Spiritual Fulfillment And Cultural Experiences

High Expectations of Cultural Experiences

Last week I wrote about Ken Davenport’s admonition that an arts experience not exceed a person’s expectations by too large a margin.

As a counterpoint to that, I wanted to call attention to a piece from BrainPickings on Geoff Dyer’s writing about expectations and disappointment. Among the disappointments he lists from his own life include going to Boston’s Museum of Fine Art to see a painting by Paul Gauguin only to find it was out on loan. Upon learning this, he dejectedly trudges out of the museum.

The experience of the missing masterpiece, of the thwarted pilgrimage (which is not at all the same as a wasted journey), made me see that the vast questions posed by Gauguin’s painting had to be supplemented with other, more specific ones. Why do we arrive at a museum on the one day of the week — the only day we have free in a given city — when it is shut? On the day after a blockbuster exhibition has finally — after multiple extensions of its initial four-month run — closed?…


Impossible — not even conceivable — that a Muslim, on making the mandatory, once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca, could be disappointed. That is the essential difference between religious and secular pilgrimage: the latter always has the potential to disappoint.

Part of this reminded me about John Falk’s list of five basic identities types that visit museums I have written about in the past (and probably will write about again.)

Specifically, I was reminded about the Experience Seeker type which Antoinette Duplessis describes as “…‘collecting’ experiences. They want to feel like they’ve ‘been there’ and they’ve ‘done that’ – they want to see the destination, building or what’s iconic on display.”

In this particular instance, Dyer sounds as if he is acting within this type. He goes into the MFA to find a particular painting and leaves when it is not available rather than exploring what other experiences he might have.

Cultural Pilgrimages

What really caught my attention was his comparison of a religious pilgrimage to a secular pilgrimage and how the former could never be disappointing.

I have frequently read, listened and contributed to conversations regarding how people often expect some sort of transcendent experience when they attend an arts event. I had always assumed that this was because people who didn’t have much experience with the arts intellectually idealized what the unfamiliar experience would be like and are subsequently concerned if they didn’t understand what was going on or found themselves becoming bored.

This may actually be the process most people go through in regard to the arts. However, Dyer’s comparison of the two pilgrimages made me wonder if people might not be equating an arts experience with a religious experience when they formed expectations in their minds.

Spiritual Aspects of Cultural Pilgrimages

This idea isn’t that far fetched. Communities across the country often organize special trips to America’s theatre Mecca of NYC to see shows. With all the hype about Hamilton, and Wicked and The Lion King being among the more familiar household names, it is not unreasonable that excitement would build to the point of simulating a religious experience and lead to an expectation of a type of spiritual fulfillment.

These expectations aren’t necessarily created by marketing hype. Just seeing videos on YouTube of devotees lining up to buy tickets for Hamilton and lingering outside to sing together even after they can’t get in can shape expectations. If your experience is disappointing and your spirit isn’t buoyed by the show like thousands, if not millions of others, the failure is with you, correct?

Perhaps the least harmless reaction to this is when people feel the need to leap to their feet to give a standing ovation at the end of a performance even if they are kinda confused by what happened. (Or take a selfie in a museum by a piece they don’t quite understand.)

Spiritual Fulfillment Comes From Within

How the heck do you deal with disappointment when expectations are for spiritual fulfillment? This a type of transcendence is impossible to intentionally deliver. It is an entirely internal matter that people experience for themselves. If people can leave Mecca feeling a sense of transcendence despite the constant danger of being crushed to death by the crowds, others can easily overlook a bad cab ride in NYC if they feel they are completing a once in a lifetime activity.

When the expectations are based in intellect and emotion, as with my initial assumption about the process people went through in regard to the arts, it is relatively easy to provide education which shifts expectations and lets people know it is okay to be bored or confused. If you can assure them that with time and exposure, the experience will become accessible, there is potential to move people away from anxiety toward self-empowerment.

Challenge of Providing Spiritual Fulfillment

But what happens if people view the mystery and inscrutability of an arts experience in a manner similar to the way they view the mysteries of their faith? It is not implausible to make this association given how fervently arts people speak about their (a)vocation. In all likelihood they wouldn’t place as great an importance on an artistic/cultural experience as they would the experiences of their religious practice. But they may seek a person or information source that was able to explain/guide them through the experience with clarity and certainty.

