Updated: Oct 5
More and more these days, the practice of art is being discussed in terms of its therapeutic value. I’m currently reading a fascinating book called ‘Your Brain on Art’ by Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross, about the neurological impact of artistic activities and how the emerging field of neuroaesthetics can help transform traditional medical practices for the benefit of us all. I do feel though that as important as all this work is, it’s starting to seem like we’re losing sight of the fact that art is more than just therapy.
Art is not therapy per se, although it has therapeutic value. Just as mindfulness is not therapy, but clearly has many therapeutic benefits.
When I studied sculpture and printmaking so many years ago at Bath Academy of Art in the UK, I did so because I loved making art. It was (and still is) a huge passion of mine. Likewise, through the many writing courses that I took. I loved making things, writing about things and people, and exploring my relationship with the world and myself through the things that I made or drew and wrote about. I didn’t do any of this for the therapeutic benefits that might result. Sure, there were many times that I felt creatively blocked and when it’s difficult to circumvent such a block, it can be very frustrating. Would therapy have been helpful? I would say not. The process of being blocked is very much a part of the creative journey. Without the block, the recognition of the block, and the effort required to transcend the block, creativity can easily slip into
amorphous banality. The block can often be the flint that sparks the flame of creative dynamism.
This block-induced frustration is born out of the fact that artists are fundamentally creative beings not functioning at that moment within their creativity. Perhaps art therapy can help us understand our blocks, but it doesn’t help us get past them in a creatively meaningful way.
“Therapy aims at disarming emotion, placing wounded emotions “in perspective.” Art, on the other hand, uses wounded emotions—or any other fuel handy—not to alter our perception of an existing outer reality but to alter that reality through a reality we express. Handel’s complex, ecstatic, exultant, and conflicted feelings and perceptions about God created The Messiah. The Messiah, in turn, helps others to understand God differently.”
Making art allows us to understand that which we didn’t previously understand. We can change our relationship to it through our own experience of engaging with it. Something seems to be flattened out in the art process when art is simply asked to serve the logic of medical diagnosis as if the disordered state of the human condition is something that must be cured. Sadly, this seems to be the direction of travel as the culture and industry of mental wellness bleed inexorably into the creative arena.
In art, we’re not looking for trite solutionism, or the tidying up of the messiness of the human condition. Art at its best defies such moral imperatives and the simple logic of the therapeutic approach.
I recently had to justify my stance that art is more than just a therapy to a life coach in a post on LinkedIn. Her understanding was that art must surely come from a place of placidity, a state of tranquility or emotional equilibrium. “Tell that to Van Gogh” was the silent response in my head. Of course, art does not at all need to come from such a plateau of emotional stillness. In fact, it often doesn’t. Sometimes great art is born out of precisely the dysfunction that therapy aims to correct. The question must be, does the dysfunction (and how do we define a dysfunction, when it is perfectly creatively functional?) need correcting or does it simply need to be understood through the lens of awareness? Ownership of the perceived mental or emotional imbalance is more important than a synergistic coupling of art and therapy so that the medically defined imbalance can be eliminated. Awareness is everything.
At its best, art acknowledges the universality of the tragic, the chaotic, and the messiness of existence. Artists, regardless of medium or genre, and consumers of artistic output should perhaps only absorb the frictionless language and myopic scope of modern mental wellness language within the parameters of a deep awareness of the mental health agenda.
Art is more than just therapy, and perhaps it’s time to recover art’s value from the merely therapeutic.