"The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men." attributed to Plato

"Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing." attributed to Edmund Burke

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Thursday, 19 May 2011

The Healing Power of Art

‘Art first heals the artist and subsequently helps heal others.’ (1) So writes Kay Jamison, psychiatrist and herself a manic-depressive, who has made the connection between personal wounds and creativity and explores the link in some detail in her book Touched With Fire.

All the creative therapies tap into this healing power, whether as art, music, poetry or dance. As Edward Adamson, one time artistic director at Netherne, a former psychiatric hospital in Southern England, explains: ‘The artist is also on familiar terms with the inner self, and therefore is a little closer to those who are obliged to wrestle with its problems. The hospital artist’s main role is to be a catalyst who allows the healing art to emerge.’ (2) 

But the work produced in such therapy sessions can become more if the patient has his own artistic talent. It then ‘transforms other people’s lives in its representation, and majesty, in its depiction of the human condition reaching towards the sublime… Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo: ‘Either shut me up right away in a madhouse or else let me work with all my strength.’’ (3)
I can personally testify to the healing power of creativity. As I struggled to climb out of the black depression of my own serious breakdown, it was therapy in the art room, with the imaginative use of collage, clay, paint and loads of paper both of the drawing and tissue kind (!), that helped me as well as many others to unblock so much that was otherwise too painful to speak about. My own creations sadly showed none of the flair of Van Gogh. Nonetheless it is only following such release that true healing of mind and spirit can really begin, just as a foreign body or infection must be cleared from a wound before the skin will properly heal over it.
We must however look beyond the caring professions and embrace healing creativity as a guiding principle for us all if we are to live sustainably, responsibly and peaceably together.
Within all our communities people are dedicating much of their spare time to selflessly bring purpose and hope and healing to many where there was previously disharmony and ugliness. Drama and dance can turn feral youth into young responsible adults. Football can unite otherwise divided communities. Nature rambles can introduce children to a further dimension in their lives. Beautiful nature films are produced to inspire us all.
We will find examples all around us if we attune ourselves to the healing needs of the world.

Whether or not we have a faith, I see the need to heal ourselves, in a holistic spiritual sense, to heal our wounded behavior, before we can hope to heal what is around us in this world, animate and inanimate. Linked with the healing power of our own creativity, we can all be a part of that healing process. We can all allow the beauty of creation in its many forms to come into our lives. We can be receptive to its spiritually healing qualities. Whether this happens through a great work of art from one of the Old Masters, or from a poem, an inspiring book, a symphony or our own creative efforts, it may indeed be the Wounded Healer at work. We can then pass that healing on to others.
It is not only those who call themselves artists who have this serious responsibility as agents for social change: creativity is not only about painting and music, poetry and the media. We are all artists: whether as parent or homemaker, businessman or scientist, whether we are in one of the caring or pastoral professions or in education and training, we will all knowingly or perhaps unwittingly put our creative powers and talents to either good or evil use.
Art is an essential feature of sustainable living and as responsible human beings we have a choice as to how we use this for the future of our earth. We can choose ‘celebrity and commercial art, that is disengaged from the concerns of the world… isolationistic and egotistic…[which] has little to do with the ecological spiritual or social challenges of our time.’ Alternatively we can encourage and produce ‘art with integrity; art that inspires, uplifts and serves the greater purpose of life.’ (4)
We can heal or hurt with our creativity. The choice is ultimately ours and ours alone, as is the responsibility.

Sad to say, I read recently that London art galleries are having to restrict numbers of visitors per time slot at special exhibitions, as they are experiencing “gallery rage” as people jostle for a view. Whatever next? But how can anyone have a chance to really appreciate the spiritual or healing message that an exhibit may impart, if the visitor cannot have his own space to absorb that message?

1. Jamison, Kay Redfield, Touched With Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament (New York Free Press: 1993) p. 121. Renowned clinical psychologist and author – sufferer of and expert on bipolar disorder.

2. Edward Adamson, Art as Healing, 1993, published by Coventure, 1993, passage from his introduction. Adamson was Art Director at Netherne Hospital (a psychiatric hospital in the UK) for some time.

3. Jane Piirto, Ph.D. Metaphor and Image in Counseling the Talented, Van Gogh
quotation also in Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, Arles, 28 January 1889 cited at ‘Van Gogh’s Letters Unabridged and Annotated.’

4. Canon Peter Challen, South London Industrial Mission annual lecture 2005. This Mission closed in 2006, and is replaced by Mission in London’s Economy, a London wide ecumenical Christian organization set up in 2005, http://www.mile.org.uk/

Image is by Bruce  

© Eleanor Stoneham 2011

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