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Art Healership Lectures Thoughts on, around, and about art

In the context of healing, what is art?

TL;DR – Art is a reflection of the humanness of those who make it and those who look at it. We should pay greater attention to the latter role more closely in deciding what it means and what it is worth. Art can then be used to heal through increased understanding, empathy, and self-actualisation.

A gallery where art = human might look like this.

For Art Healers, art is a good friend. A companion who can show you the reality of you, even if you may not want to listen, and one who sees you, hears you, and allows you – even celebrates you – being who you are. Art does this by being entwined in the human experience; it could even be said, art is representative of humanness. Exploring this connection between art and our lived experience is of great value to our peace of mind and personal growth.

Conceptualising art in this way, and giving art the purpose of ‘healing’, has major implications for how it is made, presented, and used. But what is it about art that, like our closest friendships, can provide us with such healing companionship?

– – The ‘Art’ in Art Healers – –

The relationship between art and experience, and between you and art, can best be unpicked by taking quite a scientific approach. This is how we can yield the crispest definition.

On the one hand, we see art as something that allows us to empathise with existence. It is something we can see ourselves in, not in physicality, but in terms of lived experience – and when we’re lucky – it can show us non-lived experience too. On the other, slightly more scientific, hand, we see the process of looking at and deriving meaning from, art as experiential.

Art is something to be experienced. For us, it is because art can be physically seen that gives it value, meaning, and even existence. A relevant conundrum would be: if no one hears a tree falling in a forest, does it make a sound?

Ironically, this is where the science is relevant. Looking at recent developments in neurology in how we create emotions and, essentially, our reality, is useful in understanding how Art Healers use art, and define what it is.

Lisa Feldman Barrett (2017) uses this exact conundrum in her book How Emotions Are Made. She illustrates how the individual brain, and the collective brains of society, actually create our perception of experiences, showing that we are more than passive onlookers to whom things and emotions happen. Art Healers see looking at art as the same phenomenon; art is not something that ‘happens to us’. In order to exist, we must creatively look at art.

Explaining this can be clarified by explaining the falling tree conundrum. Presumably, a scientific explanation would lead us to the conclusion that the tree would of course make a sound. Neurology, Feldman Barrett explains, dictates that it would not. In the same way, does the unobserved work of art exist, have value, or meaning? A tree falling doesn’t make a sound by itself, just as a piece of art can never, by itself, become anything, let alone ‘great’. The key component between art and its greatness that is often neglected: you, the viewer.

The vibrations of a trunk being cracked, splintering, under the weight of its cascading body will not be heard if there is no ear to translate the vibrations in the air into what we know to be sound.

Similarly, the Fontana di Trevi that glows illustriously at the junction of three roads in the centre of Rome, would be of simply no importance whatsoever should there be no human eye there to translate, via photoreceptors and the optical nerve, what is ‘seen’ into electrical signals that are sent to and interpreted by the brain.

Nicola Salvi, Fontana di Trevi, 1762, stone, Trevi, Rome, Italy, image: Livioandronico2013

Imagine if you travelled all the way to Rome but forgot to see this glorious structure. Would that make you a bad tourist, or would it just mean the Trevi Fountain doesn’t exist in what you can recall of Rome?

But even then, the process is not over. Your mind must interpret what it sees. It must convert stone to splendour and majesty; without the human eye there to see, what exists is merely physical reality devoid of meaning. A fountain without water is a statue. A statue without a viewer is meaningless; it is just light waves and atoms vibrating at the frequency of stone.

With no one there to see, hear, or experience art, the sound or image will fade into the ravenous pulse of time, without even having caused a ripple, unlike each coin flipped with wishful thinking by the viewers into one of the world’s most iconic fountains.

The power to bring art to life lies with people who see, interact, or even flip coins into the art.

We do not merely ‘look’ at art, it is experienced. In much the same way as we are not simple observers of emotion, we create them. The process of looking at art is, in many ways, as creative as the process of making it; indeed, art and emotions are both a social reality that our brains must interpret in order to make them real.

