”Art compensates us for certain inborn weaknesses of the mind, weaknesses we can think of as psychological frailties.”
The following is from Maria Popova’s brilliant blog Brainpickings, with distillations from the book Art as Therapy, written by philosopher Alain de Botton and art historian John Armstrong. Popova writes, “with our fluid selves [..] and culture of prioritizing productivity over presence, no wonder we find ourselves in need of recentering. Our psychological histories, relationships and working routines mean that our emotions can incline grievously in one direction or another. We may, for example, have a tendency to be too complacent, or too insecure; too trusting, or too suspicious; too serious, or too light-hearted. Art can put us in touch with concentrated doses of our missing dispositions, and thereby restore a measure of equilibrium to our listing inner selves. This function of art also helps explain the vast diversity of our aesthetic preferences--because our individual imbalances differ, so do the artworks we seek out to soothe them.”
“Why are some people drawn to minimalist architecture and others to Baroque? Why are some people excited by bare concrete walls and others by William Morris’ floral patterns? Our tastes will depend on what spectrum of our emotional make-up lies in shadow and is hence in need of stimulation and emphasis. Every work of art is imbued with a particular psychological and moral atmosphere: a painting may be either serene or restless, courageous or careful, modest or confident, masculine or feminine, bourgeois or aristocratic, and our preferences for one kind over another reflect our varied psychological gaps. We hunger for artworks that will compensate for our inner fragilities and help return us to a viable mean. We call a work beautiful when it supplies the virtues we are missing, and we dismiss as ugly one that forces on us moods or motifs that we feel either threatened or already overwhelmed by. Art holds out the promise of inner wholeness.”
Well, this certainly reaffirms my suspicions about my mom’s puritanical tastes, but more importantly this opened intriguing questions for me. As the creator of the work and not the viewer, does the same calculus hold true? Does the “particular psychological and moral atmosphere” of my artwork, as it has varied throughout my life, indicate a subconscious attempt at self-therapy, providing me with the “concentrated doses of my missing dispositions?” If I consistently make work of a serene, careful, harmonious nature, does that imply that I am consistently deficient in those areas? And if you like what I make, are you deficient as well? It sounds extreme, but then again we might readily admit that when it comes to virtue and inner stability, we indeed feel chronically malnourished. Maybe we need all the art we can get. Or, what if there is an inextricable subconscious desire to remedy what I see the world around me needing? Would I, or any artist for that matter, be naturally inclined to shake up a complacent society with chaotic art? Is there any connection between the media proliferation of global violence, the anxiety-riddled American peers I have, and the tranquil art I now make? I really like to think about this now.
It gets slippery when I consider that the act of making art itself may override any of the subject matter, such that my drawing of a saliva-laden, tortured monster with a bullet exiting his skull provides precisely the opposite therapy for me as it does the viewer. I made this drawing in high school, when I did not sense excessive maladies around me, while I was sitting in a classroom chair 6 hours a day, and-- while certain social pitfalls were briefly shattering--I was comparatively carefree. For much of my youth, I was impelled by a visceral urge to render things that were explosive, violent, full of teeth; and I would strangle the pencil in my grip. The Buddha painting, on the other hand, which fairly typifies the mood of my recent work, I made a few months ago. From my artist statement: “in my current surreal works the mood I like to depict is a kind of placidity typified by tranquil or serene countenances, floating objects, and a glowing airiness.” Is this “psychological atmosphere” subconsciously addressing my love for caffeine, the intensity and seriousness with which I often approach exercise and trying to essentially be a solo entrepreneur, or my stressful thoughts? Could very well be. But I can also see how the opposite might be true. Maybe my current artistic motives reflect an increased inner serenity, or care, or “balance”, precisely because I am developing those abilities through yoga and meditation, and, again, the very act of painting itself. I don’t think my motives are that singular or straightforward, and heck, I don’t even know my past or present self very deeply (maybe it’s all hormones!) but these two images are interesting to juxtapose within the context of this concept.
Overall, this and other ideas gathered from Brainpickings and Art as Therapy, become paramount to me now, because they are articulate, brilliant, insightful answers to the question of why art matters. I know I get a sweet feeling when I complete something badass, and it has seemed by default the coolest career choice to attempt thus far, but I’ve never harbored much grander notions about what may be fundamentally essential about beholding art or making art. And I think most of us couldn’t articulate precisely what art does for us, even though we might agree it is more than “aesthetic indulgence”. These ideas are also perfect fodder for ascribing grand purpose to my work, which is nice. But, more seriously, now I think there are greater consequences and implications of the type of art I might make.
What about you? What are some of your favorite artworks, despised artworks, and how might they address your “psychological frailties”? Can you think of any instances where your tastes in art may have changed, and if that possibly reflected changes in your psycho-emotional needs? And for other artists of all kinds, can you think of how your work has changed in terms of this idea?