Art as Catharsis

By: Talya Stehley  |  October 24, 2019
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By Talya Stehley, Staff Writer

The son of a Russian mobster killed John Wick’s dog. John Wick killed 77 people in his quest for revenge (and even more in the sequels). But in the end, it wasn’t really about the dog. The dog had been a gift from his wife, who died of cancer shortly before the events of the 2014 film John Wick. Wick was grieving. He couldn’t do anything about what had happened to his wife, or his intense sorrow, but he could get revenge on the man who killed his dog and stole his car. So Wick took a sledgehammer to his basement floor, retrieved the guns and golden drachmas buried underneath, and began one of the greatest action franchises in cinematic history.

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It’s initially a little hard to tell what 2016 YouTube series, Dances Moving, is supposed to be. It’s shot like an exercise video, but the episodes are far too short to be a real workout for anybody. Creator and host Brian David Gilbert is ostensibly acting as a dance instructor, but the moves he teaches are rudimentary. That’s because Dances Moving isn’t about the technical hows of dance, but the whys. In the first episode, Brian David Gilbert declares, “Here’s the secret of life, it won’t suck if you’re groovin’.” And he embodies that for most of the series, as he deals with problems in his life, principally his anxiety over leaving Baltimore for New York, through the medium of song and dance. 

But as Brian’s problems become more personal in nature, the formula starts to break down. Episode 5, Partner Dancing, contrasts students dancing in pairs with scenes of strife in Brian’s romantic life. Episode 6 finds Brian despondent, his students leaving one-by-one as he is lying on the ground, insisting that worms are better people. And by the seventh and final episode, Brian is alone. While every other episode consists of Brian explaining dance moves, what they mean, and how he was feeling, by the final episode, Freestyle, his feelings defy simple explanation. He stops lip-synching to the pre-recorded preamble, puts on some music, and he dances, no longer confined to individual dance moves or his ability to explain himself. Brian has been through a lot, changing in ways that are difficult to describe and impossible for him to explain, except through the medium of dance.

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John Wick is an assassin, but money isn’t what drives him to kill. Brian David Gilbert is a dancer, but the need for exercise is not what drives him to dance. Rather, they both take action to deal with emotions too overwhelming to be dealt with in any other way.  For all but the poets among us, language is insufficient to explain the depths of our strongest feelings. This is one reason why people make art.

But where does that leave the consumers of art and entertainment? Over the summer, I wrote a short story. You’re never going to read it, and you probably wouldn’t want to, because it wasn’t really meant to be read. It was something I needed to write for myself. Obviously, Hollywood doesn’t work on this model, and it’s hard to justify the claim that audience enjoyment is only a by-product of a process focused on the auteur. It is even harder to justify in the case of large productions where it would be difficult to identify the sole creator of the project. Or what about fairy tales, whose originators are lost to history? Clearly these stories have value, to have outlived their authors by so many years.

Much as the process of creation can help the artist understand herself, that creation, that story or piece of art, can help the consumer make sense of their own experiences and see their reflections in the inky depths. I don’t own a dog and I’ve never killed a person, let alone 77, but I’ve certainly made bad decisions because I was upset about something unrelated. I’ve never moved from Baltimore to New York (not directly, at least), but I’ve been anxious about my future. Much of the entertainment we consume is escapist, but sometimes, it can help us understand ourselves better than we could have otherwise. Art can, but doesn’t always, benefit both creator and consumer. 

Also, John Wick could have saved himself a lot of trouble if he had just taken up pottery or something.

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