Does art heal the artist? Can art have any therapeutic effects?
We may all remember that several of the most well-known artists lived very troubled lives: Caravaggio’s criminal behavior, Modigliani self-destructiveness and addiction, Van Gogh’s instability, Edvard Munch’s emotional turmoil, Rothko’s sad departure and Picasso’s narcissistic behavior.
They are but a few and just in visual arts.
These can’t be minor exceptions, given that they intensively dedicated their whole lives to art.
So I’m afraid we don’t have good news: art doesn’t heal the artist, in fact at times it might become the accomplice of whatever psychological condition a vulnerable artist might be suffering from.
Perhaps to be fair we should say that art can equally flourish among the healthy and the unhealthy, but it’s indifferent to both.
But has this rather grim scenario always been like this?
For centuries or even millennia artists were mostly artisans at the service of church and aristocracy.
Individuality in art might be a rather new phenomenon, one that in the western world might have begun during the humanistic era and finally flourished towards the end of the 19th century.
It’s the era of Einstein’s Theory of Relativism that which marked the breaking point. The Renaissance ideal of representing an objective world through the single point of view of perspective crumbled. Perception of reality fragmented into infinite points of view and infinite worlds. Cubism was born and art was destined to never be the same.
The shift from the idea of an unquestionable and absolute reality supervised by an ominous divine eye to a personal point of view fed the artists’ inherent narcissism, hence the modern notion of “self-expression”.
In this context many modern artists found in their own dark emotions and twists of mind an inexhaustible source of themes for their own work. They saw themselves as uniquely gifted beings with a unique vision. No longer a voice of the institution, but rather against it.
Art for many of them became a new lover, an intimate object of pleasure, an available dame who always says yes. It later culminated in the vile idea of “artist as a brand” inaugurated by Andy Warhol.
The cult of personality blossomed.
Despite the wonderful artwork produced in the early 20th century this narcissistic and solipsistic approach came with a price for the artists.
While it’s certainly overly reductive or even incorrect to pin point narcissism as the sole cause of psychological disturbances, we should focus our attention to it because it’s part of everyone’s psychological development during childhood, but in several artists it becomes an unresolved issue.
“[…] the danger inherent in this line of development is exaggerated self-importance, a megalomaniac ego consciousness which thinks itself independent of everything […]. Overvaluation of the ego, as a symptom of immature consciousness, is compensated by a depressive self-destruction…” – Erich Neumann, “The Origins and History of Consciousness”.
Even the most wounded artists had their moments of megalomania, so much that their relationships couldn’t keep up with their self-centeredness. Art became “MY art” and the artist the new God.
And yet even in this rather pessimistic scenario art simply flows, even beautifully, with serene abandonment as whatever the world presents: light, darkness, joy, sorrow, depravity and perversions. She dances to all of it without distinctions.
At this point there’s one particular story worth mentioning, one that might uplift us a bit and shed some light onto the possible healthy relationship between artists and their work.
It’s about Matisse’s last creation: the glass windows and artwork for the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence, a small Dominican church in France.
Matisse was already at the end of his life. He had gone through cancer, an experience that changed his views on how to approach his own work.
In spite of not being christian he made the statement “Art is my God”, hence his desire of beautifying the small chapel.
It’s an important statement because it comes with the understanding that art for him didn’t have to be a self-serving product any longer, but it became what we can call the realm of the Other. Other as the Transpersonal, without necessarily making any religious implications.
We can think of it as Language, not merely speech, but that which belongs to nobody and yet is the bridge that connects everything.
In his case, due to his culture, he chose Christianity as a metaphorical vehicle for this understanding, but it could have been anything else.
Matisse’s statement reminds me of something our culture has lost: the myth of the Muse. Muses were believed to be the true singers of poems of which the bard was simply the messenger for the people.
“Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story…” – Homer, The Odissey
Such bards didn’t necessarily see themselves as creative personalities, but approached their poems with the humility of the ordinary man who’s lucky enough to hear the song of the Muse. Their stories remained in the field of the Other, where they belong.
If this seems excessively mystical for today’s positivist mindset let’s just notice how what we call creativity doesn’t actually mean “creation out of nothing”. It’s rather an alchemical process (in a Jungian sense) in which symbolic material comes together in a different form. Such material belongs to no one, it’s Other to the individual. In fact we could go further and say there’s no demarcation line between the individual and the Other, except in the imaginary notions of the mind.
Therefore against all norms and contemporary cultural cages we can bravely and humbly contemplate this evidence and give once again credit to the Muse, the Spirits or any other concept we might enjoy as symbol of the mysterious realm in which all Songs endlessly play.
We can finally get the “artist” out of the way and pay homage to the only true source of inspiration that kept poking at us regardless of our unfavorable inclinations.
In the end if art itself doesn’t heal the artist, the artist can let art become the expression of his/her own alchemical process and hopefully uplift others by celebrating life as the magical theater it is, with its cycles of dark days followed by the most luminous ones.
This way art will keep expressing all colors of life in the form of beauty and wonderment and the Muse will remind us that she always sings for us to dance together.
“Echo and Narcissus” by John William Waterhouse, 1903
“Violin and Pitcher” by Georges Braque, 1910
“The Kiss of the Muse” by Paul Cezanne, c. 1860