When I was in fourth grade, I missed almost a year of school. My classmates were simply told that I was sick, and they all wrote kind letters wishing me a speedy recovery from my ambiguous illness. Few would have guessed that it was not my physical health that was keeping me out of the classroom. I was too anxious.
Even though I was not in school for several months, I was doing a lot of learning. For instance, I learned that I had Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I received cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and for many years I took the anti-depressant Paxil. Eventually, I was well enough to return to school and thank my classmates for their letters in person.
Today, I no longer take medication and I am quite practiced at handling my anxiety. Yet, one of my newest and most reliable anxiety management techniques was not prescribed by a doctor, or learned in a CBT session.
Rather, it comes from the world of conceptual art.
In conceptual art, ideas take precedence over aesthetics. A representative work is Catalysis, a series of performances from the early 1970s by Adrian Piper, which I studied last year in an art history course. Each performance involved Piper distorting her physical appearance and violating certain social norms in public.
In Catalysis I, for example, Piper soaked her clothes in a mixture of vinegar, eggs, milk and cod buy levitra liver oil for a week, and then wore them on the subway during rush hour. For Catalysis IV, she travelled around New York City with a large red bath towel bulging out of her mouth.
If these acts seem disruptive and confrontational, that was Piper’s intention. As a black female, Piper was already accustomed to being treated differently based on her body. The artist hoped to provoke a complacent public and force people to be more conscious of how they react to “otherness.”
I have never walked around with a bath towel stuffed in my mouth, but I do think of Catalysis sometimes when I experience mild social anxiety. When my jokes are met with silence, for instance, or I misuse an ungainly, pretentious word like “potent” in a class discussion, I imagine that I am a conceptual artist like Piper. I focus on the idea that both my gaffe and people’s responses are part of an elaborate performance art piece.
Obviously, reflecting on conceptual art is not a solution for severe anxiety, or other serious problems related to mental illness. Far superior resources are available at the Student Wellness Centre. Yet, I genuinely find that playing pretend in this way can occasionally help to quell some of my social anxiety and embarrassment.
Conceptual art is often denigrated as frivolous or foolish. Indeed, some may dismiss Catalysis on these grounds. These people might be surprised to find out that Piper also has a doctorate from Harvard University, where her supervisor was the legendary political philosopher John Rawls.
To me, however, my relationship with Catalysis absolutely affirms the value of conceptual art. Piper’s work has changed the way that I see the world around me, and I don’t think that there is anything more one can ask from a piece of art, be it a painting or performance.
Conceptual art is powerful; that’s one claim I am not anxious about making.