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Jorrell Lawyer-Jefferson

Jorrell Lawyer-Jefferson is an MFA candidate at Sam Houston State University. His research focuses on the role of catharsis in Black movement art.


A Thesis Prospectus
Presented to

The Faculty of the Department of Dance
Sam Houston State University

In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of

Master of Fine Arts

Jorrell Lawyer-Jefferson
June 2020

Art Lifts the Veil

In 1957, Carl Jung proposed that “the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being” (Popova). Five years later, James Baldwin presents a very similar view in his 1962 essay The Creative Process. He held that artists are the pioneers at the forefront of kindling that light, specifically within the landscape of the self. Per Baldwin, the artist’s duty is to challenge protective delusions created from the self-preserving nature of society. By navigating societal truths, artists aid in exposing the questions that these truths have hidden which I believe deepens an individual’s acknowledgment of self in relation to the society surrounding them. I find the concept of being alone that Baldwin discusses in his essay to be interesting. He avoids the term loneliness, which is ultimately attributed to negativity. Baldwin holds that it is this aloneness that is requisite to art making. Creating works of art is often a solitary undertaking and those who wish to propagate the understanding of self, and thus propel an understanding of the world forward, must come to terms with aloneness as requisite to those endeavors. Baldwin sees the artist as a champion of the wilderness of the self. He states, “But the conquest of the physical world is not man’s only duty. He is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself. The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place” (Baldwin 2).

In the year 2020, as a global pandemic, a social revolution and economic turbulence sweeps across America, I have found clarity in my isolation. As a queer Black man, I am eager to shape the environment which encapsulates me. By facing and navigating internal trauma - both generational and situational - I seek to understand why my body and mind hold onto these experiences. As an artist, I desire to evaluate how these experiences manifest in my work and examine how I move forward through these challenging times. My hope is that through an exploration of catharsis through creation, my findings will act as a blueprint for other artists who
seek means and methods for self-understanding, reflection, and action going forward as art makers.

Expanding on Catharsis
Many scholars credit the origins of catharsis to Aristotle. He wholly labeled the phenomenon as an effect of dramatic tragedy (Vygotsky). To experience catharsis was “to accomplish, through pity and fear, a clarification...concerning experiences of the pitiably and fearful kind” (Bitong). For example, following this Aristotelian analysis, when one watches a film or a stage work in which a scene of death or triumph is shown, the observer is able to experience those emotions and feelings that do not occur within the daily confines and scaffold of their routine lives. This phenomenon allows for safe distancing to occur; the viewer can direct their anxieties outward which facilitates an objective based insight into humanity. However, the true translation of Aristotle's concept of catharsis is highly debated due to inconsistencies found within his literary works Poetics, Rhetoric, and Politics. The definition of the term, therefore, has morphed and evolved over time as necessary when discussing human experiences. The meaning and method of catharsis can be molded to fit the narrative and methodological approach of the practitioner. While this makes the term hard to define, it allows for the theory of catharsis to change and to be applied to multiple facets of society. For instance, in the 1880’s Josef Breur and Sigmund Freud incorporated the concept of catharsis in their early investigations and practices of psychotherapy, such as in the notable case of Anna O. [ Anna O. was diagnosed with hysteria after the death of her father in April of 1881. She was the first patient to be treated in Breur’s method of cathartic psychotherapy.] (Sandhu). Later, in the 1950's, Bertolt Brecht openly challenged Aristotle’s concept of catharsis when he argued that catharsis was not wholly a false concept and it could be used as a tool for social change (Curran). For my research, I will be examining the dramatic cathartic theories of current sociologist Thomas J. Scheff (1929 - ).

Through his research, Scheff identified two essential components of catharsis: Cognitive Awareness and Emotional Somatic Discharge (Powell). He emphasized that it is the presence of these phenomena that allows for the necessary distancing to occur and a cathartic experience to emerge for the viewer. Cognitive awareness transpires when the viewer experiencing a catharsis maintains acute alertness of their environment, allowing them to feel in control of their surroundings. During this control, the viewer is vulnerable and can experience introspection in relation to what is being viewed, resulting in an emotional somatic discharge. As the emotional somatic experience begins to resolve, tension is released while the viewer is still in a highly cognitive aware state. This leads to insight, which is the prime directive of catharsis.


