Too Much Culture? Heresy!

I recently experienced a confluence of reminders that not all experiences with arts and culture result in positive responses people anticipated. I am not talking about works of poor quality or offensive works.  Friend of the blog Carter Gillies sent me a link to a National Institute of Health case study on Stendhal syndrome where people have averse reactions to cultural overload.

In this particular case, a man visited Florence, Italy and

…he experienced a panic attack and was also observed to have become disorientated in time. This lasted several minutes and was followed by florid persecutory ideation, involving him being monitored by international airlines, the bugging of his hotel room and multiple ideas of reference. These symptoms resolved gradually over the following 3 weeks.

Four years later, he revisited southern France, this time with no intention of returning to Florence. However, visiting this area reminded him of his trip to Florence and triggered another panic attack followed by persecutory beliefs, again involving monitoring by the airlines and which settled within a few days.

Prior to this I had heard of Paris Syndrome which is a similar experience, but seems to be particularly associated with Japanese visitors to Paris. I was likewise aware of Jerusalem Syndrome in which people have religious oriented obsessions when visiting that city.

In the process of reading about Stendhal syndrome, I came across Lisztomania which was an actual thing 200 years ago and not a catchy song politicians video taped themselves dancing to while in college. (As I said, it was strange coincidence to be planning to write about it and then see the song title pop up in the news related to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez)

Lisztomania is described an hysterical reaction people had to listening to Liszt perform. If you read the Wikipedia article on it, people have gone to lengths to differentiate it from Beatlemania by noting that Lisztomania was seen to be more of a medical condition and considered contagious. Take from that what you want, but it is interesting to read the entry and the various implications people of the time made about their respective constitutions enabling them to resist the “disease.”

Finally, I wanted to point out an NPR story I heard on New Year’s Eve about the horror people feel when they experience the impulse to crush and destroy cute things. People studying this situation basically say it is the brain’s attempt to keep us from being overwhelmed by our reaction to cuteness.

The study found that for the entire group of participants, cuter creatures were associated with greater activity in brain areas involved in emotion. But the more cute aggression a person felt, the more activity the scientists saw in the brain’s reward system.

That suggests people who think about squishing puppies appear to be driven by two powerful forces in the brain. “It’s not just reward and it’s not just emotion,” Stavropoulos says. “Both systems in the brain are involved in this experience of cute aggression.”

The combination can be overwhelming. And scientists suspect that’s why the brain starts producing aggressive thoughts. The idea is that the appearance of these negative emotions helps people get control of the positive ones running amok.

With all these stories coming to me in a short period of time and seeing the commonalities, it occurred to me that people in the arts and culture industry need to be mindful that experiences we provide can be overwhelming.  People with a long history of interactions with culture aren’t immune and perhaps aren’t any better suited to dealing with the feelings they experience. Deciding it is  logically impossible that you are unable to process a negative reaction given your experience and expertise may create no less anxiety than for someone who is having their first interaction and is at a loss to understand what they are feeling.

NB – Meant to include the following learning points from the NIH case study near the end of the post:


  • It is well known that adverse life events can detrimentally affect mental health, but it is less appreciated that intense experiences, that would otherwise be considered positive, can have similar effects.
  • It seems that “pilgrimages,” be they religious or artistic, are particularly likely to induce such psychological reactions.


You Don’t Know Entertaining

There has been a fair bit of evidence that people are not generally aware whether the place they are having their entertainment experience is a non-profit or for-profit business. An experience appeals to them and they participate. All those efforts invested in curating a balanced season of offerings may receive less recognition and appreciation than you think.

According the Colleen Dilenschneider, what the general public perceives to be an entertaining experience doesn’t align with the definition of non-profit curators/programmers either.

Leaders of cultural arts organizations tend to perceive an entertaining experience to be one that is simplified and dumbed down compared with the educational experience they offer. Participants have a much broader definition of what constitutes entertainment.

Surveying perceptions of memorial sites like USS Arizona Memorial, Arlington Cemetery, Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the September 11 Memorial & Museum, Dilenschneider’s company, IMPACTS found that memorial sites,

Considered as a collective, they are generally viewed as entertaining! People find these sites relevant and meaningful – and thus find them entertaining. This is the opposite of what some internal industry leaders believe “entertaining” to mean!

In general, cultural organizations are seen as entertaining entities. That’s great news because entertainment value motivates visitation while education value tends to justify a visit. Moreover – as we’ve discussed – entertainment value is the single biggest contributor to overall visitor satisfaction.

If you recall my posts on the most recent CultureTrack study, one of the most consistent motivators to participation across all disciplines was to have fun. Dilenschneider has presented information before from other sources that reinforces this result as well.

Later in her post, she presents another chart showing

“Memorial sites are perceived as both educational and entertaining, again challenging the notion that “entertainment” is necessarily vapid, empty, or meaningless.”

and makes the following important observations:

1) “Entertainment” means engaging

A synonym of “entertainment” is “engaging.” The opposite of “entertainment” is disengagement. Why would cultural organizations be disappointed to learn that they are not disengaging? I posit it’s because we’ve created and promulgated the baseless cognitive bias within our industry that entertainment and education are opposing forces, and that one comes at the expense of the other. In reality, they must work together to lead a successful cultural organization.