– If art is what we make it, by looking at it, what is it? –

Art is a reflection of the humanness of those make it and those who look at it.

A human is necessary for both making and viewing (or experiencing) art. Yes, the reality and texture of the human experience is infinitely complex; but art, artwork by artwork, in the here and now, can help us all feel a little bit more understood.

This definition, moreover, makes looking at art integral to its definition. If who is looking at it draws into question both art’s existence, and what art can mean, should we change how it is presented and received? Perhaps more pressingly, we could ask: who is looking at art and pretending their experience, and their subsequent interpretations, are any more valid than anyone else’s?

This question gives us an idea of what art is today, and what it could be tomorrow. In its current state as part of ‘high culture’, art is what it is because of who is looking. How radical then, to claim art as your own and for your own purpose; when this happens, you have the power to define what art is, and what art should be, for you.

Taking this one step further, we could then say, that the true value of art, and its power to capture experience in a way that is an authentic representation of humanness, it needs to be viewed by as diverse a population of the world as possible in order to bolster its ability to truly be a reflection of the complete human experience.

Those who don’t see art are excluded from making what it is. This tragically undermines art’s power to reflect what it means to be human. It also means that people are losing out on their right to access the opportunity to find meaningful understanding, existence, and healing in a relationship with art.

– The ‘healing’ in Art Healers –

Using art to heal can make art belong to everyone, with the word ‘heal’ being taken in many forms. Imbued with this intention, it doesn’t matter what your experience is, you are the one who makes this art important. You are the one who gives it value. You are the one who should feel entitled to take this image and turn it into something meaningful for you.

Until that point, however, while it may not exist to some, this is not to say that it is their job to make it so by dragging themselves to a gallery or museum. It is the role of people who currently define what art is, to expand what this definition can include. The role of the viewer is massively underestimated in art, and they have been excluded for too long – meaning their ability to attribute meaning, validity, and existence to art must also, in a sense, be healed.

The kind of healing that happens through increased awareness and understanding of humanness, though, is slightly different; it has three parts. First comes the psychological part. Second comes the part about knowledge. Third comes the part about being human.

– Healing –

– How art can meet our basic psychological needs –

Psychologically, we all have a need to be seen, heard, and authentically expressed. These are the roots of feeling understood, and art is perfectly placed to meet these needs given that it can reflect what it means to be human.

When we see an artwork that can capture what words don’t quite do justice, but yet still recognise the feeling, we are seen. For instance, Albrecht Dürer’s ability to remind us, in one of the first known European self-portraits, that it’s okay to feel like you’re important by making the subject of art himself. He goes on to post another selfie mid-Renaissance, further showing that it’s completely acceptable to want to present ourselves in our best, even Christ-like light, and should feel no shame in doing so. He recognises how we need to be noticed. Our vanity is seen, and by being seen it’s accepted as part of the human experience; it is not something to be shamed.

Albrecht Dürer, Self Portrait, 1484, Vienna

A young Albrecht, 13, claiming his right to be seen.

Albrecht Dürer, Self Portrait, 1500, oil on lindenwood, Alte Pinakothek, Munich

A Renaissance ‘glow up’ where he, unashamedly, assumes a Christ-like pose, showing us its okay to feel important with a subtle reminder that we’re all made in God’s image.

When we see Ai Wei Wei plastering the Berlin Konzerthaus with lifejackets, we can be reminded, without restraint, how powerful we each are in helping one another be heard, gaining a powerful and symbolic reminder of what it means to live someone else’s experience. The lifejackets searing orange brightness is matched by the volume of Ai Wei Wei’s message to help grant refugees fleeing the war in Syria a safe passage and criticise Europe’s response. He shows that even in the direst times, there are some who are willing to help our voice be heard. By being heard, we can know that we are not alone.

Ai Wei Wei’s installation of 14,000 lifejackets on the Berlin Konzerthaus, 2016, Berlin, image: mompl

The bright symbol burns with irony as a life-saving device is used to represent the sheer volume of tragic loss of life; no words are needed to hear this message.