Lacking someone to do so, or being told there was no single interpretation and it was up to the viewer to decide, it can be comforting to verify your perceptions against those of others. In this respect, there really isn’t any difference between those who view the lack of clarity as an intellectual, emotional or spiritual mystery. The difference is in the degree of certitude required to make you comfortable.

If people are convinced that a pinnacle experience they had was akin to a religious one, all others will pale in comparison. No other can be considered since the ideal has already been encountered.

The other alternative is worse. When an experience that is anticipated to have the same payoff as a religious pilgrimage is ruined by a bad cab ride from the New York airport, it can equally sour someone on any subsequent suggestions.

Again, I am not saying people really ever equate a cultural experience with a religious experience. I am just intrigued with Dyer’s suggestion that a secular pilgrimage has a hazard for disappointment that a sacred pilgrimage can not possess and what the implications of that concept may have for arts and culture.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Vern Riffe Center for the Arts at Shawnee State University. Among the things I am proud to claim are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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5 thoughts on “Spiritual Fulfillment And Cultural Experiences

  1. The comment “In all likelihood they wouldn’t place as great an importance on an artistic/cultural experience as they would the experiences of their religious practice” sounds very Midwestern to me. I can think of many people (myself included) who put a much higher importance on artistic/cultural experience than religious ones. Only about 18% of US residents attend church on a weekly basis (though that is higher than most European countries).

    • Do you place more importance on arts and culture experience than YOUR religious practice or general religious practice? I was careful to make that distinction.

      Most people who describe themselves as religious will say they place a greater importance on their religious practice. Though I should probably only make that generalization about Christianity in the United States. American Buddhists in general, for example, may not see them as separate practices.

      • Most definitely! My religious practices take up essentially 0% of my time or income, but theater (and art more generally) take up a lot of my time. I attend at least 14 or 15 plays a year and visit art museums once or twice a year. That isn’t even including the time spent on “maker” activities, some of which could be characterized as making art.

  2. It would be interesting to know if you’ve personally ever had a transcendent experience when you’ve attended an arts event. And do I assume you’ve never had a religious/spiritual one?

    yes, I have had transcendent experiences at arts events and certainly felt that experience have nourished my spirit. I am not sure I have had a religious/spiritual experience at an arts event.

    That said, while people can have transcendent experience with art and religion, it isn’t necessarily the job of art or religion to provide that experience to people.

    Speaking of transcendent experiences, coincidentally the quote on my desk calendar today is from Ralph Waldo Emerson who was at the forefront of the Transcendentalist movement.

    “Be silly, be honest, be kind.”

    Though I always remember his “I was a transparent eyeball…”

  3. This question has a lot to do with some of our previous conversations. Let me see if I can connect the dots:

    There is a pronounced difference between treating the event/experience as a means and treating it as an end. To treat it as a means makes it subject to empirical sorts of judgment, which is where expectations occur. To treat it as an end, say as in the case of a pilgrimage, is to make the event itself the value we measure by. A pilgrimage is resistant to disappointing us because the pilgrimage itself is the measure of value. It is not a thing that serves us but which we ourselves are meant to serve. The role it has in our lives is as something that gives meaning, not something whose significance has yet to be determined……

    The difference we are talking about is that only some events and experiences are part of a commerce of satisfaction, where the things we do are meant to affect us in some desirable way. It can fail or succeed, because the purpose it has for us is as a means of affecting us, of making a difference (and I’m not saying a pilgrimage won’t make a difference to those people, simply that this is not usually its purpose/role). We can measure in what ways and to what extent it achieves this impact. Means are always empirical in this sense. On the other hand, an end holds a different place in our activities, a logical or definitional role. Its not a thing that has value depending on how well or poorly it gets fulfilled but the thing itself which confers the value. Some things we test to determine the value they hold, and other things are used to do the testing. If you have not been to Mecca, then it is you who have failed…..

    For most of the folks reading your post the arts can disappoint, because in specific cases we judge the difference between good art and bad art. We distinguish quality in individual art objects and experiences, but that is not the only role art has for us. Art is also the thing (one of them, at least) that makes us human, and most of us in this conversation see that as irreducible. As John Holden put it to me recently, “we need dance, theatre, singing etc as human acts for which no substitution can be made. If we didn’t dance we wouldn’t just be impoverished, we wouldn’t be fully human.” In other words, the arts are also a measure of our humanity, and in that sense disappointment is not an issue.

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