Art as Therapy

Ejiri in Suruga Province

Ejiri in Suruga Province

In the tenth view of the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, we see a group of travellers are wending their way around rice paddies near Ejiri in Suruga province. They're thrown into chaos by a gust of autumn wind, struggling to hold onto their hats, their possessions fly into the paddy fields, and someone's papers (represents human logic and presumption) are carried off into oblivion.

What is art?

For Tolstoy, it's a bridge of empathy between us and others.

For Anaïs Nin, it's a way to exorcise our emotional excess.

But the highest achievement of art is a combination of the two: a channel of empathy into our own psychology that helps us both exercise and better understand our emotions, – in other words, a form of therapy.

Alain de Botton, in Art as Therapy, examines art's most intimate purpose: its ability to mediate our psychological shortcomings and assuage our anxieties about imperfection.

Art is not just for aesthetic indulgence, it is a tool that compensates us for inborn weaknesses of the mind.

Below outlines the 7 psychological functions of art:

  1. Remembering
    • we have fear of forgetting – the details about people, places, and all the mundane moments that add up to our existence
    • "What we’re worried about forgetting ... tends to be quite particular. It isn’t just anything about a person or scene that’s at stake; we want to remember what really matters, and the people we call good artists are, in part, the ones who appear to have made the right choices about what to communicate and what to leave out"
    • "Art is a way of preserving experiences, of which there are many transient and beautiful examples, and that we need help containing"
  2. Hope
    • Optimism is a necessary cognitive and psychoemotional skill in our quest to live well.
    • "in many cases the difference between success and failure is determined by nothing more than our sense of what is possible and the energy we can muster to convince others of our due. We might be doomed not by a lack of skill, but by an absence of hope"
    • "The more difficult our lives, the more a graceful depiction of a flower might move us. The tears — if they come — are in response not to how sad the image is, but how pretty."
  3. Sorrow
    • Art can help us be more whole by not only expanding our capacity for positive emotions, but also fully inhabit and metabolize the negative
    • "We can see a great deal of artistic achievement as “sublimated” sorrow on the part of the artist, and in turn, in its reception, on the part of the audience."
    • "In art, sublimation refers to the psychological processes of transformation, in which base and unimpressive experiences are converted into something noble and fine — exactly what may happen when sorrow meets art"
  4. Rebalancing
    • we all have imbalances: too complacent, too trusting, too serious, and art can help restore a measure of equilibrium to our inner selves. And it explains the vast diversity of our aesthetic preferences
    • "Every work of art is imbued with a particular psychological and moral atmosphere: ... our preferences for one kind over another reflect our varied psychological gaps. We hunger for artworks that will compensate for our inner fragilities and help return us to a viable mean."
    • "Art can save us time — and save our lives — through opportune and visceral reminders of balance and goodness that we should never presume we know enough about already."
  5. Self-understanding
    • despite trying to be self-aware, we are complete mysteries to ourselves, and art can shed light on the least explored parts of our psyche
    • "We have intuitions, suspicions, hunches, vague musings, and strangely mixed emotions, all of which resist simple definition. We have moods, but we don’t really know them. Then, from time to time, we encounter works of art that seem to latch on to something we have felt but never recognized clearly before"
    • "a central function of poetry as taking thoughts we experience half-formed and giving them clear expression"
  6. Growth
    • art expands the boundaries of who we are by helping us overcome the fear of the unfamiliar and live more richly by inviting the unknown
    • art presents us with "alien material that provokes defensive boredom and fear, and allows us time and privacy to learn to deal more strategically with it"
    • First, acknowledge the strangeness for art that comes with worldviews radically different and contradictory. Second, make ourselves familiar with the minds who created the alien art. Finally, look for points of connections and relate to the personal reality of your own context.
  7. Appreciation
    • habit is a double-edged sword that steals from us a whole range of experiences as we go into autopilot mode. We fail to take note of what is around us, and instead, yearn for some artificial greatness.
    • Jasper Johns, 'Painted Bronze' (1960) teaches us to look with kinder and more alert eyes at the mundane and familiar.
    • "Art can do the opposite of glamorizing the unattainable; it can reawaken us to the genuine merit of life as we’re forced to lead it."