This essay seeks to explore and understand the ways in which art becomes a means to soothe and improve ourselves and our sense of well-being, growth, understanding, etc, whether an artist or not. It seeks to understand why exactly we make art, collectively, as a species, and to frame this individually around my own art practice via ideas I have come across concerning outsider art and how it relates to art as an institution, as well as how this might be cross-referenced with the art of children and people who suffer from mental difficulty or illness.
When we're little, we make bright, messy shapes on ill-treated paper. We don't know the full power of our own tactile abilities. Touching is still new to us, like everything, and we don't yet know the fragility of paper and crayons and our parent(s)'s state of mind when faced with a defaced wall. We don't yet know the rules about the preservation of all the over eggshell Dulux or vintage dappled wallpaper over rough and waxy mustard lines shaping dogs and dads and hands which look more like dying or dead spiders.
Viktor Lowenfeld's 1947 book Creative and Mental Growth explored how developmental growth in children comes across through their art, progressing in 6 stages between their first years and their late teens. Lowenfeld described the pseudo-naturalistic stage, occurring at around age 12, as a stage marking “the end of art as a spontaneous activity”1. It is clear that this stage is a turning point in children’s artistic intentions. At this point, art becomes a calculated attempt at progressing towards adulthood, and greater technical/naturalistic skill. Inevitably, it also marks the end of art making for many children, as art ceases to be simply a method of entertainment and joyful expression/interpretation, and takes on a stressful role in the new or almost adolescents’ need to become the adult or progressed version of themselves. The immaturity of a child’s drawings is revealed during this stage (and the following period of decision which occurs around ages 14 to 16), leading to frustration, resentment, and often total abandonment of drawing.
After navigating through these difficult later stages it can be easy to get caught in a stressful cycle of artmaking which focuses on achieving some quantifiable artistic skill. Art becomes a chore for many young artists as they aim for a perceived ideal in aesthetic which may be very unnatural or uncomfortable to them. I have strong, unpleasant memories of the feelings of inadequacy and misery which stemmed from pushing myself to meet some idea of what “good” art should be - art at age 18/19 had become such a conscious and specific act of attaining and perfecting an emulation of what seemed proper and ultimate. It was art school seeds of quantity which pulled me away from miserable and deprecative practice. I slowly started to make more things with less thought. Eventually my overall personal practice came back to the joyful spontaneity of childhood (in feeling, if not necessarily in form). You could term it a regression, but my art as it is made now encapsulates the childlike natural entertainment value of the art making process itself, whilst being informed by my experience and knowledge of each of Lowenfeld’s developmental stages and beyond. The joy is enhanced by my knowledge of what makes it and its alternatives.
John Armstrong supposes in Art as Therapy (as summarised in his City Journal article entitled What Is Art For?) that “art is a therapeutic instrument”. He posits that “The therapeutic thesis is not simply another idea about art’s value. It homes in on the only area in which such value could be explained: art’s capacity to improve our lives.”2 Reading this, I began to nod in enthusiastic recognition - art’s apparent value or explanation as a mode of self-care, self-exploration, and self-contextualisation as put forward by Armstrong is one I recognise immediately as the conclusion I have come to with my own creative efforts. Making a piece of art is something I frequently compare to seeing a bright and beautiful tree, or a sweet little puppy - events which bring a sense of peace and deep appreciation for the condition of the moment, or a favourable context within which to place one’s entire perception of the world. Art can be a way of folding down the complexities of one’s identity and experience. A sort of page in a book of visceral encounters, a summary of the ideal feeling represented in a piece of work.
Armstrong describes several examples of different frames within which, he says, art may act as a “therapeutic instrument”, such as:
- A corrective of bad memory: Art can “makes the fruits of experience memorable”
- A purveyor of hope: Art can “fortify us against despair”
- A source of dignified sorrow: Art can “reminds us of the legitimate place of sorrow in a good life”
- A balancing agent: Art can “direct us to our best possibilities”
- A guide to self-knowledge: Art can “[help] us recognise ourselves”
- A tool of re-sensitization: Art can “[save] us from our habitual disregard for what is all around us”
I certainly recognise many of these ideas in my, as well as other people’s, creative work. It’s worth stating that individuals aim for and desire different therapeutic outcomes and processes, meaning that art making acts as a way of exploring a wide spectrum of philosophical, social, (etc) introspections. Regardless of this great variation in work and intention and practice, I continue to identify ways in which art has been utilised as a “therapeutic instrument” in both my own work and the work of others.