2) “Entertainment” is not the opposite of “education”

As shown above, cultural organizations are generally seen as both educational and entertaining! An idea that one value necessarily comes at the expense of another is generally unfounded. If it were true, these numbers could not both be high at the same time – and yet they are!


Entertainment value and education value are not the same thing, but their relationship much more closely resembles that of partners than of enemies. They may benefit by being considered individually at times, but they do not necessarily function independently.

A great deal to think about in relation to how we frame our thinking about what we are doing.

One thing I misinterpreted was her assertion that “…entertainment value motivates visitation while education value tends to justify a visit.” I read that as something viewed as entertainment impels people to participate while something viewed as educational is seen as an obligation — you have to go to the opera because it is good for you.

But when I watched the accompanying video (below), I realized the perceived educational value aligns directly with the motivations found in the Creating Connection initiative. Desire to see and learn something new and different and wanting a child to learn/see something different are part of the perceived educational value.


Is Art Dishwasher Safe?

After long correspondence (both in years and text length), I finally had an opportunity to meet with Carter Gillies over Thanksgiving weekend.  On at least one occasion I dubbed Carter “potter-philosopher,” because he has studied and practiced both disciplines.

Carter has been a big proponent of measuring the value of the arts on their own terms rather than their instrumental value to stimulate economies, raise test scores, cure cancer and bring world peace.

We spoke and debated for many hours on these ideas. However, the really challenging conversation was the one I had with myself days later. It is a conversation that millions have had and never concluded satisfactorily.

Before I left Carter’s house, he took me back to his studio and told me to pick out whatever I wanted. I grabbed a bowl that caught my eye and Carter discussed why he liked the glaze he applied to it, pointing out the subtle golden flecks that dotted different places.

A few days later he wrote me thanking me for visiting and hoping I enjoyed eating out of the bowl.

I was mortified. How could I eat out of that bowl? It was a piece of art that represented the culmination of our relationship to this point. I had it prominently displayed on a table in front of my sofa.

But then when I thought about it, I have two mugs given to me by one of the directors of the art museum back where I previously lived in Ohio. I drink out of those all the time. In fact, I am drinking out of one of them right now, totally unplanned. To leave them in the cupboard and not use them would be a small betrayal of my relationship with her, implying they were not good enough to eat out of.

I have endowed both the bowl and mugs with value derived from my relationship with the makers. My conclusions about what the appropriate treatment of each are completely opposite and pretty illogical.

I am not even sure the question here is “what is art?”

Does mundane and common use diminish an object’s identity as art while preserving it in an untouched and stationary state except to dust it impart greater identity as an object d’art?

The makers are both in my mind and heart when I see and use these objects which is part of the value for me. Does sentimentality contribute or detract to the objective value of these items?

These are questions that can be addressed forever. But this also illustrates why it is so much easier to talk about the value of art in terms of instrumentality. Instrumental measures are things people can grasp on to much easier.

The big problem, however, as Carter points out is that we never really try to introduce the conversation with policy makers about why we value the arts.  It can be really easy to talk in a passionate way about why you value the bowl on your coffee table and the mugs in your cupboard as well as the stuff hanging on your walls.

Yes, there is no facile way to empirically say the bowl is more valuable than the mug. There is a whole lot of complicated factors that contribute to record breaking auctions at Sotheby’s .

People value art and creativity in their lives for reasons that have nothing to do with what they can sell it for or enhancing their test scores.

The first step is opening your mouth to mention that the true value of a creative expression is divorced of these measures and potentially even divorced from another person’s perception of that creative expression.

Bringing Porches Back Front And Center

While I was at the Arts Midwest conference in November, Joanna Taft, Executive Director of the Harrison Center for the Arts, spoke about the “porching” culture that had developed in Indianapolis and spread across Indiana.

A short time later, she wrote a piece on the subject for Shelterforce. I have written a fair bit about cities that utilize people’s front porches and yards as impromptu stages for music festivals so I am pretty down with the idea of porches and stoops as community gathering places.

Taft focuses on an active return to traditional uses of porches– just sitting outside and chatting with neighbors and passersby.

I will be honest when I first heard about this, I wondered if people were trying to turn hanging out on the porch into a thing by verbing a noun. According to Taft, the practice is outside the experience of so many people that she and her collaborators created step by step guides and videos to help people get organized.

What I did appreciate was that Taft and the Harrison Center recognized that porching on a weekly basis might end up excluding some neighbors for various reasons and made efforts to find solutions.

…it became evident as we monitored social media posts and attended neighborhood association meetings that many longtime residents were being left behind. The neighbors participating in #PorchPartyIndy were sorted by their financial ability and energy level to host a porch party. We wanted to make our porching initiative more inclusive.

…we realized the time had come to not only encourage residents to host their own parties, but for the Harrison Center to intervene and host porch parties for some of our neighbors.


Before the party, we organized a group of Harrison Center interns to visit the homes of residents we had met through neighborhood association meetings. At those meetings, we noticed that some of these neighbors expressed strong opinions and concern for their community and this convinced us that they had powerful stories to tell. We queried them about their favorite foods and colors to ensure we catered to their porching style.

For instance, we discovered that a neighbor named Miss Terri loves purple, so we arrived with a table for her front yard covered with a purple tablecloth, and served purple carrots, purple chips, and grapes. Miss Jimmie turned 101 and was tired of the same old cake, so we put candles in her favorite dessert, a pecan pie.