In “Catharsis in Psychology and Beyond: A Historic Overview,” author Esta Powell states:


“Scheff indicated that humans seek and enjoy activities that help them to symbolically relieve their own traumatic emotional experiences, and therefore achieve relief or resolution... [He] emphasized the fact that literature and theater provide safe ‘distancing’ from peoples’ own experience. When personal distress is reawakened in a socially appropriate environment, such as theater, emotional experiences are not too overwhelming, because people are under the impression that they cry about the play
character, but not about themselves.”

Scheff’s thoughts on this subject lead me to wonder, if catharsis can be used for the societal good - good meaning for the societal growth and progress of the citizens well-being - then why isn’t this form of therapy used more often?

Catharsis in Post-Modern Western Societies
Post-modern humans, particularly those in capitalist nations, are consumed by routine. The constant day to day activities of the American lifestyle leave little room for introspection. When we finish an undertaking, we have limited time to experience a post mortem; no time to wholly analyze and assess what we have done and synthesize the information. Everything from the corporate world to the entertainment industry is streamlined and highly manufactured to bolster production which has been shown to be detrimental to the mental health of those involved (Wong). This efficiency is thanks to the integration of technology in the production and entertainment sectors of our society. Therefore, it is no surprise that technology has made its way into our rest and relaxation periods. In this technological age, we are experiencing pseudo- cathartic ellipses where we are able to fabricate ourselves online, create virtual selves and experience virtual catharses (playing a video game with an online avatar, watching buildings being demolished, a boxing match, natural disasters destroy a community; seeing a black man murdered by police officers). In each of these cases, the virtual self finds pseudo release. However, the experience is not fulfilled due to the lack of emotional exchange in a temporal and spatial sense. This dissonance of the self causes emotional-somatic energy to build up in the body with no avenue for release and is stored in the body as emotional tension made physical.

Today, humans are the most connected to each other that we as a people have ever been, but these connections are predominantly virtual as opposed to physical or metaphysical. Many people crave cathartic release from traumas they experience and are turning to various forms of entertainment as vehicles from this release instead of turning inward and focusing on the self directly. Media, in its many forms, therefore facilitates momentary escapism when something more substantial is needed. As a queer Black man, I am interested in utilizing dance as a cathartic resource for physically understanding one’s own past experiences and exploring the effectiveness of cathartic techniques when applied to the choreographic process.

Problem Statement
Through the lens of a contemporary queer Black man, this research will investigate the concept of catharsis in Black movement art as a facet to evaluate and evolve my choreographic process and better understand how art making can promote reflection, self-understanding, and subsequent action moving forward.

In this thesis, I will examine my previous work, processes, and journal entries to assess the modality in which I currently create and to begin to explore the intersection between catharsis and art making. Through a review of literature, I plan to deepen my understanding of catharsis by researching in more depth the writings and theories of James Baldwin and Thomas
J. Scheff. With this knowledge in place, I will begin to connect this newfound understanding of catharsis to the choreographic process. Galvanized by the current socio-political climate, I choose to focus my investigation of the cathartic process on artists who share similar qualities with me and have identified choreographers such as Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus and Bill T. Jones as strong examples to focus my studies. I feel duty bound to enrich my art making, much like Dunham did, with the dances of my homeland as well as those of the African diaspora. I feel duty bound to not only create from a form based mindset, but to also create from a place of meaning, as does Bill T. Jones. With this research I will utilize the experience and methodologies of these Black movement pioneers and shape my own cathartic creative process. This research will culminate in the creation of a choreographic work with a group of dancers, size to be determined based on the limitations of COVID-19, and presented in a way that coincides with the safety measures that will likely be in place during the time of production for this project's thesis concert. Due to the current limitations of COVID-19, I believe the most effective method of producing this work will be in the form of a dance for camera. I can film at various locations to create depth in the storytelling of this thesis by including familiar settings and scenic locations. It is my hope that this presentation format will add richness to my thesis work by inviting the viewers to physically empathize with the characters they see.

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