Artists-of-the-Dream: Harbingers of Social Change
Twenty years ago I interviewed several well-known women artists for my book, Women Dreaming-into-Art. The interviewees included Carolee Schneemann, Deena Metzger, Mary Beth Edelson, Ann McCoy, Anna Halprin, and Pauline Oliveros. I selected the artists on the basis of their recognized roles as image-makers and the influence of their images on the collective mind. As a psychotherapist, I was interested in artists who combine feminist, spiritual, and socio-political concerns with a predilection for creating film, visual art, performance art, dance, writing, or music using symbols and themes from the unconscious, specifically from dreams.
When artists utilize their dreams to inspire their works, they are translating the rhythms and cycles of their intra-psychic processes into outer embodiments and visible forms. Such dream images and themes are not only derived from the personal unconscious, or the personal reservoir of experience unique to each artist, but from the deepest layer of psychic material common to humankind, which is of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature. This is the part of the unconscious mind that arranges inherited patterns of memories, instincts, and experiences into archetypes, which are observable in dream material.
Dream-inspired artworks often involve archetypal images and mythic themes that stir a deep resonance in viewers. The artists-of-the-dream may articulate and clarify for many what is not fully realized but only nascent. Artists who communicate from these psychic depths can manifest hidden trends and undercurrents of psychosocial change. They can act as change-agents, who project into their art what is emergent to the culture-at-large while concomitantly influencing and bringing about that change.
Importantly, these artists act as catalysts for change because they themselves have been through deep-seated processes of psychospiritual transformation. With permeable boundaries, such artists are susceptible to the transformative forces of the unconscious and open to periods of profound psychological turmoil. Their individual incursions into the unconscious are chronicled in their artworks, many of which delineate journeys of self-recognition, life-cycle transition, and psychological transformation and rebirth. These works illustrate the descent into the underworld, sometimes characterized by a limited period of depression and despair, or at other times, by a lengthy process of personal disintegration. This abyss experience is often followed by art demonstrating a regeneration and re-emergence into consensual reality, but with a uniquely transformed vision. On the other side of their ordeal, the artists report that they have been rendered able to express their true voice in both their personal and artistic lives because they have plumbed the inner heights and depths of human experience.
Two decades after interviewing these artists, I have observed that experiences of psychological descent are now occurring in the larger population. Because most persons are not particularly open to their inner worlds, they are being pulled into what I have identified as a dark night of soul1 through an outer trigger of some kind, such as divorce; loss of a loved one, home, or job; or diagnosis of a catastrophic illness. For some, these dark nights are initiatory journeys into the solitary world of the psyche, and if successfully navigated, assist to new levels of consciousness. Individuals in the general public are now undergoing the profoundly transformational processes that my interviewees translated into their artworks so many years ago.
In their lives and art, these artists both model and facilitate for others psychospiritual processes of change that I believe are, for many, the next step in human consciousness evolution. Artists-of-the-dream show us interconnections between inner symbol and outer reality, between self and other, and between individual transformation and social change. They are harbingers of the future.