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Art Healership Lessons

A lesson on what can’t be seen by looking in a mirror, only felt

Yayoi Kusama, ‘THE SPIRITS OF THE PUMPKINS DESCENDED INTO THE HEAVENS‘ 2017
installation view at The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara, Indonesia

It’s important to note, when looking at abstract art, that this kind of work is often depicting something that words are ill-equipped to express. In being human, by definition, there will be things we understand but cannot describe, things we know but cannot teach, and things we do that we cannot explain with words alone.

This is why words and things-we-can-immediately-make-sense-of are not appropriate. They are only one layer of a profoundly complex experience; this experience is often abstract. It is in each of these instances, between the lines, that art acts as a vestibule for otherwise inexpressible meaning. When looking, then, we must accept that words and coherent forms are just two of myriad ways to express meaning in a way that is valuable – and they won’t always be fit for purpose.

The Spirits of the Pumpkins Descended into the Heavens (2017) by Yayoi Kusama is something to be understood, known, and experienced; it is not something to be described, taught, or explained. It is something to be felt.

Dots consume the artist and her work – a truly recurrent motif.

The polka dots are an extension of what exists within Yayoi Kusama. Normally invisible, here such inner workings have been made visible. Though this is a waxwork figure of Yayoi Kusama at Madame Tussauds, Hong Kong, she is often clad in dotted dresses. (photograph: VCG/Getty Images)

They’re a symbol of a life distilled into a singular, obsessive, and repeated form – something is being expressed that perhaps words or sense cannot clarify, something is being reflected beyond our physical appearance alone. In our own worlds, they could be our habits. The invisible actions we involuntarily carry out without checking ourselves, but yet the very things that make us who we are. Whether destructive or not, here, the outcome of the habit is irrelevant. It could be excessive exercise, substance abuse, artistic expression (the last made Yayoi Kusama the richest living female artist, so they’re clearly not all bad). But, the repeated question dotted, perennially, within these behaviours is: what drives our habits?

It is this that often cannot be expressed in words, because it is unconscious.

Each dot serves as a reminder of how beholden we can become to the hands of unconscious habit; were you to stand in the artwork, placing yourself before the mirror, you might feel a little overwhelmed – surrounded by swarming polka dots in a sea of yellow. Such confusion demands you see what lies at the centre of this bewildering experience – you. As we remain unconscious of our habits, so we continue to choose to be at the mercy of them.

Here the artist appears to continually need to purge herself of whatever is causing them, plastering them everywhere and turning what could be suffering, when kept unknown, into something creative, something striking. Her polka dot pumpkins have quite a soothing message, however. While it’s true the repeated unconscious suffering that we undergo is somewhat ever-present – acknowledging it, for now, is enough. It is enough to sit with it, so long as we are observing. For you, that could mean any number of things, such is the beauty of abstract art, it can become what you make of it; so why not use it as a mirror for more than just our physical reflection?

Kusama’s art is an abstract reflection of the patterns that exist within us too. Try to count the dots – and fail (or get bored) – and then map such a pattern onto a behaviour or habit you have. What action or through have you done or had this repeatedly? Something that occurs over and over – too many times to count.

In this meditative space, it is not quite as simple as something like regularly brushing your teeth (a healthy habit). It goes beyond the physical and visible: these are the hidden habits like preoccupying yourself with what you want to say, instead of listening to someone completely, or lying in bed for a little too long each morning because the burden of getting up appears heavier than the light-but-toxic touch of distraction on social media. Perhaps it’s even a pattern only evident over a longer, life-sized period, one where you sabotage relationships because of past childhood trauma – you can’t face the prospect of abandonment/ betrayal/ something entirely unique to you. These things are inexorably tied to what we see in the mirror, though we rarely make an effort to visualise and acknowledge them. Instead, by subtly displaying them on the walls, floor, and ceiling, this abstract work calls for you to feel them.

But, this art is also kind. In its repetitiveness, it is not chastising the viewer into excavating pain from their past, but is encouraging them to notice themselves, beyond their basic humanoid form. It would be more beneficial to see it as merely noticing the patterns that exist within us all – specifically those hidden habits, which we otherwise ignore by virtue of them being invisible – for these are the habits that exist in the cycle of feeling-thought-action repeated time and time again.

Here is an opportunity to notice what’s going on. We can intercept our feelings before they make us think, we can stop the thought before it makes us act, and we can assess our actions before they cement the feeling more deeply.

Of course, this has all been expressed, somewhat paradoxically, though words, so will likely fall short of what such abstract expression is truly exploring. Finding out what it means is, therefore, down to you and what you feel when you next look in the mirror.

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Art Healership Lessons

A lesson on the importance of being ordinary

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917, photographed by Alfred Steiglitz, backdrop is The Warriors, by Marsden Hartley

When beholding a toilet enshrined upon a plinth, it might seem unrealistic to think that its role as a very ordinary object could inspire quiet confidence; but, it should.

Duchamp teaches us with this urinal, that it is not what an object is, nor is it what an object looks like, which gives it importance. It is where you dare to put it.

If we apply that to ourselves, we can learn that  it is not what or who you are, nor your appearance that will ultimately determine how people see you, but the unreserved way in which you carry these things, that will help the world sit up and pay attention. If you remain thinking, ‘I’m just ordinary, performing a daily routine, unglamorous, but functioning’, then that is all you will allow yourself to become.

Proudly, the piss-pot perches, unashamed of its bog-standard appearance, bold enough to call itself a ‘fountain’ – to call itself important. And it is this confidence that we can emulate; should you not feel your best-self one day, there is a lot to be said here for the old adage: fake it till you make it.

Here is a reminder: this upside-down thing that people wee in changed art forever (and was set to sell for £1.7 million back in 2002); it has us all eternally fooled with its brazen appearances in gallery after gallery.

It is not just because it is a urinal that this work is famous; it is because it is a urinal in an art gallery. So, even if you view yourself as a toilet, turn up to that job interview, that party, that date with trust in who you are and the value you hold, and the people who behold you will likely recognise your value – because you’re you.

This work reminds us that all confidence is – is a performance. It is through this performance that people will see your most valuable assets because you have walked in as if they have belonged there this entire time. The emphasis of your worries, therefore, should not rest on what you are (which is, by default uniquely you and more than enough). You should concern yourself instead with who you will boldly present yourself to be. It is this that will affect how people perceive you, and how they perceive your ‘ordinariness’, because you know that it too deserves to be enshrined upon a plinth in a nice space.

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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.