Art as Therapy: Is Mindfulness the Active Ingredient?

MAPP is a fulltime program – but combines onsite classes with long-distance learning periods. Part of the distance learning comprises a lot of reading (…who would have thought of that…) and writing essays about a wide array of positive psychology topics. I´ve decided to post some of those essays here on Mappalicious. Surely, they´re not the be-all and end-all of academic writing. But then again, it would also be a pity to bury them in the depths of my laptop…

Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer

For the sake of forthrightness, let me first say that I feel anything but self-confident and adept to write this essay. I have sort of bumbled through art classes in high-school, and I´ve avoided going to museums as effectively as possible all my life. I´ve liked art – if at all – based on its aesthetic-appealing quality (my favorite painting probably is Caspar David Friedrich´s “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog”) which most likely makes me a cretin in the eyes of every true lover of art.

This being the case, I have to say I enjoyed reading de Botton and Armstrong´s (2013) oeuvre “Art as Therapy” due to the fact that it helped me to “get a grip” on that somewhat impalpable subject. It provided me with a functional set of tools to approach a painting, something which I clearly lacked so far. So, drawing on de Botton and Armstrong´s insights (which will be described in the following section) I would like to argue that exposing ourselves to works of art can enhance our well-being, and additionally help to understand the underlying nature of well-being by providing opportunities to exercise our capacity for mindfulness.

Art as a Tool to make up for our human Frailties

Creating art has been used as a mode of psychotherapy (or at least: part of a set of different interventions) for quite a while now, especially aiming at relieving the suffering from trauma and anxiety disorders. While it remains somewhat unclear how making art is helping people to cope with difficult experiences in their lives (Kapitan, 2012), meta-analyses show that art therapy seems to be able to help people with several different psychological disorders – even if effect sizes remain rather small (Reynolds, Nabors, & Quinlan, 2000; Slayton, D’Archer, & Kaplan, 2010). Therefore, de Botton and Armstrong´s book is by far not the only book by the name of “Art as Therapy”. Yet, when taking a closer look, it becomes clear that the authors do not aim at describing “art therapy” as a means to helping a clinical population. Rather, they want to provide tools for our personal development, for finding a “medicine” for our everyday human frailties.

Specifically, de Botton and Armstrong (2013) list seven human frailties – and additionally describe how exposing ourselves to art can serve to remedy maladies. I will briefly define them here. In the absence of supporting scientific literature for this specific take on art, I´ve looked up matching quotes* from a wide array of artists and writers that point towards the same set of insights.

Forgetting. The human mind is prone to forgetting – be it everyday things or really important lessons of life. As such, art can be a way of remembering and keeping memories alive.

(Painting is just another way of keeping a diary. – Pablo Picasso)

Pessimism. We often underestimate the amount of goodness in our lives and, conversely, overestimate the prevalence of bad events. The beauty of (some) art can help us to remember and appreciate what is right with human existence – it can act as a source of hope.

(The beauty one can find in art is one of the pitifully few real and lasting products of human endeavor. – Paul Getty)

Despair. We sometimes tend to feel separated from all other human beings, believing that our joys, but particularly our suffering, is agonizingly unique. Art connects us to the rest of mankind by displaying that (and how) a certain amount of suffering is a normal (and maybe even: necessary) element of the human condition.

(Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable. – George Bernard Shaw)

Disintegration. Oftentimes, we think of ourselves as monadic entities, forgetting about the fragmentation of the human mind and soul, and that we are a process rather than a steady state. Art can help us to reacquaint with that fractal and ever-changing character of our existence.

(There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept. – Ansel Adams)

Personal Blind Spots. We do not know many things about ourselves. And quite naturally, we do not know what we don´t know. Art can help us to raise our self-awareness by serving as a mirror that reflects more that can be seen when solely looking at the person that stands in front of that mirror.

(Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time. – Thomas Merton)

Comfort Zone. We like to stay in our comfort zone, exposing ourselves to things that we already know, and people that are similar to us – thereby avoiding the risk of being taken by surprise. Exposing ourselves to art can lead us off the beaten track, guide us to find uncharted territory, thereby providing opportunities for personal growth and individuation.

(Art hurts. Art urges voyages – and it is easier to stay at home. – Gwendolyn Brooks)

Ennui. We tend to take the things (and people) in our lives for granted. Even awe-inspiring wonders of nature or magnificent works of architecture and technology can lose their magic when we fail to appreciate them in a condignly fashion. Works of art can revive that process of due appreciation, awe, and wonder.

(The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls. – Pablo Picasso)

Mindfulness as a fundamental Ingredient to the “Medicine of Art”

When trying to view exposure to art through the lens of positive psychology (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) extracting the active ingredient, the “least common denominator” in de Botton and Armstrong´s (2013) cure for the seven human frailties, I feel they can be boiled down to the notion that exposing ourselves to art (and of course creating it) can be likened to a an exercise in (the art of) being mindful** – insofar as all the frailties have a common ground in a lack of this special state of mind (and heart):

  • When we forget something important in our lives, we are not mindful of what we (used to) know.
  • When we are overly pessimistic, we are not mindful of all that gives us a reason to hope.
  • When we give in to despair, we are not mindful of the true nature of human existence.
  • When we are overly sure of who we are, we are not mindful of the fuzziness and fluidity of “the self” – and what we could be instead.
  • When we only look at what we like, we are not mindful of what we dislike in ourselves.
  • When we always stay close to our comfort zone, we are not mindful of the possibilities and beauty that may lie beyond.
  • When we don´t appreciate the wonder of (human) life and everything it entails, we are not mindful of the improbability (and potentially: uniqueness) of it all.

Conclusion

By now I´ve realized that art can be a powerful teacher. Visiting the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and spending more than an hour with just one painting (in my case: “Unpleasant Surprise” by Henri Rousseau; see below) has strikingly shown me how I can use art to cultivate my capacity for mindfulness. But maybe it takes a really good to teacher in the first place to appreciate art as a teacher.

References

Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(4), 822-848.

de Botton, A., & Armstrong, J. (2013). Art as Therapy. London: Phaidon Press.

Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S., & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 57(1), 35-43.

Kapitan, L. (2012). Does art therapy work? Identifying the active ingredients of art therapy efficacy. Art Therapy, 29(2), 48-49.

Reynolds, M. W., Nabors, L., & Quinlan, A. (2000). The effectiveness of art therapy: Does it work? Art Therapy, 17(3), 207-213.

Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14.

Slayton, S. C., D’Archer, J., & Kaplan, F. (2010). Outcome studies on the efficacy of art therapy: A review of findings. Art Therapy, 27(3), 108-118.

*All quotes found via http://www.brainyquotes.com.

**Mindfulness is “commonly defined as the state of being attentive to and aware of what is taking place in the present” (Brown & Ryan, 2003, p. 822) and is associated with a wide array of desirable psychological outcomes (Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt, & Walach, 2004).

2 thoughts on “Art as Therapy: Is Mindfulness the Active Ingredient?

  1. Great essay. As an art therapist I appreciate your take on the role that mindfulness plays in the benefits we receive from creating and exposing ourselves to art. In my experience I find that the role of mindfulness is often what contributes to success in art as therapy treatment, but it is a difficult concept to put so eloquently and succinctly in words as you have. Taking a look at how exposing ourselves to art, rather than making art, can also be beneficial to our well being has been insightful for me. Also your pairing of quotes to the relationships between art and the frailties of human existence makes me smile! Thank you for sharing this essay and I look forward to learning more about positive psychology through exploring your blog.

    Like

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