Art as Gift

In a downtown Vancouver bank, Tibetan monks create a sand mandala to relieve universal suffering and bring serenity. A Salish community on the West coast re-creates ceremonial robes and blankets as a step to reviving traditional dances and rituals and thereby bring them a sense of renewal. A California artist paints her struggle with fever and road to recovery. A Texas physician creates an installation piece which documents the suffering of  a.i.d.s. patients and serves as an emblem of hope.

All over North America  (and in Europe too), artists are returning to an ancient tradition of  creating art for personal transformation. When German artist Joseph Beuys used felt and fat in his performances, commemorating his survival as an injured flyer in World War II in the Caucasus through the intervention of villagers who wrapped him in the fat and felt, he was linking himself to a venerable tradition of art and healing. As a personal statement, his performance had symbolic value: he had been healed once and could be healed again, sacramentally, through the repetition of the same elements. The question was whether the performance had any communal value, and to that, Beuys presented his notion of “social sculpture.” What we now accept, perhaps matter-of-factly, as performance art, was conceived by Beuys to hold value for healing change, or “catharsis” as the ancient Greeks called it. Much contemporary transformative art can be linked to the work of Joseph Beuys.

As the “fat” and “felt”example of Beuys shows, art does not actually cure anybody, but provides a context of meaning and elevated emotion in which  healing can take place. What the features of such healing art are and how such art is composed are important today when there is so much suffering, uncertainty, waste, in the midst of enormous wealth. Art is able to provide both a mirror for our condition and a window to a timeless world. Art may also provide us with insight, hope, and understanding, all of which can restore us to better health.

Two traditions inform contemporary art and healing. The ancient tradition of the shaman, which has persisted to this day, uses correspondences between nature and the human world to create rituals, spaces, and talismans for healing and protection. Since the shaman’s world is believed to be interconnectedly meaningful, everything in it is carefully shaped to be effective: clothing, domiciles, herbs,  social ceremonies, musical instruments, eating implements are crafted with beauty and spiritual content in mind. The other relevant tradition is iconic, in the West originally found in the Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and Eastern Catholic streams of Christianity. The essence of this tradition was to paint images of the divine, represented by Jesus and Mary, and by certain scenes from the New Testament, which were held to have transformative value. The artist’s personality had no place in the creation. What was important was the belief that the correct intention, spiritual preparation, and technique could be combined with archetypal images to have powerful inspirational and healing potential. So long as the intellectual and moral climate of the West reflected the relevance and power of Christianity, this iconic tradition was strong. But even with the demise of Christian iconography as a cultural force, the significance and methodology of icon-making, now separated from a solely Christian context, are still applied for their transformative and healing capacity.

The refusal to accept the healing potential of art ignores centuries of evidence, dating from the Greeks and earlier. The cathartic value of drama, the inspirational qualities of music, visual art, and poetry, the uplifting nature of certain architectural creations are too well-known to argue about. What some post-modern critics maintain, however, is that these qualities belonged to simpler times, to pre-industrial societies, or at least to societies where the possibilities of thinking and imagining had not been mimicked so successfully by our present communicative, biological, and imaging technologies. Magic has been usurped by the machine and has become multimedia or “moviemagic,” leaving true reverence for irrelevant or inconsequential activities.

This skepticism is misapplied, however. Many artists still work in painting, drawing, and sculpture, as opposed to the exciting, new formats of video and photo-based work. What is also more evident in the handling of paint and sculptural materials is the importance of process to the meaning of the work. While the final image becomes the consumable item for the viewer and critic, it is the process of painting and sculpting that is important to the artist, and the quality of that process contains all the possibilities for healing and transformation—even of the viewers themselves.

Scientists and medical practitioners are also beginning to recognize the potential of visual art in healing. Research conducted by the Menninger Foundation, for example, has established enough evidence for the benefits of certain creative activity that artists are invited to present regularly at medical conferences. Dr. Leonard Wisneski, director of medical education at Holy Cross Hospital of Bethesda, Maryland, has proposed that creative activities can reverse negative physical conditions and has urged that researchers look at “the medical aspects of confidence, hope, faith, and, especially, love.”  (Art & Healing:  a Talk in Vancouver, Feb 1998).  Dr. Joel Elkes, director of attitudinal and behavioral medicine at the University of Louisville, has spent years studying the interface of healing and the arts and has confirmed that visual art has a role in healing, a role which he believes science should be exploring more fully.

