Bernard Rimé - essay
In what sense is culture essential to us...?

Who can remember their latest visit to a theatre and the sensation of going somewhere together? It has been over a year since the first lockdown took effect in the Netherlands. With some resignation, we all succumbed to the new rules and priorities. The cultural sector, together with many other sectors, shut down almost entirely. Now that the end of the pandemic seems near, at least in the Netherlands, it is time to let out a deep, collective sigh: we can go again! But what exactly is allowed again, and why is it so essential to be able to experience art live?

The psychologist Bernard Rimé does research on the importance of communal experience and its effect on emotions. Art and culture play a major role in fostering common understanding and the processing of dramatic events. He wrote an essay about this especially for the Holland Festival. ‘It is a serious mistake to see art and culture as simple entertainment.’

In what sense is culture essential to us...?

Bernard Rimé


During this pandemic, "culture" has been classified as a non-essential activity and countless voices have tried to remind us that culture is essential. But in what sense is culture essential to us? This complex question is often overlooked. To answer it, it is useful to look at the two senses we give to the word "culture", the broader sense and the narrower one. In these lines, I would like to come back, first, on what covers each of these two meanings, and then, on what links them, and us to them.

Culture in the broader sense

In the broader sense, culture is the huge reservoir of knowledge and rules that are shared by the members of a society. Our parents first, and then our teachers, have transmitted its contents to us over the course of many years of education. It includes--among many others--our language, our means of expression and communication, our knowledge about the world, the models of behavior and existence, as well as the beliefs, values, norms, customs, habits, structures and institutions that govern social life. All these elements have been woven by our ancestors since the earliest times to make human existence possible. Without these frames, we would be naked in front of the mysteries of human existence (where do I come from? Why am I here? What is life? And death? Et cetera...). We would be paralyzed by anxiety. Within culture, everyone finds a meaning to their existence, as well as axes to deploy it.

Culture in the broader sense is obviously not a static construct. Our world is constantly evolving, with new situations, new data, new crises. Culture follows these movements and our common sense is in constant evolution. Without knowing it, each of us is involved in this process. Each of us brings stones to this collective dynamic. In social psychology, the study of the social sharing of emotions illustrates this well. Every time events do not turn out the way we expect them to, a typical signal resonates within us. This is emotion. It signals a gap between the facts and our representations. Studies have proven that after an emotion, we systematically talk with those around us about what caused it and about what ensued. The more intense an emotion is, the more it is shared. The same studies also revealed that our listeners in turn share our emotional narrative with their own relatives. Everyone comments on the episode, its causes, consequences, how to react, alternatives, and implications of the event. In this way, comments on emotional episodes spread throughout society. Through these exchanges, our shared knowledge about what can happen to us is enriched. In case of disasters, attacks, or other collective event, everybody is affected at the same time and the social sharing of emotion thus takes an exponential pace. It brings people together and will lead to changes in rules, principles, precautions, beliefs, judgments and many other facets. As a result, culture will be profoundly reshaped.

In this way, emotional episodes signal flaws in the shared knowledge about the world. Social sharing helps to fix them. This is one way by which our shared knowledge about the world continues to be closely related to what can be relevant to us. But this is not the only one. Culture in the narrower sense plays an essential role in this respect.

Culture in the narrower sense

In the narrower sense, culture is the world of museums, literature, exhibitions, performances, concerts, and more. This universe brings us in touch with the products of artists and creators. The latter are those of us who react in a particular way to the world events. When faced with difficulties, dilemmas or crises, most of us respond defensively. We prefer avoiding them, and if we must face them, we reduce their complexity by adopting simpler-than-usual thinking. In contrast, artists and creators respond to the challenges of human existence in an offensive way. They face difficulties, dilemmas or crises. They confront their complexity. And they create structures, frameworks, perspectives, or models to apprehend them. In this way, they work out proposals for sense where sense is lacking. They submit these proposals to us in cultural venues. An essential part of their talent consists in expressing these proposals in forms intended to "touch" us. They aim at holding our attention and arousing our emotions.
The appeal to attention and emotions is crucial for the impact of artists' and creators' proposals. The recent scientific study of collective events (performances, gatherings) has shown that co-attention--i.e. attention shared with other spectators--has multiple effects for those who experience it. Compared to isolated attention, co-attention leads to deeper cognitive processing and higher recall of information. It also has the effect of amplifying emotions. It further facilitates the mutual alignment of attitudes and beliefs of co-participants. Additionally, the study of collective emotions has shown that emotions experienced together by participants foster a sense of unity with the group and social cohesion. They also enhance the self-confidence of participants as well as their positive mood. Further, they amplify their responsiveness to the beliefs and values that the event brings to the fore.

In short, through the combined effects of shared attention and emotions, participants are rendered both more receptive and mentally active to the proposals of the show. Their sense of belonging to the community intensifies. And on a personal level, their self-confidence and positive moods increase. These well-documented effects extend well beyond the collective event. It should be added that after the performance, participants share their emotional experience with their social network. Through these exchanges, the proposals of artists and creators will permeate more broadly into society and hence into culture.

What links the two senses... and us too...

The above shows that in nurturing culture in the narrower sense, artists and creators are also at the forefront of the evolution of culture in the broader sense.

A performance is therefore a time where we come together to feel, know and reflect together - from a distance - on certain aspects of human existence as shaped by artists and creators. Classical repertory performances stimulate the emotions, thoughts and exchanges of the spectators on recurrent issues of human existence. Contemporary shows do the same for issues that cross our existence and our society here and now. They bring us to the heart of current concerns and focus us on what is being debated--or should be debated--among us.

The audience's contact with artistic productions and places of culture is usually conceived as mere "entertainment". This is a serious misunderstanding. While we conduct our daily lives primarily in the individual and interpersonal mode, places of culture reconnect us to the collective mode, which is the source of the frameworks in which our existence takes place. In places of culture, we rewire ourselves to the shared universe and shared thought. Each performance we attend has the power to rekindle in us a sense of shared thinking, shared beliefs, shared rules and so forth. We reacquaint ourselves with what we are made of, and what we share as members of society.

Culture is our essence. We sucked it with our mother's milk. It is our existential framework. Each of us plays a role in its maintenance and evolution. Connecting with the collective mode through the mediation of artists and creators is there to give a concrete reality to this framework, and to update it.


biography Bernard Rimé
Bernard Rimé is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Louvain (Louvain-la-Neuve) and active Researcher at IPSY, the Institute for Research in Psychological Sciences of this University. He currently holds teaching appointments at the University of Lille (France). In the last two decades, his studies documented the fact that emotions powerfully stimulate social communication, that emotional information propagates across social networks, and that the social sharing of emotions impacts upon social ties. His current research examines individual and collective effects of collective emotional expression in mass gatherings such as civil or religious ceremonies, commemorations, collective festivities, and sporting, musical, folk, or socio-political events.