Art Wakes You UP

News_Nancy_art wakes us up_Indigo_Sara Webb_Luke Ingham

Reprinted from Culturemap.

Sleepy? Lethargic? Listless? Having trouble focusing?  Don’t remember what you did yesterday? Walking around the house in daze, looking for your glasses while wearing them?

I have just the thing for you — art.

Yes, you heard it here first. Actually, I heard it elsewhere first, but I’m the one selling art as the wake-up cure. If all this art-making holds the potential to not only bring something of beauty into the world but also wakes us up, you have to admit it’s considerably more alluring than gulping an energy drink.

I’ve heard it all: art generates cash when we eat out, park and pay the babysitter. Art helps kids learn just about every subject, or at least make it more interesting. And then there’s my favorite rant, art has value, now just get over and on with it.

But when I heard Anthony Brandt utter, with a mischievous smile, “I protect consciousness, what do you do?” during his talk “Why Young Minds Need Art” to an eager crowd of educators and arts administrators at the first Houston Art Partners conference held at the MFAH last month, I thought, well now, that’s a new one. The premise of Brandt’s theory is that art has the power to wake us out of our coma though a process of bending, breaking and blending an idea.

Brandt is an associate professor at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music and artistic director of Musiqa. He runs the popular Exploring the Mind through Music conferences and likes to hang out with neuroscientists. Later this season he teams up with celeb scientist/author David Eagleman for Maternity – Women’s Voices Through the Ages, premiering with River Oaks Chamber Orchestra on April 21. The guy knows his way around gray matter.

But let’s let the brainy composer speak: “Human minds constantly make a choice — prune neural networks for efficiency and reliability, which removes options and makes the behavior unconscious; or allow redundancy to thrive and promote networking, which offers flexibility and allows the conscious mind to participate,” says Brandt. “Activities that involve drilling and rote learning lead down the path to streamlining; that’s why habits are so hard to break.  Activities that offer novelty, problem-solving and subjective reasoning keep the brain’s options open. That’s how the arts protect consciousness: They fight automation and keep us awake to our experiences.”

Here’s how the three B’s rouse us out of our automated trance: Bending involves a transformation to the original. Breaking happens when we smash up the pieces to make something new. Blending occurs when two sources merge.

It’s no wonder I could penetrate Stanton Welch’s angled offshoots from classical technique in Indigo, during Houston Ballet’srecent performances. In fact, much of Welch’s work bends classical forms to new contours, summoning many a “how did they do that?” sort of experience. Nice, Mr. Welch, keep that up. I wasn’t alone in my accolades; the audience went bananas. We like waking up when it comes to ballet.

Amy Ell, artistic director of Vault, challenged the norm of partnering in Torn as part of her DiverseWorks residencyConTornTion. Bending the rules of aerial dance, Ell twists the rules of gravity as the dancers lift each other through novel uses of rock climbing harnesses. Later in the piece, a trio hanging from the ceiling further skews our perspective by dancing perpendicular to a wall. The founder of “area” dance, the choreographer considers walls, ceilings and floors all reasonable places to dance.

If Houston Ballet and Vault woke up my eyes, then the Catastrophic Theatre woke up my ears in their recent production of Mickle Maher’s There Is a Happiness That Morning Is,running through Oct. 23 at their Sul Ross office. The entire play rolls off the tongue in rhyme. You don’t want to miss a word. Even the title represents a clever arrangement of words. The set-up of two William Blake scholars facing the aftermath of a night of public love-making on the yard of the their fledgling liberal arts college makes for a rich language feast. Blake liked to mess with the order of words, too. In fact, “I happy am” from Songs of Innocence factors into the drama big time. Maher bends language with a breathtaking originality. The terrific cast has a blast with Maher’s word wonk ways.

For breaking, head over to 3705 Lyons St. to see Dan Havel and Dean Ruck’s Fifth Ward Jam, made possible in part by a 2008 Houston Arts Alliance Artist and Neighborhood Project grant. The public art for the everyman team, who gave us the sucked in house called Inversion, sure know how to smash up a couple of bungalows to show us what breaking looks like.

I found blending in the most unusual place — the 18th Century — as part of MFAH’s Life and Luxury: The Art of Living in Eighteenth-Century Paris. French aristocrats’ savvy silversmiths merged their designs with the food underneath it. Who would imagine broccoli would blend so well with silver?

Bending, breaking and blending are harder to discern at The Menil in Walter De Maria’s Bel Air Trilogy, featuring three red shiny 1955 Bel Air Chevrolets, each speared by a 12-foot-long stainless steel rod, resulting is something new, bent, broken, blended and quite extraordinary.

See what I mean? Nothing refreshes our neural networks like art.

As we continue to quantify the value of art in our children’s lives, Brandt’s thesis may be the one with staying power. Too often, we speak about creativity as a vague, mysterious thing. Clearly defining the territory, as Brandt elegantly did, elevates the discussion. Musiqa  does their part with their NEA-funded school programs Around the World and Musiqa Remix.

I’ve often gravitated toward art as a way to change my brain, my mood, or just to jar me into a new perspective. As I traipse the the city, eyes wide open, I see much to keep me awake.

Image: Houston Ballet artists Sara Webb and Luke Ingham in Indigo, choreographed by Stanton Welch. Photo by Amitava Sarkar

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