Armstrong’s ideas are intended to categorise all art as in some way used to ease or better ourselves, and I’d agree that the drive to make art stems from a desire to explore ourselves and the world and to situate ourselves inside that world, understanding both it and ourselves. I think this applies easily to art as a practice and an institution, but outside of this we see the same efforts at therapy, often more directly as a result of being separate from the academic waffling of the institutional art world.
In contrast with Armstrong and De Botton’s theories for any and all art pertaining to therapeutic categories, art brut, or “raw” art made outside artistic institution may be more direct in its application as direct therapy. Adolf Wölfli (1864 – 1930) was one of the first artists to emerge as people became interested in the “art brut” concept. After suffering abuse and being orphaned at age 10, he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital at age 31 after being convicted as a child molester. He spent the rest of his life in the hospital and it was here that he began making drawings. He made incredibly detailed paintings, and even musical compositions. He became a symbol of outsider art after doctor Walter Morgenthaler published a book focussing on Wölfli’s work as a patient with no previous knowledge or interest in art. Morgenthaler explains:
"Every Monday morning Wölfli is given a new pencil and two large sheets of unprinted newsprint. The pencil is used up in two days; then he has to make do with the stubs he has saved or with whatever he can beg off someone else. He often writes with pieces only five to seven millimetres long and even with the broken-off points of lead, which he handles deftly, holding them between his fingernails. He carefully collects packing paper and any other paper he can get from the guards and patients in his area; otherwise he would run out of paper before the next Sunday night. At Christmas the house gives him a box of coloured pencils, which lasts him two or three weeks at the most."4
In Wölfli’s art the therapeutic element is forefront. It is clear that his artwork is a tool through which he copes with his existence and focuses his mind. His abstract shapes and rich musical notation serve to create an entire world of his own for him.
Henry Darger was another incredibly well known outsider artist. He was a recluse from Chicago, and after his death his landlords discovered a 15,145 page manuscript in his apartment, consisting of thousands of drawings accompanying vast text in a work entitled “The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion”. This manuscript was largely mixed media - collage and Darger’s own drawings. Like Wölfli, Darger was orphaned and institutionalised, Darger as a child in the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children. It was suggested he might have aspergers, but he was seemingly not mentally ill in any other regard. He was punished for being a “smart aleck” at school. He had a good relationship with his father and suffered after his death - Like Wölfli, Henry Darger’s artistic output followed the trauma of both being made an orphan, and of being institutionalised.
It seems obvious in both cases that these outsider artists used their art-making as a way to cope with and interpret their difficult lives. The sheer amount of work they created is astonishing. Clearly they were compelled to create, perhaps through great need to use the artistic recreation which had become a great comfort to them.
By looking at the work of outsider artists, we can apply their use of art as coping mechanism/act of self-care, to our own work as “insider artists”. Whether part of the institution/culture of art or not, do we all make art for similar reasons? I think the answer is yes. I think fundamentally art acts as a way of interpreting and communicating things present in our individual lives. Art is a tool through which we relate to ourselves and each other. I certainly know that my art-making particularly is focussed on giving my life a stability in interpretation and expression - art is a way of taking care of myself, and the spontaneity and “pure” or “raw” feeling of pre-critical children’s art-making as well as much outsider art is something I have tried to go back to with the knowledge and learned skill I have gained as an adolescent and an adult.
Having the experience and knowledge I do, however, as an art student, means I can never truly be an outsider artist, regardless of how much I might reject institutional ideals and conventions. I may take inspiration from outsider artists and children, and wish to emulate their methods and fixations, but I can never genuinely become one of them. So what does art as therapy mean when you are an insider artist? Is it fundamentally different from those who do not have institutional experience?
It could be argued that outsider artists make more “pure” forms of artwork, and more genuinely therapeutic artwork, but I think it would be more accurate to say that the experience of being within an institution either can cloud one’s ideas and expression of their art and themselves through it, or the knowledge gained therein can enhance an artist’s conscious ability to specifically pursue therapeutic frameworks within their art practice. Neither, I believe, is more genuine than the other, they just come from different places.