Aside from technical specifications, medical research confirms two suppositions about art and healing: (1) The belief exists among people that creative activity promotes healing; (2) Medical evidence supports the efficacy of art in healing. Moving from such a basis, we soon travel a path far from the skeptical biases of materialist culture, and it is a path related to the needs of life, to the speculations of an avant-garde community in science and the humanities, and to a definite, if small, tradition within art history.

Traditional art has always recognized the healing potential of art, but often used religious language and imagery to communicate it. Today, art may appear to have gone far from the form and imagery allowed in traditional art, but the basic impulses to beauty and expression are the same, and the urge to connect to a greater realm of meaning is also constant.

We may say that the impulse toward beauty is universal, so that is how people are able to appreciate art of different societies. But even more basic is the impulse toward transcendence. We know of ancient shamanic traditions that go back at least 10,000 years, and some of the Paleolithic cave paintings reveal figures who may be shamans as well, thus making the spiritual experience as a social factor even older. Wherever we go in history we find cultures with religion and with a spiritual basis to their art. But it is not only ancient or primitive peoples who recognize the spiritual basis of the universe. Anthropologist Erika Bourguignon reports that over 80% of cultures in our time value the transcendent experience. This reverence cuts across differences of race, language, education, isolation, and income. Such a finding is not especially remarkable if we remember that the transcendent experience is wider than the focus of religions. Many people do not practice religion, yet count themselves as spiritual people. Social psychologist Abraham Maslow in his research on peak experiences came up with over 50 definitions for transcendence, based on surveys.  A non-religious appreciation of transcendent values can find expression in ethical philosophy, in spiritual practices like meditation, in the study of nature, and in art.

The ability to create healing art is connected to our feeling of being accepted into a larger order of meaning. We can refer to this order as Nature, Spirit, the Cosmos, or God, but the requirement for a transcendent meaning which encompasses our humanity is essential. Traditional art, particularly in its monumental work, declares its faith in transcendence. To the extent that we can feel in ourselves the importance of a transcendent order, we can feel the spiritual intentions behind traditional works of art. Not all traditional art is spiritual, just as not all modern work is materialist. This is also not a question of religion. When we look at art of the past, certainly there are non-religious paintings that are intensely spiritual, as in the best work of  Rembrandt, Turner,  Cezanne or Van Gogh.

On the other hand, great religious art of the past is always spiritual. (The key condition is that it be great art first). Look at any of the religious paintings of Fra Angelico, Giotto, Raphael, Da Vinci, and we can feel the human figures within them as living completely within their faith. This is not just a question of subject-matter. So much so, that what the works show seems not mere faith or devotion, but instead a realm of  exalted spiritual experience in which the human figures exist by reason of their faith and sanctity. Just as fish are surrounded and supported by the atmosphere of ocean, so are the saints in traditional paintings surrounded and supported by the realm of the sacred. In Fra Angelico’s painting, “Adoration of the Magi,” we have a glimpse of salvation through the recognition of the stupendous event of  Christ’s birth. All of humanity is there,  as well as the animal kingdom and the spirit domain to acknowledge the birth of Jesus. The story of the Magi becomes an allegory of the manifestation of the sacred in the world.  But the narrative is also an emblem of a state of mind where such an epiphany is possible, and for the religious or spiritual-minded who know how to read the work it serves as an instrument or gateway to that state.

When we look at Giotto’s “The Ascension,” we see nothing of the natural or human world. Jesus ascends to heaven surrounded by angels and worshipped from below by Mary and the apostles. It is a moment in sacred time, and Giotto treats it in his use of  gold and rich blues and reds as the impetus for the creation of an image that will transform us by putting us in touch with the devotion and grace of the original event.

In architecture, the Gothic cathedrals are examples of  the creation of this sacred space. For medieval citizens, whose lives were often besieged by poverty and disease, the cathedrals were an opportunity to escape from the confines of this world and experience, even briefly, some of the wonder of a transcendent state. The Hagia Sophia, built in the fourth century in Constantinople, has been able to inspire thousands, whether Muslim or Christian, in its vast domed interior to feel the impact of divine glory on the everyday mundane.

