Culture Magazine

Letting It All Out: Performance as Catharsis

By Aurorapowers @aurorapowers
Theories of catharsis offer ways to examine how performance considers and influences the emotions of spectators. Aristotle developed the concept of catharsis through his analysis of classical theatre. While interpretations of Aristotle’s catharsis vary, performance theorist Phillip Auslander understands it as the ability of art to enable ‘a safe discharge of emotional reactions’ (Auslander, 1997, p. 13). Catharsis is a way to train ourselves in the correct use of our emotions, allowing them to rise, and then fall, within a contained and safe environment.
Is Catharsis Feminist?
In looking through a feminist lens, Diamond conceives of catharsis as a shudder rather than an attempt to retain order. Diamond views catharsis as a dynamic state, rather than one that acts to regulate spectator emotions. While theatre maker Bertolt Brecht (1964) claims that traditional uses of catharsis overpowers the emotions and in doing so dulls the intellect, Diamond explores ways that feeling aroused through performances may instead provoke critical responses. Catharsis then, is a disturbance rather than a harmonic interchange between seeing and feeling.
Karen Finley with Egg on Her Face
Diamond describes the work of performance artist Karen Finley as a form of anamorphic catharsis. Through the late 1980’s and early 1990’s Finley’s solo performances explored issues of sexuality, desire, abjection, trauma and disgust. Finley’s catharsis is an immersion in the traumatic material; she is the cathartic subject, both ‘victim of and witness to’, a constant ‘oscillation between seeing and feeling’ (Diamond, 1995, p. 166; p. 153).
This oscillation creates a perpetual disequilibrium, one that works to jolt spectator emotions into recognising the pain of gender and sexual oppression. In performances Finley often appears as if in a trance, regularly covering her body with symbols of defilement. Finley works to arouse and disturb the act of seeing, her shocking performances a counterbalance to constant media images that numb spectators to suffering. She is the permanently objectified woman, an unceasingly shuddering body, threatening to implicate spectators in her pain (Diamond, 1995).


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