In Aristotle’s “Poetics” (from around 330 BC) the term catharsis is introduced – a term that has always fascinated and interested me, and which I find highly useful when seeking to explain why comfort zone breaking aesthetic experiences are a human need (discussed in my previous post)
Catharsis is a greek word meaning “to purify”. Aristotle describes catharsis as the purge of the pity and fear which are aroused in the viewer of a (good, well composed) tragedy; a purification that leaves him/ her with a satisfying, calm, pleasurable feeling. Catharsis is connected to the tragedy as a genre, and thereby to unhappy endings and human suffering.
The reason for my fascination with catharsis is that this term, in many ways, explains a strange phenomenon; that we sometimes find it aesthetically satisfying to get frightened or sad or even disgusted whilst watching a movie.
We have probably all had the experience of walking out of a movie theatre talking to our partner or friend about how amazing the movie, we just saw was, even though we were tense and teary-eyed, the whole movie through! In many ways that is odd; what on earth is pleasurable about tension, discomfort, and tears?
Experiencing common human tragedies and sufferings from a safe position, allows the viewer to feel the strong emotions of loss, grief, hatred, and disgust without loosing him-/ herself in the experience. From the comfortable chair of the (movie) theatre, the viewer of the tragedy can experience pity and fear, while knowing that the misery will end. According to Aristotle, the purifying catharsis experience consists of a transformation from pain and tension to a well balanced, calm state of mind.
In my opinion, catharsis is not only relevant when trying to explain an aesthetically satisfying theater or filmic experience (characterized by leading the viewer through a course of action consisting of a beginning, middle and ending), but also in connection to still photos and art. The cathasis experience and the sublime aesthetic experience have many likenesses.
In this post I have added photos by Jessica Dimmock, Gregory Crewdson, Cindy Sherman, and Aino Kannisto that in my eyes have the potential of providing the viewer with an emotional purge. The images awaken a lot of feelings. We get pulled into the atmosphere, and get involved in the portrayed characters and their emotions; discomfort, sadness, vulnerability, fear, loneliness, loss etc. However, the setup of the images, provide a theatrical filter that creates a safe distance between us, the viewers, and the portrayed characters. And this filter keeps us from loosing ourselves in the feelings, and provides the experience of the images with pleasure.
An important part of the catharsis experience is distance; the physical and emotional distance between viewer and object (theater, movie, photo…) allows the viewer to momentarily let go because of the certainty that nothing bad will happen. And in the letting go, the purge can occur. The viewer lets him-/ herself get involved in the happenings on the canvas, just enough to really feel the grief and pain. But the distance keeps the experience fictional, aesthetic.