellence or impact—we are who we are, and run the organizations that we run, because we are the best of the best, and so are already excellent.” The skeptics, by and large, were silent for much of it. And in the middle, about ten of the people in the room got into a detailed conversation about the peculiar power of live chorus music to engage in diverse audiences a strong and nonspecific “lift,” something that one of the people in the room described this way:
“My goal is to make the guy in the trucker hat in the back of the room come down at the end of the show and tell me, with surprise, ‘I…liked it. I really liked it. I don’t know why…but I liked it.’”
Another leader put it this way:
“I think when we’re doing what we do well, we stop existing for the people listening. They’re not seeing an individual singer; they’re not even seeing the whole group of singers. We all just blur and disappear, and the song emerges out of us like a bright light, and it washes over the audience and they get lost in it. There are no singers, when we’re doing well, there’s just the audience and the art. And when it’s over, they may not know why, but they’ll leave and say, ‘Hmm, I really enjoyed that. That was really good.’”
There are no people, when we’re doing well, there’s just the audience and the art.
At their best, the facilitators of both religion and art just get out of the way. When that can happen, whether it’s on an organizational level or at the individual level, then a lot of barriers fall and the “spiritual” that Kennedy was talking about comes into play. In church, of course, this is called “communion,” which Merriam-Webster defines as “an act or instance of sharing,” and which Oxford English Dictionary more flowerily defines as “common participation in a mental or emotional experience.” In this way, at least, the arts and the church are both aiming for the same thing.
There’s actually a lot of science behind this feeling of communion. The brain waves of the faithful give them away (though “faithful to what” is an interesting question—researchers in England recently discovered that Apple fanatics’ brains manifest similar activity when presented with images of Apple products—so maybe the Church of Steve Jobs isn’t such a bad moniker after all, hallowed be iName.). A couple weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about brainwaves and how they sync during one-on-one conversation. If you think about it, that is a small-scale example of this same phenomenon, because when you get down to it, communion is really just paying close attention, all at once, together—syncing into a conversation on a more massive scale (insert image of the faithful all waiting, faces turned to the sun, for the Rapture. You know what I mean.).
Another way to talk about this communion is through two terms that I’ve thrown around on this blog before, that I think deserve a little more discussion: captivation and flow. “Captivation,” which in this sense was coined by Alan Brown in his early writing around measuring intrinsic impact, is the extent to which the audience member was absorbed in the performance—as in, “Did you lose track of time and forget about everything else during the performance?” It is what Brown refers to as a “lynchpin impact” of the artistic experience; the amount that a person was captivated by the performance direct affects the other impacts of that performance, including how much they engage on an emotional, intellectual, social and aesthetic level. Incidentally, WolfBrown’s work has shown that people who are more captivated are more likely to say they want to come back—so marketers take note, this impact stuff isn’t just for the artists anymore.
Intuitively, this makes sense—both that you would get more out of an experience and that you would be more likely to return if you were strongly engaged in the experience in the first place. Where “flow” comes in is in extrapolating out from a presented experience to just about anything. Whereas captivation is really about an external force (the art) affecting attention and focus of an individual (the audience) in a positive way, flow can happen with any activity, anywhere, whether in a group or alone. The term, coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (yikes), basically describes when a person is as fully immersed in any activity as they can be. Cskimzentmihalyi proposes that when this happens, whether it’s doing a puzzle, tying a shoe, doing your taxes, painting a portrait, eating a meal or going to an arts event, one gets a “feeling of energized focus, full involvement and success in the process of the activity.” In other words, in that moment of flow, one is completely fulfilled. Per Wikipedia, “the hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task.”
Which loops me back to Kennedy’s quote.
The country cannot afford to be materially rich but spiritually poor.
The spiritual is the place where we live. It is the thing that makes life worth living, and as artists we have a tremendous opportunity to create something that taps into that spirituality, expresses in beauty and art something that stretches beyond the individual’s capacity, becomes a glow of pure light and sound that overpowers a room and makes them forget who they are, where they are, what divides them, what beliefs they came in with, what problems they left to be with us. We can do all of this, create a space as humming and religious as the most ecstatic church, provide a different language for understanding the universe.
All we have to do is get out of the way.