The arts and transformation of the self and the world: ‘Take the Lead’

Recently, I had the privilege of delivering the opening address at the launch of Louisa Punt-Fouché’s volume of poetry, ‘Ek skryf met Bloed en Bene’ (read it here), at the newly established art gallery on her and her husband, Ian Punt’s Kredouw Olive Estate, in the Swartberg. Surrounding myself and all the guests gathered there for the occasion, was a collection of Louisa’s artworks — paintings, prints and multimedia works — comprising an unsurpassable backdrop to my talk that dealt with the theme of ‘art and transformation’, which I could illuminate with examples from Louisa’s poetry and other artworks.

You may wonder how the arts — painting, poetry, the novel, architecture, cinema, dance — can ‘transform the world (and preserve the Earth)’. Aren’t they merely there to ‘hold a mirror up to nature’ (or culture), as the saying goes? And yet, this is precisely what artworks do — ‘transforming the world and the self’, and preserving the Earth in the process — and they do so by means of a primary ‘transformation’ (not in the shallow political sense) of ‘being’ into ‘structure’, and secondly, of people’s consciousness — of their way of being in the world.

At the same time, they ‘preserve the world and the Earth’ (Heidegger) in the sense that, embodied in the signifiers employed in art — colours, words, sounds, shapes — are ‘worlds’ (systems of meaning; think of Brueghel’s Children’s Games, or Zakes Mda’s The Heart of Redness) and Earth (colours, sounds, textures), which shows itself as precisely that which is just ‘given’, without being fully transparent; it actually resists human beings’ attempts to make it fully transparent. This is particularly apparent in architecture — think of the texture of stone, wood, marble or granite — it simply ‘is’, inexplicably, even if it can be harnessed by the architect to construct a ‘world’ of meaning. This much one learns from the philosophy of art of Martin Heidegger and his younger colleague and erstwhile student, Hans-Georg Gadamer.

Briefly, what this means is that art – all the arts – ‘transform’ or transmute what is given in (inner and outer) experience ‘into structure’ (Gadamer). This means that an artwork – for example Josef Albers’s series of more than 30 constructivist paintings, ‘Homage to the square’ (all formally the same but chromatically different, inscribing 3 squares into one another, each of a different colour, in different combinations) — makes use of something given, in this case colour and geometrical form, and transmogrifies it into something where the given is in a sense ‘restored to its true being’.

How is this possible? Colour is colour, and form is form, afterall. In Truth and Method, Gadamer explains that this is achieved in art, firstly, by art as (‘repeatable’) structure, making it possible to ‘perform’ an artwork over and over (by reading a novel, seeing a play, listening to music, looking at and contemplating a painting, performing a dance or a piece of music), and secondly, foregrounding, highlighting or presenting something in such a way that one perceives it, for the first time, as it were, for what it truly is.

In the case of Albers’s paintings of three intra-inscribed squares, for instance, one learns the important thing, that colour — like everything else in the world — does not have an ‘intrinsic’ identity, but that, depending on, and in interaction with, the other colours with which it is juxtaposed, it undergoes subtle changes. When a magenta square is juxtaposed with a white and a green one, for example, the magenta appears different compared to when it is juxtaposed with azure, ochre, aquamarine or burnt orange.

The lesson from these artworks? Colours interact, and in doing so, change their chromatic identity. At the same time, this insight functions analogously with regard to human identities — depending on with whom we interact, our ‘identities’ or personalities, display subtle changes. Hence, while Albers’s works transform colour into its ‘true being’, it simultaneously transforms viewers’ consciousness or awareness in such a way that – depending on the viewer’s receptivity, of course — one will henceforth be a different, transformed being. This is true of all art, but especially of politically relevant art like Picasso’s justly famous Guernica (even Albers’s chromatic artworks have a political meaning of sorts — think about what that might be).

In the case of Louisa’s visual works, their transformative function is enacted at the level of form and colour, but because invariably they include textual elements as well, also at an existential and political level — particularly because the suppression and oppression of the feminine, and concretely of women, in her work is so prominent that one cannot ignore it. Hence, if one is not moved — or transformed — at a conscious niveau by their primary transformation of the experiential world of shapes and colours (of women crying, or laughing, or suffering, as the expressions on their faces inform one), one is clearly not receptive to artistic images. If one contemplates them long enough, or discusses them with other people, one might become receptive, of course.

The film, Take the Lead, by Liz Friedlander (New Line Cinema, 2006), offers a particularly fine example of how transformation in and through the arts operates. Many people will be familiar with films which, like Friedlander’s, focus on the potentially significant role of dance and dancing in people’s lives – Bob Fosse’s All that Jazz, Bruce Beresford’s Mao’s Last Dancer, to mention but two – so it won’t come as a surprise to say that Take the Lead exemplifies such potential significance. Moreover, while all (even documentary) art fictionalises to a greater or lesser degree, this film is rooted in actual historical events, namely the pioneering work that a ballroom dancing instructor, Pierre Dulaine, did at a high school in New York, teaching ballroom dancing to students in detention classes, in the face of initial resistance on the part of the students and some teachers.

The information supplied in graphic format at the end of the film emphasises the far-reaching effects of Dulaine’s selfless, voluntary work: “Since ‘Dancing Classrooms’ was created by Pierre Dulaine, it has grown to involve 42 instructors and more than 12 000 students in 120 New York City public schools. It is currently expanding across America.”

Briefly, the plot involves Dulaine witnessing a student trashing the school principal’s car after being refused entry to a school event, followed by his offer, to the school principal, to use the time students (including the car trasher) spend in detention constructively, by teaching them ballroom dancing. Against all odds, by sheer persistence and a dazzling demonstration performance, together with the star woman dancer from his studio (which impresses the students, from poor socio-economic backgrounds, despite themselves) Dulaine finally manages to grab their imagination. He offers to pay for them to enter a ballroom competition, in which the film culminates, and against all expectations, they do well there.

So where is the transformation? First, dancing is a performing art, which requires dedication on the part of participants to reach a level of performance where movement becomes art. The students in the film gradually grasp this, and evolve towards this goal. The viewer witnesses the manner in which the film as artwork transforms the space in which the students live from one where all kinds of serious social problems (gang crime, prostitution, parents’ alcoholism) impinge on them, into a space where they learn, through dancing, that there are other possibilities in life. And this ushers in the second transformation on the part of the viewer – through unavoidable identification with the students, his or her consciousness, and therefore potential mode of acting in the world, are transfigured, too, with the result that one leaves the theatre elated, uplifted, by this aesthetic experience.

The crucial scene in the film where this is put in perspective, is where Dulaine — played beautifully by Antonio Banderas, despite initially turning down the role – is summoned to a parent-teacher meeting at the school where one of the teachers attempts to terminate his dance instruction by insisting that valuable ‘academic’ time is wasted by it. Dulaine’s impromptu demonstration, with the headmistress, of what happens in his classes, together with his verbal explanation – that the students learn mutual trust (teamwork) and to respect one another’s dignity; in short, different possibilities of living, compared to their socially compromising circumstances — eloquently clarifies what is involved in the transformation brought about by art, in this case, film and dance. This is a valuable lesson for all of us.