When, in our darker moments, we feel like are not free to be who we truly are, we can turn to photographer Nan Goldin, who shows a personal moment shared in Jimmy Paulette + Taboo! in the Bathroom (1991); two drag queens, topless and wig-less, welcome us into their abode, showing in their transgression of gender norms that the greatest version of you is the one that is representative of what is inside you – and whatever that is, is welcome here. We are reminded of our uniqueness, and that there is only one ‘us-shaped’ space in the universe in which we can simultaneously succeed and express ourselves authentically.

Nan Golding, Jimmy Paulette and Taboo! in the bathroom, NYC, 1991, Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Fund for Photography, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The two drag queens welcome us into their personal space, one that is safe for expression of the authentic self.

These three examples were chosen almost arbitrarily from a long history of art that has captured humanness in time and space.

– Healing –

– Knowledge and the role of Art History –

With regard to knowledge, we ask what role does Art History play? It is a discipline that brings historical and social context to improve our understanding of a piece of art. Such knowledge can be vital to identifying why art has been made, but could be used better in regard to how we interact with art. We are not empowered to do anything without knowledge, and Art History shows that we must take a multidisciplinary approach, as this is a clearer reflection of life, and therefore, better for healing.

For instance, the most relevant context might be knowledge of propaganda in World War I, in the case of Nash’s We Are Making a New World, in understanding the ambiguous sentiment that existed in the British public towards war where he was commissioned to encourage the war effort whilst simultaneously expressing personal lament for the devastating loss of life.

Paul Nash, We Are Making a New World, 1918, oil on canvas, Imperial War Museum, London

It was illegal to depict dead British bodies, but Nash might’ve wanted to reference the devastating loss felt by his country and its residents within the remit of the law and in such a way as it might not be interpreted as ‘demoralising’.

But, it might also be the context in which the art is viewed – of you simply being in a certain point in time and space, where the image of humanness is scrutinised, forcing us to question what the ‘self’ in ‘selfie’ actually means, in the Saatchi Gallery’s Selfie to Self-Expression exhibition.

The first example (Nash’s), however, uses knowledge that is not always readily available, and what knowledge is presented, may not be presented in the best way to get value from an artwork. How much more power would viewing Nash’s painting have if we more carefully presented this knowledge alongside, or in the form of, thought provoking questions, alongside We Are Making a New World:

  • This painting could be said to display a conflict between defending your family and friends and preventing the suffering of all. Where can you see this conflict in this painting?
  • Does such a conflict still exist today? Where?
  • If the sun represented hope, and the shattered land is the state of society, what might the sun represent in the new world you’d want to make?

It is positioning knowledge alongside the consideration of these questions that will give such knowledge, what exists behind the painting, both significance and longevity in the viewer’s mind. Just because meaning has been made without all the context does not make it less valid, because a large part of what brings the validity is a balance between the interpreter and the relevant context being considered.

This is not to undermine the value of social and historical context brought by art history. But, such knowledge should be positioned better in relation to the viewer, and not just lumped onto a four-by-four-inch plaque, decontextualised, uninviting, and loosely relevant. What knowledge we choose to display is vital in unlocking a work of art’s meaning and value.

A greater balance can be struck between historical context and the individual viewer in terms of establishing meaning; for example, through questions that involve the viewer’s experience, that touch on humanness in general, that allow us to make art more useful and more enjoyable. It may even, should the work be seen by the right young person, prompt a thought that makes hope for a new and improved world a reality.

– Healing –

– If art is linked to humanness, then what is humanness? –

The third part, about humanness, the part that is integral to our definition, is trickier to pin down; it is the essence of art. If art is dependent on the human experience of those who make it and look at it, then fine – but how do you define what it means to be human? If there were a simple answer to that question, we wouldn’t have an unthinkable amount of years’ worth of art that explores the elusive essence that is existence.

Cupule and meander petroglyph on a boulder at the Auditorium Cave, 290,000-700,000BCE, Bhimbetka, Madhya Pradesh, India.