The state of  being and consciousness portrayed in great traditional religious art is not something that is confined to religion. For example, the various paintings by Cezanne of Mont Sainte-Victoire, while nominally landscapes, equally show the state of mind and emotion of the artist during the creation. The harmony of these paintings is both a technical achievement and the effect the viewer associates with the subject of the painting. The sixty or so paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire are not repetitions of each other. Together they show the range and richness of  Cezanne’s inner life as well as the disciplined study he applied to observation of the mountain near his home. Mont Sainte-Victoire in all its views is apparent yet never do we feel that one view is fundamental. The unity behind the multiplicity is hidden as our selves are hidden within the play of thoughts and feelings in our lives. This coherence on all levels and the transmutation of difficult life conditions for Cezanne to harmony in art are equally the signs of spiritual content as any of the achievements of traditional religious painting.

Current intellectual practice is to dismiss any arguments that smack of anything to do with spirit within art. The strong influence of Marxist-based thinking in structuralism and sociology has taken over the way art is discussed in mainstream thinking. Certainly, in art history and cultural studies care is taken to honor the differences of time, place, and cultural practice. As a result, we may lose sight of how widespread the values of transcendence are in cultures around the world. People who have no special education in art or philosophy are moved to visit museums, cathedrals, and temples for some contact with whatever inspired their makers. So, even today, much of tourism is based on just these kinds of informal pilgrimages.

It is a common observation that many people in the 2oth and 21st  century have turned to art for what they could not find in organized religion. Ironically, such a search often ends in disappointment, since art can never be a replacement for religion. However, art as a practice can use some of the energies of spirit in order to provide a mirror of the soul; taken one step further, art can set out to elevate others so that the experience of soul is enhanced.

When we discuss traditional art, many of these observations about the possibilities for art seem commonplace because they are speculations about distant cultural practices in a religious society. What we forget is that the vitality and transformation possible through art are not just cultural terms. In fact, the transformative experience is possible in our art today without having to produce religious or new age art.

Art is not just about self-expression. There is also the need to communicate inherent in the creative act, and this need to communicate implies there are others who can understand what we are doing in our artistic expression. This communal dimension is very important when individuals wish to identify each other. Writing of the origins of art, art historian and cultural theorist Ellen Dissanayake suggests we look at art and ritual as aspects of play. They share what she calls “making special,” the disposition to celebrating the non-ordinary in life. When one celebrates the non-ordinary, one finds oneself in an in-between state, not wholly in the transcendent, nor just in an ordinary state. The in-betweenness allows others watching the ritual to understand what’s going on, and so, to participate at some level. Writing of this participation, Dissanayake points to the emergence of community:

“The external transition or transformation marked by the liminal state ay well produce a transformation in the participants too, a heightened emotional condition that Turner (1974) calls communitas. Individuals feel themselves joined in a state of oneness with each other, with powers greater than themselves, or with both—a sort of merging and self-transcendence. This is a state outside ordinary life…Turner claims that exposure to communitas seems to be an indispensable social requirement.” (HOMO AESTHETICUS, p 70, 1992.)

If Turner and Dissanayake are right, then a culture like ours, which among its intellectual elite tries to deny the need for transcendent ritual, will produce neurotic reactions. Conversely, an art that affirms interconnectedness and the presence of the divine in everyday life will help to counteract neurotic tendencies.

Some commentators may see Turner’s and Dissanayake’s discussion as simply the difference between art and life, that art is unreal and life real. But there is more here than such a dichotomy. The celebration of the non-ordinary, according to the two authors, requires a state of in-betweenness, a special state, neither sacred nor profane, but having elements of both. This special state is crucial to the making of healing art. Whereas in non-healing art culture takes the place of the spiritual to represent the “greater realm”, in healing art the spiritual must be affirmed as the “greater realm” term if one is to have a genuinely transformative art. To put this argument another way, if I wish to create art, then current standard practice is to connect my subjectivity (my identity, my feelings about art-making, my concept) to a greater realm, usually represented by art history or society or ethnic community and bring the two together in the creative act. But healing art cannot work in such a way; healing art needs a prior belief that we are beings of spirit and are connected to a greater realm of spirit. Whether, outside of spiritual traditions, such an approach has any validity in a secular, multicultural society needs still to be established. Even to begin such an evaluation we need to move from a concept of art as self-expression to an understanding of art as the making of a gift for others. And even to have to explain that notion reveals how far we are from it.

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