Monday, 25 August 2008

Art Therapy Atrocity!

Nowhere is the intersection of creative expression and psychological trauma more obvious and striking than in art therapy - the creation of artistic works designed to exorcise horrors, express the inexpressible, and, ideally, bring some equilibrium into the artist's life. Running through art therapy is the idea that art is de facto positive; as the AATA puts it: the creative process of art is both healing and life-enhancing.

I confess I originally imagined such therapy would benefit mostly children, who after all may not be able to communicate clearly yet, but this assumption ignores many of art therapy's qualities which can be beneficial to anyone, young or old, and whatever their physical or mental condition:

- art can be fun and relaxing, a creative play time
- the concentration inherent in creating art may provide a distraction from regular thoughts
- solitude and silence if desired (equally, one can create art in groups or even as a group)
- art can be very cathartic and provide insight and release
- creating something is gratifying and empowering. If other people enjoy this art, that effect is only multiplied

Perhaps most interesting of all is the idea that people express things in their artwork that they themselves are neither intending to convey nor even conscious of; that expression is the stuff of the subconscious.

Art therapy was arguably born of war (the artwork of children during the Spanish Civil War is the earliest example I've come across) and has proved enormously beneficial to those involved in wars and, more recently, genocides: casualties, soldiers, prisoners, even if the artwork is not the artist's idea - as in the fascinating case of Cambodian prisoner/artist Vann Nath (who really deserves his own post here).

WWII vets are famously reticent to speak of their bloodier experiences; an entire generation whose preference seemed to be to keep silent, perhaps with some assistance. One wonders how different things might have been were art therapy widely available back then. Is it helping soldiers today, coming home from Afghanistan or Iraq?

If art therapy works wonders for those undergoing the hell of warfare - in hotspots as varied as Uganda, Columbia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Lebanon, Sudan, and Chechnya - it provides help for all manner of other hells as well: anorexia, child abuse, rape, you name it. The last decade has seen an explosion of art therapy for those who have survived terrorist attack or 'natural evils' such as tsunamis and hurricanes.

The phenomenon also seems to have caused a stir in Darfur, posing the question of whether such artworks can constitute evidence of war crimes.

The questions posed by such depictions of life's horror are many - in part because, though the effect of creating such a work may be utterly beneficial and positive to the artist, the resultant artwork nonetheless carries the subject of its genesis. Can the viewer enjoy or appreciate such therapeutic works with a clean conscience? What is the moral status of such art? Does its backstory inevitably alter its appreciation? How does the role of artist differ for works of art therapy? How does the relationship differ with patrons or with the public?

Have you ever created art in this spirit and was it therapeutic for you? How would you feel about that work being displayed in a gallery or on a website? What if that art were on someone's wall, in their office or home?

Most of us are lucky in the present day. We expect our children will never paint such pictures.

Update: Vank Cathedral Armenian Genocide Memorial Kids Pics (see comments for details)


jep said...

hi Simon - interesting post, made me want to share something equally so with you: last year my wife and I went to Iran. In Esfahan, we visited the Vank cathedral in an Armenian section of the city. There is a long-standing protest monument there (a flame, some info, etc) to the Armenian genocide by the Turks in 1915. A large space on the wall was covered in pictures by children (seemingly widely varied in age) depicting this genocide. Not art therapy per se, but perhaps a cultural purging. The pictures are great - some in Anime style, some in 4 year old style, and most interestingly, many influenced by the artwork of the Iranian Revolution of some 65 years later. If you'd like I can share some of the pictures with you. Lemme know. Thanks for a great post.

Pius said...

Thanks jep, that sounds fascinating. I'd love to see pictures, yes please.