Considered the world’s oldest art, discovered in the 1990s, cupules are the earliest known prehistoric art; they are found in all continents except Antarctica and were produced throughout the Stone Age’s Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic eras.

Cupules have no utilitarian function. It seems that around the world, humans, in their learning to use tools, made them for some other purpose; perhaps it is not art as we recognise it today, but is instead what it looked like when the first thought that led to expressing ourselves in an artful way. There is no discernible message at this point, just the essence of a want to express a message that may need to be told somewhere in a distant future.

The human condition just is. It cannot be defined, only explored – and taking this perspective when looking at art allows us to glean from it so much more practical and enriching meaning.

But, if art is a collection of truths about the human condition, then it is only when an appropriately intersectional array of experiences are seen of, and seen by, people who are already are, and who are yet to be, involved in the art world that we can truly unlock the potential of exploring ‘humanness’ in its totality.

How lacking in texture and depth art would be, should its potential for meaning become effaced by the painfully restricted blinkers that often leave what is looked at, and who it is looked at by, as male, pale, and stale. With everyone in the conversation, we can have a far greater awareness of the true essence of the human experience, and with this comes empathy, kindness, and understanding of ourselves and one another.

Then, and only then, can art be something that is truly representative of the human condition.

– Final thoughts –

Art, and what it is, should be reframed. It can be revitalised in all its forms through an approach that considers this definition and its scientific rationale as a powerful tool for holistic development that merges both intellectual and personal growth, and turns it into healing.

How, then, does this affect what art means for an Art Healer? Sometimes, words are woven together in such a way that no other combination, or sequence, can express their meaning so perfectly; this is true of C. S. Lewis’s stance on friendship, and his likening of it to art:

‘Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create). It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.’ – C. S. Lewis

Art Healers feel we should see art in the same way; indeed, his view on what art can mean, in relation to living, encapsulates much of what art is. What he has touched upon resonates profoundly with what art means for an Art Healer.

It is the hidden capacity art has, when it is defined by the balance between the humanness of those who make it and those who look at it that can help us do more than thrive in life, that can help us do more than manage and survive, but that can give us the strength and space to self-actualise – as should any healthy relationship, be it with family or friend.

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Art Healership Thoughts on, around, and about art

How to look at art

TL;DR – looking at art is an experience; experiencing anything involves you. This is followed by questions that help incorporate you and your worldview into the art.

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Looking at art can be a daunting task, it requires some thought, at least, about what art is; but in looking the very purpose of the art, and the intention of the artist, must be defined. As an Art Healer, the purpose is to self-actualise in some way through acquiring a balance of visual (that is to say, experiential) and contextual knowledge.

Going through this process, is not an action of solely looking. When done effectively, it is a carefully curated experience that can shed some light on humanness and humaning.

By exploring the world in this way, what you can gain (that can help you human better) is a deeper understanding of the granularity of the human condition: looking as an Art Healer is an appreciation, understanding, and application of what is. It asks more of us than do I like this or not, but pushes towards what can this moment teach me?

Too often this kind of looking is intercepted, even prevented, by art being presented in an inaccessible way.

Such presentation prompts many questions: what is important, or great, about this image? Is it who did it? Why is this in this art gallery? is it worth as much as that urinal? How did this ridiculous object become enshrined upon a plinth here, when it is nothing but a bog?

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917, the background is The Warriors by Marsden Hartley

This urinal is quite offensive to many people who bemusedly, and understandably, ask: why is this here?

This is a totally rational, intelligent, and important questions to ask. Being ‘turned off’ art is not as much to do with the (often deemed ‘uncultured’) viewer as we are led to feel; instead, it is how we are led to interact with the art that shapes its significance for us.

We understand that art occupies a space in society that feels cut off from ‘real life’ and is reserved for a certain, elite, few. Counterintuitively, many museums were actually built on the premise that their collections should be accessible for everyone.

Why, then, does it oftentimes feel like we can’t all get a good look (that is if we are even inclined to look in the first place)? Museums sometimes separate art from ‘real life’ by decontextualising what they display.

