Years ago, I bought a postcard of a Louise Bourgeois artwork that still hangs in my studio. In scratchy, uneven handwriting, she had written, “Art is a guaranty of sanity.” For Bourgeois, that special master of spinning art from torment, it may refer to her process of creation. But it is also a reminder of art’s power to affect its viewers. Art makes being human, and dealing with all of the things that life deals us, a little easier. Because among other things, art is a mirror that helps reveal our inner selves, face suffering, process emotions, and sometimes open us to new experiences.
Last year, Alain de Botton and John Armstrong curated an exhibit at the Rijksmuseum entitled Art is Therapy. In a somewhat gimmicky attempt to entice viewers to re-examine the permanent collection, de Botton had written brief interpretive comments on large “post-its” that hung next to the great masters. A small painting of a lone worshipper in a gothic cathedral looked like a perspectival study to me. But to de Botton it was a meditation on isolation and solace. Fair enough. The interesting point is not the yawning gap between our interpretations, but the reminder that we all project our own experience and emotions onto whatever we encounter. In the case of viewing art, that might not be a bad thing.
Psychologists regard projection as a defense mechanism whereby an individual takes negative thoughts or perceptions and places them on an external object or individual. From a clinical point of view, projection of experience onto art could be either healthy or unhealthy. If healthy, the person re-experiences the trauma again in a different, more therapeutic context. If unhealthy, the person re-enacts the trauma with no sense of mastery over the experience. For the sake of argument, let’s go with the former scenario. If art helps a person recognize his own experience as something that is actually shared, or sheds light on the universality of human suffering, it may indeed ease his pain. To quote Alain de Botton quoting Mark Rothko: “My canvases are an occasion for the sadness in me to meet the sadness in you, and that way, we’ll be less lonely.”
In our postmodern, conceptual world, a belief in art’s ability to heal may sound trite. Regardless, I believe it. Not only can the viewer benefit, but the artist has much to gain too. Pop culture is rife with stereotypes of the tortured artist, but the truth is that the act of creation has the potential to calm and pacify. Contemporary scientific studies also suggest that having a creative hobby, such as knitting and weaving, reduces stress and enhances wellbeing. Tantric Buddhists have known this for a very long time; the process of making a sand mandala aids focus and meditation as much as its ritual destruction underscores the impermanence of life, including and particularly suffering.
People often ask me why art is so violent/creepy/nihilistic/angry. Sometimes the artist is offering up his own worldview—think Otto Dix’s gruesome inter-war portraits. But in other instances, I believe it’s the artist’s way of exorcising negative thoughts or impulses. By putting it on the canvas, or in the video, or into the installation, its destructive force is released and the artist is relieved of its burden. It’s the artist’s way of saying, “I own this pain, but it will not destroy me.” Perhaps Louise Bourgeois would agree.
The word trauma comes from a Greek word for “injured” or “wounded” and implies an open, unprotected state. Vulnerability can make a person more empathic, more sensitive to a full range of emotions and perhaps more capable of heightened sensory experience in general. In this sense, it can be an ideal emotional state in which to connect to something as complex and inarticulate as art. A person raw with pain has fewer protective layers to obstruct the connection between him and the subject, whether it be Rothko’s moody cathedrals of red, or Keith Haring’s joyous, dancing men.
Art cannot guaranty sanity. But it can help someone face a demon, find solace in creativity, or experience the world from a new perspective. It turns out that there’s a companion piece to Bourgeois’s postcard. It states, “To unravel a torment you must begin somewhere.” Why not with art?
CORINA LARKIN is a painter and writer who lives in New York City. She is also an editor of the Rail's ArtSeen section.