In the Spring of 2020, we had Michael Ling’s “Thinking in Sound” class. By this point in the year, COVID 19 restrictions, lockdowns and disappointments were becoming our new reality and Zoom class was starting to feel somewhat normal. As the weather improved, more and more of us were taking our laptops outside and sitting in the fresh air during class. There is something about being outside for a Zoom call or class that makes me feel less confined by technology.
One of our first assignments was an “Autobiography in Three Songs”. We were to choose three songs that held meaning for us or that represented certain times in our lives. We then shared them with the class and discussed their significance. I fell in love with this assignment. It was such an intimate and beautiful experience to hear the songs that others had chosen and the stories behind them. It was like peering into each other’s hearts and I enjoyed every minute. When the time came to share mine, I was unexpectedly moved by the pieces I had chosen. Each song held so much memory, and as soon as I heard the first song I was moved to tears. I was transported back to my childhood and to the tender and enduring love of my mother. I did not expect to cry, but I was immediately in tears. This assignment clearly illustrated the profound power music has to move people emotionally.
It was also during Michael’s class that the Black Lives Matter movement was on every news channel and social media feed. The George Floyd video had grabbed the world’s attention and there was a renewed push for justice. That movement spurred others and soon our Instagram feeds were filled with stories of past and present oppression. It was overwhelming for many of us. COVID was hard enough to process, but all of the anger and hurt and disagreements of the past hundred years were thrust into our consciousness again, and no matter how necessary it was, it was still a lot for any of us to wrestle with, especially in the middle of a pandemic. It was like the world was falling apart all over again. Once again our class became a place where we could listen to each other and feel like we were a part of a community, even when it felt like communities all over the world were being torn apart.
One of the other assignments that Micheal introduced us to was a Sound Composition. We were supposed to find or make sounds and create a composition from them. No instruments were to be used and what usually resulted was a sort of soundscape. I really enjoyed the process of this assignment and felt strongly that it would be an excellent project for dancers. In the Fall of 2020, I introduced this project to my Hip Hop class. I wanted them to be able to explore music, sound and movement without judgement and without being hemmed in by genre and history. The students went outside to find sounds and to make sounds. Then they had time to edit those sounds into a composition and share it with the class. Next, they created a movement piece that embodied the sounds of the composition. At first, I was worried that the students would think the assignment was too weird and not really want to create anything. However, the opposite was true. The students loved the project and came up with fun and creative movement pieces. I was pleased with the results, and I loved how the students had so much fun creating their movement pieces.
Below is a video of a group performing their Creative Movement Piece to their Sound Composition:
It was at the end of Michael’s class that he asked us to write a paper reflecting on what we had learned in the course. My paper turned into a treatise of sorts. In Micheal’s class, many of the ideas and thoughts that had been inspired by the master’s program began to coalesce and became an educational and artistic philosophy. My paper was entitled, “Art for the Artist’s Sake” and it outlines my approach to art and education.
Below is my paper:
Art for the Artist’s Sake
This course has come at a very interesting moment in my life. If there was ever a time where I wallowed in a liminal space/time, it is now. In these areas of transition and uncertainty, there is poignant beauty, palpable fear and crushing despair. The moment calls upon me to grapple with life’s saddest truths but also reveals its simplest joys. I am here, I am breathing, I am loved, I am in good health. These are gifts more valuable than anything else. However, stripping away superficiality cannot happen without some amount of pain. I welcome my new growth and new sense of self, but it has not come without a cost.
Throughout this process and often propelled by it, the state of the world changes drastically from day-to-day. Whenever one tragedy starts to wane another bursts onto the scene to take its place. To compound these issues, it seems that many people resort to violence, in word or deed, to express frustrations. It seems as if no one is listening to each other with an open mind. Everyone wants to judge others immediately and without room for grace. In the wake of one form of discrimination, the pendulum swings so far in the other direction that we enter into another.
What does one do to make sense of collective and personal tragedies? What does one offer to the world, which very well may throw your offering back in your face?
I don’t know.