An artwork or object is placed in a room surrounded by other equally obscured pieces, frequently arranged by ‘era’ which does nothing meaningful for our understanding of what the art is. What is there is written by experts who know too much to condense their knowledge onto a small square.

The irony is biting because often in an attempt to display art for what it actually does (depict and celebrate the realities of life), these textured experiences of human artistry, and the valuable knowledge they hold, are sealed behind an iron curtain of sorts.

Museums, by virtue of existing, and in their purported values, do have the intention to make what seems out of reach, available. But this irony is precisely why looking at art must be painted in a different light.

After all, a museum visit comes too late in life to address inaccessibility; such inaccessibility is a symptom of the inequality that exists in our educational and schooling system.

By learning to look at art as an Art Healer, we step in to acknowledge that, yes, looking art is an academic discipline, but this can be deconstructed, and then enriched, by including the viewer more. We see art is not just for you – it is about you. It is in your power to decide the meaning and value of art; for our purpose, art is nothing without you.

Looking at art can also be intensely boring. And if you find it so, that’s no surprise. There is no need to labour under the delusion that art, artworks, or artists are inherently interesting. They aren’t.

If the art does not resonate with your experience, then it is fine to discard it into a ‘this does nothing for me’ mental archive, or even the gentler ‘this does nothing for me now, but might be powerful in the future’ folder.

Bo Wang, Silence, 2015, tempura on board, second prize in the National Portrait Gallery’s BP Portrait Award, 2016.

Bo’s portrait shows his grandmother, a month before she died. In the final stages of terminal cancer, she was losing her ability to talk. The artist said, ‘Sometimes she tilted her head and looked at me. The was too much emotion in her eyes to be expressed in words. I almost forgot about painting techniques or any specific style, just trying to use my brushes to communicate silently with my grandma. I can strongly feel the state of a dying life when I think of her eyes.’

At a first glance, we might think that we never want to be in this position. Yet at the same time we can acknowledge the privilege that comes with having lived a life so full of love, that it risks leaving us vulnerable to this kind of pain.

Bringing this image to mind might be useful in future to remind us to value this kind of love.

Still, there are plenty of so-called ‘masterpieces’ that will turn you off, and plenty of ‘geniuses’ who will seem absurd. We recognise that this is part of the looking at art experience; the things people do can be repulsive, and often those who are deemed important can seem outrageous.

The pinnacle of culture is not finding meaning where there is none; it is not attributing greatness to anything or anyone, when greatness is a subjective matter. To find meaning where there is none and say one kind of greatness is more valid than another is the masterful practice of the bullshitter.

To find enjoyment and meaning in looking at art, however, is to find what matters to you, and that, by default, won’t include everything. It could be something that captures your personal experience and clarifies a previously unarticulated feeling in a singular work, or something that explains humanity outside of your lived experience, but presents it in a way you can now understand a bit better simply because you can see it before you. This is part of healing through art – which is but one of its many purposes.

There is no ‘correct’ way to look at art; it is a deeply personal experience. But this very same point is used in a way that can make people feel apart from art, like there’s some secret skill that you have never been able to acquire which leaves you, consequently, excluded from the conversation and experience.

But, with learning about what it means to be human, there is no conversation that can happen without acknowledging yourself as the looker (what your brain does, what your eyes do, what your mind does). Without you, we cannot ask the questions that might help give art meaning that could be beneficial to you.

With this in mind, our overarching question of art can become a little more ‘precise’: what is the best way to look at art to help you human better?

Step one: using your brain to notice what is

Cast your mind back to infancy; did you know how to look? How to interpret that the light bulb in your room, for example, was rounded, made of glass? Could you identify that the glass omitted a muted yellow glow and so must not be completely translucent like most lightbulbs?

From your brain to your eye and back again, images must pass through the optic nerve, right after photoreceptors have translated them into electric signals to be carried brain. This means our eyes don’t really see, our brains do.

Considering our brains process everything about our existence alongside what we see, our role as the viewer in ‘simply looking’ at art is far more important, and far more individually experiential, than we might be led to believe in making the process meaningful.

