On art as therapy

I’ve long held a visceral hostility towards what I’ve called the ‘muesli theory’ of art. This theory maintains that art should be consumed because it’s good for you. Aside from anything else, the idea that art is good for you takes all the fun out of it. It gives art an air of lugubrious obligation that is completely at odds with the involuntary suspension of the self that is art’s most beautiful side effect.

Take, for example, the idea that art is a treatment for mental health. Philosopher Alain de Botton is a prominent proselytiser of ‘art as therapy’. With partner-in-crime John Armstrong, de Botton aims to reinterpret artworks as self-help manuals. He does so with a determined, dutiful banality that is enough to make any young artist want to hang herself on a sunny morning.

More recently, a Western Australian study aimed to quantify the relationship between art and happiness in the general population. It concluded that people who had two hours a week of ‘arts engagement’ were much happier human beings, all other variables being taken into account. This two-hour period was called the ‘dose-response’ – in other words, the minimum ‘dose’ required for a positive effect.

‘It’s awesome,’ said Dr Christina Davies, who led the study. ‘If you break that down it’s only fifteen to twenty minutes a day. That is a colouring book. It’s easy to get that amount of art into your day.’ Art, she suggested, could be ‘prescribed’ to enhance the wellbeing of entire populations. So why not? Why not launch public health campaigns to make the population healthier by giving them more art? What is wrong with that?

There is, after all, a kernel of truth in this: art can be therapeutic. People who are engaged with art probably are happier. I’m all for everyone being happier. And I’ve seen how art can change lives – it opens worlds and possibilities, articulates difficult and complex truths, and liberates the mind from crushing social shackles.

But while it might be very restful to colour in pictures for fifteen minutes a day, that has as much to do with art as Soylent has to do with actual food. And art by ‘prescription’? That is one letter away from ‘proscription’. I worry about what might be made of this study, about the sidelining of art and artists into a substructure of the wellness industry. The disconsoling truth is that when art is absorbed into institutional structures, those aspects of it that matter the most tend to disappear altogether.

Look at the appropriation of ‘creativity’ by corporate culture. The ‘creative’ executive – according to Businessweek, the most desired quality in twenty-first-century business leaders – attends ‘creativity’ workshops to get in tune with his inner buzzwords. Often these are given cachet by museums or other arts organisations cashing in on the corporate dollar – in reality, it’s just How to Win Friends and Influence People with a new, grandiloquent vocabulary.

Corporate ‘creativity’ feeds parasitically on the perceived status of art – an aura of unconventional genius and inspiration – but refashions creativity itself to suit its own ends. Artists, after all, aren’t primarily interested in making money, but in making art. Arts practice, with its necessary failures and open exploration, is in fact completely antithetical to the aims of a corporation. This distorted notion of ‘creativity’ is then projected back on art itself. It’s depressing to see how artistic culture has embraced the language of the ‘artspreneur’, even as artists’ incomes wither on the vine.

I wonder if art would fare any better if forklifted wholesale into the wellbeing industry? There are already harbingers: the most valuable writing fellowship in Australia, worth $100,000, is being offered by the University of Sydney. It calls for writers to ‘join the fight against obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease’ and to ‘transform the world’s understanding of chronic disease’.

Part of me can’t help but wonder what would happen if the writer came up with a wildly erotic celebration of the fat body, perhaps as a way of combating the depression and stigma that often accompanies obesity. Another part of me is all but certain that the conditions of the fellowship would make such an anarchic response all but impossible. Its moral stance is set in advance. And there is the rub: if therapy starts to define art, then art risks being neither therapeutic nor artistic.

Who decides what is good for us? After all, art is routinely attacked for its destructiveness. In eighteenth-century England, young ladies were warned against the morally corrupting activity of reading novels. Goethe’s The Sorrow of Young Werther was condemned famously for sparking a spate of copycat suicides. There are regular moral panics about violence and sex in contemporary media. Do we get rid of all the art that doesn’t promote wellness?

The problem with art is that it’s manifold, elusive and ambiguous, and whatever good it generates – in mental health, for example – emerges from its complexities. If art is useful, it’s because it generates meanings. Those meanings often emerge from our darkest truths and most bitter conflicts.

Sometimes art makes you anxious. That is part of its job. Sometimes its therapy exists in bringing to the surface our hidden traumas, our worst crimes, our darkest, most secret desires, and then forcing us to confront them. Making art is a process of examining our psychic unease in order to see it more clearly, inflaming rather than anesthetising our discomfort and pain. Art names our terrors as well as our joys. Sometimes, in order to make things better, art first has to make them worse.



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Alison Croggon

Alison Croggon is a Melbourne writer whose work includes poetry, novels, opera libretti and criticism. Her work has won or been shortlisted for many awards. Her most recent book is New and Selected Poems 1991–2017.

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