When I was in my early teens, I tried to spend every Saturday I could at the local art museum, sneaking into the city without my parents’ permission. Smaller than the Metropolitan in New York, but still noteworthy (not that I would have known), the museum was extraordinary and wondrous to me. It had numerous halls and galleries that re-created typical rooms and environments from different periods of history and throughout the world. I would be transported to the extravagant excesses of 17th century France, the somber aura of a Medieval monastery, the sunlit home of a Roman patrician, the delicate and lush garden of an 18th century Japanese tea house. It was like walking into a labyrinthine time machine… a dream world of other places and long ago. Although it took a bit more imagination, I had that same feeling wandering among the paintings, each providing entrance into distant dimensions of place and time, even to mythical worlds.
By the time I reached college, I had started collecting postcards of my favorite works of art. I treasured my ever-increasing assortment, which adorned the walls of dorm rooms and studio walk-ups for the next several years. Even as a student without money, I was very discerning about what made it into my “collection.” Each painting or sculpture pictured on the four-by-six inch cards had to speak to me in a very specific way, although I couldn’t verbalize what that was. The important thing seemed to be this intense, inexplicable personal connection. I wasn’t yet a psychologist, but I did have the understanding that each work reflected something uniquely and quintessentially important to me. Were these aspects of my “self?” (Maybe even seminal parts of my own personality that, young as I was, were still waiting to be discovered?)
Because I have been fortunate to have art in my life (even through a bunch of postcards), I have experienced its cathartic benefits. I have felt how soothing it can be on a day-to-day basis and have seen this effect on others. A piece of art has the capacity to take us into a trancelike space or reverie. It has an “energy” or vibe or tone that affects mood and even outlook. It can be a “friend” that accompanies us during a difficult time. It can be a continuing, but subtle source of inspiration, beauty and joy in our day-to-day existence.
A favorite piece of art can be deeply meaningful and makes sense in an irrational nonverbal way. It’s that emotional, “right brain” wisdom—which speaks to and of our personal truth (that belongs solely to us). It can’t be quantified. It affects us through what Freud called “primary process” (in other words, the language of dreams) at a subliminal or unconscious level. One interior association or evoked emotion collides into the next, to pull apart and merge again. Art is an emotional bridge… to that deeper part of ourselves.
Does every picture tell a story? Or to paraphrase Freud, is sometimes a picture “just a picture?” Sometimes the art we like or choose to live with is an expression of one’s identity, cultural heritage, or personal history. It’s a proud announcement and affirmation of who we are. If in art, the person likes boats or dolls or animals or leisurely crowd scenes along the French Riviera or designs from the Ming dynasty, it makes sense that this would be something that is meaningful to that individual, even as a favorite pastime.
But more often the response to art does seem to reflect something even more internal. If we decorate and live with it, perhaps it connects us to a type of ideal or desired place or feeling in our mind. It can help create that sense of haven, a private emotional space in the midst of the world where we relax, replenish, contemplate, and nourish ourselves and our goals. Even one piece of art, however humble, can set a tone—from tranquil quiet to energized passion to uplifting inspiration. It can also be disturbing. In fact, this can be so powerful that I’ve heard some artists and art collectors say they can’t always live in their home surroundings with the intense art that they love. It’s just too evocative.
Art is a major vehicle of personal meaning and symbol. Through the nonverbal symbols in the painting or piece before us, we can obtain some insight into what are our powerful issues. Through our reactions to different works of art, we open up an avenue of self-understanding and questions we need to ask ourselves. On the negative side, sometimes this can be quite painful, raw, or threatening. A repressed memory, issue, or unwelcome feeling may be churned up… or something about the artwork suggests an unwanted aspect of ourselves. At the same time, a door is opened to our imagination and all the possibilities that lie within. We can explore, process, experiment, problem-solve, and “work through” existential and emotional questions.
In my work as a therapist, I have witnessed how art can exorcise personal demons and resolve issues, sometimes with a finality that hours of talking therapy will not achieve. For example, many people upon seeing Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” or Rodin’s sculpture “The Thinker” can identify with the anger and despair of the former or the contemplative detachment of the latter as it applies to something in their own life. In art therapy, the client actually creates art as a method of expression of what’s going on within. The person seems to “get it out” by producing an external manifestation of the problem or pain. Even through appreciation alone, a profound “cleansing” effect can occur vicariously through the work of another (usually an artist that the individual does not know personally, but who has captured in their work an essential psychological dilemma that the individual is experiencing). In this case, just resonating with the art allows the person to bring it to the surface (where it can be expressed and dealt with better) by identifying with an artistic depiction of the same problem or pain that the individual feels within.
But, while art creates the most intimate and uniquely personal response, it also paradoxically transcends the personal, connecting us to universal values and those experiences that we all share, face, struggle with, and enjoy as part of the human condition. The power of art lies in the ability to cut through personal head trips, learned biases, defense mechanisms, and the petty concerns we so often focus on. Going beyond language and sometimes culture, it provides unique opportunities for communication and healing on an interpersonal level. I think about one aunt, who I loved but with whom there was always a little bit of tension. We were very different in personality, political and religious views, friends, musical tastes—in other words, almost everything. Yet going to an art museum one day, we barely spoke as we absorbed it all, but it became clear how much we were sharing the experience, each of us responding to the emotional and imaginative power around us. This connection became an unspoken bond between us, and we spent several wonderful afternoons together in museums after that. I will always cherish those afternoons.
Back to my wall of postcards, now tattered and well past their prime. In one apartment I lived, for a period of time there was a lot of construction going on by various workers, mostly who spoke languages other than English. Inevitably, at some point during the day, I would find one of the men fixated in front of the postcards, just taking in the images and in deep reflection. Upon seeing me, they often appeared flustered, as though caught in an intensely private moment. Then, to break the ice, smiling (and often with great energy), both of us would begin pointing at one postcard or another and through a type of pantomime were able to communicate how it made us feel. And that’s another power of art, which is a universal, emotional language, transcending barriers. We connect and share through the artist’s experience, not only with our deepest self, but as one human being to another.
Dr. Judy Marshall received her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In thirty years of clinical practice in New York and Los Angeles, she has worked with many different groups, from children to the frail elderly, with particular interests including self-esteem, depression, sensitivity, and creativity.
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