Looking at anything is experiencing. Looking at art should be seen as a purposeful experience; it should take a moment – we can too readily say what we are looking at it, before we look at it properly.

We are gazing upon unique combination of materials, colours, or whatever it is, may have never been placed in exactly this way before. Notice that first, and just look and marvel at what some other human has made.

Before scrolling as far as the caption, take a moment to really look at Mark Quinn’s, Self. Notice the colour, texture, shape, expression, and such – see them all not for their labels, but for what they really are.

Marc Quinn, Self, 1991-present, 2006 version (he makes a new version every 5 years), 8 pints of the artist’s blood, liquid silicone, stainless steel, glass, perspex, and refrigeration equipment

Does this information change your initial impressions? How?

On this note, going to a gallery in your home country or abroad and just enjoying the experience of being in the space and what the objects look like is enough.

Soaking in the experience, the shapes, the nice lighting, or magnificent building can be a wonderful and fulfilling experience that should not be tarnished by a pressure to appear knowledgeable or even educate yourself.

In many ways experience is the most valuable form of education; all you need to do is turn up. Going to a museum should be seen a relaxing and pleasant experience; it is valid to treat it the same as a leisurely stroll: quietly contemplative and/or somewhat meditative.

JJ Jones, Glass and Steel Roof of the Great Court, 2016, British Museum

It is enough to remember how beautifully the shadows were cast, without remembering the collection itself.
Erawan Museum, Samut Prakan, Thailand, Image: Alamy

Wouldn’t you go just to experience this intricate design alone? It seems sufficient to saturate the senses by identifying the details of each intricate feature.
I. M. Pei, The Museum of Islamic Art, 2008, Doha, Qatar

Is going inside always necessary? Can’t we just enjoy the simple elegance of this architectural design?

Step two: using your eyes to define

Once time has been spent with what’s before us, we should mindfully allow in some definitions and labels, perhaps we’re able to recognise things such as the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa, or maybe we’re able to not recognise things as being any more meaningful than Kandinsky’s using shapes and that these shapes are circles. It is important to see what we look at, in order to learn why what we look at is how it is.

The labelling process can be synthesised, but not limited to, questions such as these:

  • What materials have been used?
  • How has this work been constructed?
  • Is what is depicted clear or ambiguous?
  • What choices have been made?
  • How is what you can sense being manipulated?
  • Is the work more traditional or abstract?

Step three: using your mind to deconstruct meaning

Your mind, with the help of your eyes and brain, will begin to transform what you see into meaning. This meaning is yours, and can only be yours alone, because the meaning your mind makes will be tied – unavoidably – to your current understanding and experience of the world.

What happens next is a conversation with oneself or, if you’re lucky enough to have company, someone else.

The question now shifts from ‘what do you see?’ to ‘what does what you see mean?’

Here are a few questions that are by no means exhaustive, but powerful, in deciphering what a work of art could mean to you:

  • What might this work seek to express?
  • Are we meant to simply enjoy this work or feel it?
  • Does the work tell a story or is it just a moment of being human captured?
  • Is it both a moment and a story?
  • Why might the artist have made these choices?
  • Why might the curator have displayed it in this way?
  • Is there an effort to help the viewer understand or obscure the message?
  • If this art had a different title, what could it be called?

Once these have been asked, you might venture to ask some more personal ones:

  • What does this artwork make me feel (if anything)?
  • Where else can I identify feeling this way in my life?
  • If this art represented a moment in my life, which would it be? Why?
  • Does this art explore something I can understand, but know I haven’t experienced?
  • How could this art influence a choice I make in my life?

Final thoughts

Upon reflection, this could have been called how to have a conversation about a piece of art. If looking is experiencing, and art is human, then effective communication is often how we develop meaningful relationships with one another.

For an Art Healer, looking at art means they should have enjoyed their time with it, and maybe learnt something about themselves or someone else through the art. That’s it. While this may seem simple, it is actually a courageous and creative pursuit.

Any of the lessons on this blog serve as examples of how these questions have been used to eke out an interpretation related to a granular moment of the human condition.