Catharsis: the purging of the emotions or relieving of emotional tension esp. through certain kids of art, as a tragedy or music. -Webster’s Unabridged 2d edition

Isn’t catharsis the very purpose of art?  In any art: music, paintings, murder mystery.

The artist creates a paradox, an invitation to the audience to solve the truth of opposing elements.  In music, it’s the rhythm, the theme, the pace, the tension of the point and counterpoint as the composer toys with permutations.

In paintings, the viewer ostensibly experiences one subject. But a good painting has several focus points that guide the eye around. The artist doesn’t let your eye drift off the canvas, s/he will redirect your attention back into the painting.

In murder mystery, we create the puzzle. The good guy is the reader. The bad guys becomes their bosses, their ex-spouses, their parents, their appliance repairmen, whoever is the antagonist of their own personal drama. The murder mystery is the distillation of the reader’s own mythic drama and the stress of every-day life becomes danger and peril. In the end, the good guys win, the bad guys lose, justice is restored and our readers are released from stress.

Along the way, if it’s a good piece of art, the audience becomes invested in solving the puzzle. Who isn’t thrilled when the canons finally explode in the 1812 Overture? Who can gaze at a John Singer Sargent painting and not become mesmerized by the subject’s delicate hand gesture? And who doesn’t love a good murder mystery?

That is because the listener/viewer/reader collects the emotional and mental detritus of his or her day and attaches that unresolved garbage to their artistic experience, to the minor chord tension, to a painting’s composition, to the sinister undertones of a plot.

Then the song climaxes, the viewer “gets” the painting, the reader figures out whodunit. Whoosh! All the niggling irritants of the day are washed away with the resolution of the paradox.

Honestly, writers, we’re doing a public service; they should be giving us a medal.


15 thoughts on “Catharsis”

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