However, here is a start.
During one of our last classes, I was inspired to write this statement in my notes:
The Artist’s own well-being is more than a good enough reason to create.
Throughout my education as an actress and a dancer, I repeatedly received the message, both implicitly and explicitly that art should be made for an audience. That art was only art, once viewed. I remember one acting teacher stating that acting without an audience was equivalent to masturbation. Being a very young person, who was at once naive and determined to please, I simply accepted those ideas as the truth. It is no wonder that throughout the subsequent years of my acting training and pursuing a career I started to enjoy my acting less and less until, ultimately, I hated it. Not only that, but I entered a period of severe mental health deterioration, which took years to recover from.
How could something that had once brought me so much joy and happiness, become abhorrent to me? As a child, I would often pretend to be various people I’d seen on TV, sometimes for an audience of my family but sometimes just for me — just for the sheer enjoyment of using my imagination and living in a different world for a few minutes. I would paint pictures that I imagined from the books that I was reading. I would sing along (on my own) to songs from my favourite musicals. I would choreograph dances, sometimes I showed them to others, but many times I kept them to myself. When did it become wrong to engage in an arts practice for our sheer pleasure in it? At what age does it become a “sin” to engage in art without an audience?
Of course, I believe that the arts can be very important because of their effect on an audience. Sharing art with others is wonderful and comes with a plethora of benefits to society. However, I don’t believe that the effect on the audience is the only legitimizing value that the arts hold.
When I engage in the arts without an audience, what are the results? Maybe I work through some emotional trauma. Maybe I learn to see things from a new perspective. Maybe I move my body and mind in new ways that increase my physical and mental fitness. Maybe I learn and practice resilience in the face of failure. Maybe I learn to allow my emotions to move through me. Maybe I simply have a moment of peace where my mind is allowed to forget everything else. These moments, these learnings, these feelings are valuable. They are legitimate. They are more than enough.
Not only is my own growth and happiness enough, but if I become more whole, if I become happier, if I become more accessible, I bring that to my family, to my city, to my country and to the world. For example, if I write a poem that no one ever reads, but it helps me understand someone else’s point of view, I bring that understanding into the world around me. If I dance, and no one sees it, but I move my negative emotions through my body, then I don’t take those negative feelings out on others.
My journey to this place of understanding started in Vicky’s class, in September. She had us choose a new art form and explore it, as our main project. Through that process, we explored how art practices work as a guide or as a teacher in many ways. We learned how the indigenous people’s view of the arts and their place in a healthy society. They believe the arts have many functions, but one is simply to help the artist learn and grow.
This kind of mindset was further broadened by Lynn, as we explored drama/improvisation in the classroom and we worked as both performer and observer at the same time. We were acting without an audience, while simultaneously becoming the performer and the audience. I recognized that I learned more and in a very visceral way from my own interaction with the characters that I was playing, not just by observing others.
In this class, we discussed music from many different angles. What made the most impact on me was the autobiography projects. My own experience of choosing and listening through my songs was profound. Of course, I enjoyed sharing them, but I feel that I benefitted the most from my exploration. It had a transformative effect. I also enjoyed seeing a similar thing happen for my classmates as the music dug up long-hidden parts of our identities and allowed us to reconnect to ourselves.
One might say that I am advocating the old mantra, “Art for art’s sake”. That phrase has never sat well with me, but now I realize why. In my opinion, it is focusing on the wrong part of the process. Instead, I would say, “Art for the Artist’s sake”. All of us are artists when involved in any form of art practice and we reap the benefits of it, whether an audience is present or not.I wish that I had understood this at an earlier age so that I did not waste so much time and suffer so much to try to legitimize my art and my existence to others. I think that one of the greatest things that my students will learn is that they can be artists and enjoy art practices outside of any judgment by anyone else, including that of an audience. I think that is what makes the arts an important course in the curriculum. Not because we want to create the next master painter or dancer or actor, but because we want to facilitate students’ abilities to become whole humans, that can experience all of the joys and benefits of the arts, whether they are being watched or not.