‘In These Times’ explores the intricate riddles of life through art

Episodes 6 and 7 of the latest season of the OMNIA podcast explore how art like music and dance have been the pulse of social movements, and how individual artistic experiences impact mental health and well-being.

This season of “In These Times” explores how words, music, and other mediums throughout history have helped humanity to cope, connect, and process trauma and healing.

Illustration of figures dancing as flowing figures around large piano keys.
Image: Marina Munn

Episode 6, “Music and Meaning,” explores how song and dance have been the pulse of social movements throughout the world and a source of collective and individual healing during difficult times for millennia. Ethnomusicologist Carol Muller discusses the importance of music in her home country of South Africa during the apartheid era, and Nicholas Escobar talks about his process composing music for film as well as for the OMNIA podcast.

In episode 7, “The Restorative Power of Art,” researchers at the Positive Psychology Center discuss how art museum visitation and museum program participation impact flourishing-related outcomes.

The pandemic has had a pronounced impact on mental health. Participating in activities that benefit well-being is crucial, but Katherine Cotter and James Pawelski, experts in the field of positive psychology, say being conscious of these benefits, and optimizing participation, is the end goal.

Episode 6 highlights:

12:01: [Nicholas Escobar] The first season score is very different from the second season score. I recorded a ton of stuff for that season. I remember all these different sounds, all these different instruments. I was throwing sort of everything in there and then going back and layering everything so that it still sounded like a measured thing, even though there was just so much in there. And I’m sure that was drawn from the George Floyd protests and the insurrection and sort of this sense in the country where there was just this sort of rage that was right underneath the surface, and it was really beginning to almost explode in some way.

23:36: [Carol Muller] I did a South African jazz class as an undergraduate. We had hardly any material except what the professor had gone and collected himself. But we knew there were musicians who lived in exile and we could listen. We had in our library, music library at UKZN, the recordings of many of the musicians who were living in exile and who were banned in South Africa. We could listen to them as long as we wrote down on a piece of paper for the government every track we listened to. So we listened. Chris Ballantine was the person who was doing this work. And he had provided for us some tapes. There were cassette tapes of the music that he had collected.

And one weekend I listened to the music of [South African artist] Dollar Brand, Abdullah Ibrahim. And I read all his stuff on his conversion to Islam. It was just the most, I had never heard music like this before. And I was in a music program that taught European music. I didn’t connect. I love Bach and I love Beethoven, but I don’t feel it’s my music. Do you know what I mean? And it was, I think a lot of people feel that kind of emptiness of lack of connection. And I listened to Abdullah, and it’s probably because it had all the church hymns in the background, everything I knew. There was some way in which I deeply connected to it.

Episode 7 highlights:

8:29: [Katherine Cotter] We first started with doing a review of what we already know, and we found that going to art museums are beneficial for mental health, we’ll feel more relaxed, less anxious, less depressed, less stressed after going to a visit, we find these experiences enjoyable. Our emotions are benefited. We feel more positive following these visits as well.

And something that was really interesting is that these are great spaces to also find human connection. And so now in the work that we’re doing we’re both looking at things from the perspectives of the art museum professionals themselves. So how do they think about well-being in their institutions? Because they’re fundamental to this because they’re the ones curating and putting together the visitor experiences, and also to see where are the gaps.

15:43: [James Pawelski] I think that cultural organizations in large part through the pandemic have begun to recognize this function of their contribution and service to the public even more. So I don’t think it’s a strange thing for art museum curators or art museum professionals of a variety of sort to say that well-being is actually something that we should be taking seriously. In fact, that’s one of the pieces of research that we did is to survey art museum professionals themselves, to see what their attitudes are around the connection between art, museums, and well-being. And one of the things we asked them was, ‘What do you think art museums are doing well? And what do you think art museums should do more of?’ And then we looked at the gaps in their answers, and the domain in which there was the largest gap between what they identified as what art museums are doing well and what they should be doing more of was well-being.

Listen to the podcasts in full at OMNIA.