The summer, such as it is in Kendal, usually turns to autumn during Mintfest (sometimes we go straight to winter). Mintfest is a glorious local treat – a street arts festival of international quality which brings all sorts out on the streets in the sun, rain and howling gales. It’s run by Lakes Alive and the Lakes Alive folk live in town, so it’s well connected in the community. We generally see everyone we know in Kendal, parents from school, neighbours, shop owners and friends of course at some point, and we have lots of conversations about how funny, moving, jaw-dropping, or ‘arty’ are the many and varied shows.
This year we had a small Spanish circus, Escarlata Circus, staying in our spare room (no lions). Their show was exceptional. An hour in a tiny circus tent, with a vegetable puppet, a knife thrower and his wife – it was charming, funny, gentle – but most of all, other worldly. The show was entirely visual, and the only words we shared with the performers were outside as we left. Giorgio, one of our spare room guests, asked us to complete their audience book – ‘it’s important to share the poetry’ he said. In the Mintfest context, ‘arty’ is generally an insult. But without exception everyone was rapt by Escarlata’s performance. It was by all accounts thoroughly ‘arty’ or in Giorgio’s word ‘poetry’, but without any pretension at all.
Because of the work I do, I am constantly on the look-out for evidence of the unique offer of ‘culture’ and this made me think. The show had no real social purpose, we were briefly a group, but there was no audience involvement, or longer term relationship built. It didn’t deal with any important issues, or even touch on the human condition. What it did though was to immerse each of us separately but also together in this other world, where life was gentle, funny and very real.
The work that I think most interestingly tries to understand this, comes from Liverpool Arts Consortium (LARC) and is about ‘intrinsic impact’. Using their definitions, you might describe the show was captivating. In turn this reminded me of a conversation I had with an old friend I bumped into in the street, and forward as I am, after how are you? I asked him ‘are you happy?’. ‘Yes,’ he said…. ‘well, I’m absorbed, and that’s the same thing?’
Since then I’ve learnt a lot about happiness, and worked hard, particularly in the Happy Museum project, in trying to create wellbeing. Psychologists like Seligman discuss three types of wellbeing, a pleasant life – happiness in the moment, a good life – including longer term life satisfaction and a meaningful life – which also benefits others. The more sophisticated notions of wellbeing that go beyond happiness describe the notion of ‘flow’ – where a person’s mood transcends their surroundings and they are absorbed and engrossed in their task.
The poetry that Giorgio describes seems to me to be the process of ‘flow’, but where the people are engrossed and captivated not just on their own but together. The wellbeing it creates re-charges the emotional batteries to cope with a little more normal life, and is in my view, one of the unique things that ‘culture’ does.
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