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What is Art For?

Enough already with “art heals” and “art saves.” There’s a much better answer.

Artist Trading Card by C. Malchiodi

I am getting ready to go on a series of teaching and lecture gigs, ranging from classrooms of graduate students and conference keynotes to art competitions. Preparing for these types of events always brings me back to one essential question that is the foundation of the healing arts: what is art actually for? Being part visual artist reminds me that most of my fellow artists do not make art for the money alone; we make art for a lot of other reasons and feel fortunate to sell an artwork from time to time. In fact, if you ask most artists why they continue to work at something that does not pay for the groceries on the lowest level of Maslow's hierarchy, they often say, "art heals me" or "art saved my life." I don't dismiss these statements about the power of art, but I think there is a much better answer to why many of us humans are compelled to make art and why everyone should consider it as a wellness practice.

Neurodevelopment guru Bruce Perry notes that arts and play are part of every culture to some extent, are familiar to all, and are associated with neurologically normalizing aspects of life. Perry, a psychiatrist who has worked with children whose lives have been disrupted by multiple traumas, is a proponent of sensory-based experiences such as music, movement and art making to reestablish attachment and attunement. But colleague Ellen Dissanayake, an evolutionary ethologist of sorts, really addresses the core value of art's existence and how the art is really a "species-centric" phenomenon with wide-reaching impact on human survival. According to Dissanayake, it boils down to four aspects:

1) Makes life special. Although art making continues to be sustained by a commercial society, the arts have been present before monetary value was slapped on them. "Making special" relates to humans' needs to embellish, decorate and personalize. In the visual arts, this may mean creating an aesthetically pleasing design on something utilitarian or simply wanting to have personally appealing imagery in one's life. Dissanayake also observes that human survival is related to the arts. For example, groups who make things special via the arts have more unifying interactions and ceremonies. In earlier times in human history, these groups were able to survive longer on the whole than those who did not engage in using arts in this way.
2) Engages the senses. The arts most likely emerged as a health-giving behavior. In other words, they enabled humans to feel good. Possibly before the arts were ever used to make things "special," humans enjoyed the satisfaction of rhythm, novelty, order, pattern, color, play and body movement. In brief, we engage in the arts because the sensory experience of the arts helps us to feel better. Research in art therapy, music therapy and dance/movement therapy is starting to support Dissanayake's theory that engaging the senses through the arts has a powerful affect on body/mind, physical perceptions, and cognition.
3) Involves rituals. Rituals in the arts have been part of human history since its beginnings. There are sacred art rituals (Tibetan sand paintings and Native American totems, for example) and non-sacred ones as well. The origin of these activities is both sacred and profane (mundane), but in both cases are survival-based because they help us make meaning of life as well as reduce life's inevitable stresses. Rituals allow for fantasy, too, and are a way to transcend difficult circumstances and tragedies such as disaster, illness and death.
4) Enhances community. Art is created to be experienced by others and engages us in community even when our reactions to art are deeply personalized. This communal engagement echoes back to "safety in numbers" and the modern psychological concept of social support that is widely accepted as a key factor for resilience. When we act in concert to share a cultural experience through art, it is often to gather together celebrate or commemorate life's important issues. In the realm of the healing arts, research increasingly underscores that making art together (community art programs and engaging in dance or music groups) is an important factor in psychological and physical recovery.

The phrases "art heals" and "art saves" have become ubiquitous and will continue to circulate; like many catch-phrases, they are just too cool to go away. Like any popular slogans, they blur real meaning; in this case the actual purpose of art is often forgotten. Will painting a picture cure what ails you in the long run? Will singing that happy song completely take care of your depression? Not likely, but there is evidence that art serves a larger purpose when it comes to health. As someone who is in the business of "healing arts," I will not deny that I am glad to hear someone discover art's power to repair and restore the body and mind. But I also rejoice in remembering what Dissanayake says, that "art is a normal and necessary behavior of human beings and like other common and universal occupations such as talking, working, exercising, playing, socializing, learning, loving, and caring, should be recognized, encouraged and developed in everyone."

© 2011 Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, LPAT, LPCC

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