When we think of "therapy", we tend to visualize talk sessions with a qualified therapist. Sitting on the proverbial couch, we spend hours exploring past experiences and learning new tools to deal with future challenges, possibly armed with a fast-depleting box of tissues.
But the concept of therapy is much broader. Ever put on a favorite song and feel comforted by its familiar notes? Then you already use music as therapy. If we only learn to appreciate them in the right way, a wider gamut of art - including literature and the visual arts - can also provide solace.
Art is therapeutic when it chimes with our inner selves. That favorite song you play has resonance because it recalls deeper insights that can too often be crowded out by intrusive, anxious thought. In highfalutin terms, it speaks the language of your soul. To elicit the benefits of art as therapy, we need only bootstrap our soul's vocabulary. In that spirit, let's explore three works of art that recall important insights when viewed in the right way.
Insight #1: Life is messy, and that's OK. Great anxiety arises from the many conflicting demands on our energy, all of which seem at once extremely important and yet stubbornly irresolvable. The ensuing aggregate stress stands in contrast to our dim recollection of a more peaceful childhood, when the most vexing dilemma might have been which flavor ice cream we desire on a hot summer's day. Stoic philosophy flips this anxious thought on its head: the aberration is not our present-day pickle, but instead the impossible simplicity of the child's bubble-wrapped world. That insight is strangely comforting, because it reminds us not to be shocked or dismayed when reality turns out to be rather more bitter than plain-vanilla; it was naive to imagine that things could ever have been otherwise. Art can remind us of this stoic insight. Entitled "Mixed up model", the painting below is composed by the mysterious Proudfoot brothers from New York. The defaced image mirrors the colorful complexity of our present reality. Life's journey is a unique chance to explore, understand and ultimately accept that messy complexity.
Insight #2: Even if you're alone, you're not alone. Another therapeutic function of art is to serve as a companion to our woe. Ironically, the artistic portrayal of cognitive frailty can be uplifting, because it reveals that our own troubles are not some faulty aberration of nature: they are instead a reassuringly common feature of the human condition. The painting below is taken from a series of works by British artist James Green, wryly termed "self-portraits of somebody else". It hauntingly depicts confusion and even torment; yet by witnessing these sensations externally our own confusion and torment is shared and therefore lessened.
Insight #3: Beauty is in the little things. The therapeutic value of art lies not just in projections of complex realities and shared suffering. Art also serves to remind us of beauty in the little things; those things too often overlooked in the frenetic 21st-century. Born in Wisconsin, the feminist icon Georgia O'Keeffe pioneered modernist art in the United States with abstract impressions of nature. In the painting below, she invites us to admire the understated elegance and bold color of a single lily. That a simple thing can convey such depth of beauty is an enduring source of hope.
Care to share? The richness of art is that every piece has therapeutic value by serving as a reminder of some deep insight. We'd love to hear your own stories of therapy through art, so why not send us a message with some favorite art of your own? If you'd like to read more about art as therapy, check out the book by John Armstrong and Alain de Botton (link), which popularized the idea of viewing art this way.