Noise, Mess, and Other Joys
In the 2008 documentary People Who Do Noise, the “noise” music scene is the the focus. Noise is criticized for appearing nonsensical, unstructured, and meaningless - much the same way that people criticize conceptual art for not appearing visually pleasing. Whilst I wouldn’t deny that pretentiousness appears in these scenes and styles of art-making, I think noise and many other conceptual focuses have the possibility to allow people the messy self-expression we often culturally denounce for not being adequately pleasing. Of course, this is very much “insider art” as opposed to the endless work of Wölfli and Darger, as well as thousands of unrecognised outsider artists and/or children. Sound artists making noise are doing so very deliberately. This is one of many expressions of regression, artistic spontaneity, and art as basal therapy which manifests itself in insider art - so we can see this focus or method appear both within the institution of art and outside of it.
Personally, I would explain my own approach to art as therapy by reflecting that after having struggled with a desire to be ultimately aesthetically pleasing and aesthetically skilled in my artwork, the knowledge art school afforded me brought with it a freedom of understanding my own artistic desires, which I built upon to arrive at my own semi-regressive art as therapy.
Coping With Childhood Retroactively
My biggest recent project was the “little babies” series, which is rooted in a desire to slightly relive childhood as a new adult - when asked online why I had painted all of them pink, I said:
“I wanted them to be visually uniform in colour for a greater impact and cohesion as a series/mass of paintings, and I chose pink because I have only quite recently begun to like pink. When I was a kid, pink was the ultimate symbol of everything that was constantly in my face about what I was supposed to be like as a girl, so I hated it. I was quite a gender nonconforming child, and to me pink was just the package these limiting ideas came in.
I think I wanted to take pink and use it to express myself as an adult - taking a tool for telling girls who they can and can’t be, and turning it into a tool for my individual expression and existence as a human being. I wanted to just enjoy it as a colour on its own merit. Although I guess I’m also celebrating other things which are labelled feminine - flowers and hearts and babies (nature, love, and nurture). These are not feminine or masculine. They are natural and positive qualities which we all need.
I want to rip the colour pink away from its gendered position! I feel strongly about pink!”
The little babies were a vessel to twist childhood and adulthood into one - to, after having consulted the world of onlooker approval, throw out the “how to draw” books and be a scribbling child again. Like many famous outsider artists, including Wölfli and Darger, I let my art crawl across the bedroom, taking over the wall with flapping edges and rough brushwork.
I remember my struggle through the later stages of artistic development as an older child and then as an almost-adult. At 19 I was full of the desperation to become the kind of “good at art” that everyone can recognise - artist or not - but the production demands of art school foundation broke my ruthless self-judgement and forced me to paint and draw and collage with the focus purely on increasing the amount of work made
Now I struggle with explaining myself, my ideals, my approach to art-making, within the confines of culturally “legitimate” or “accepted” art. I don’t know how to explain to people that they can just “make art” since this relaxed attitude comes after years of practice, self-deprecation, and self-examination. You cannot, seemingly, acquire comfort in art-making without first suffering through the societally imposed ideas of what art, and by extension, the artist, should be.
The Therapeutic Nature of my Own Art
My interpretation of “art as therapy” centres on the visceral joy that comes from dismissing learned conventions of art-making and embracing organic, therapeutic production. Art-making to me is an escape from cultural values, from energy-sapping cultural constructions and specific ideas of worth and legitimacy which hover over our lives as dictated responsibility and perceptions of properness. The rules of adulthood are subverted when I use art as a tool of self-care, reassurance, and love towards both myself and the immediate world around me. The often formalistic texture and method of my working parallels with nature - I feel the warm outdoors entering into my work and myself as I make it. I concentrate on my own direct emotion, captured and expressed in the bubble of a piece of artwork, tying in to nostalgia, peace, and serenity.
- Armstrong, J & de Botton, A (2013). Art as Therapy. London: Phaidon.
- Armstrong, J. (2013). What is Art For? City Journal. 23 (4).
- Chris Tianto. (2012). The Outsider Art of Adolf Wölfli. Available: http://www.cvltnation.com/the-outsider-art-of-adolf-wolfli/. Last accessed 26th Feb 2014.
- Morgenthaler, W (1921). Madness and Art: The Life and Works of Adolf Wölfli.
- Outsider Art. Available: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1388670/outsider-art. Last accessed 26th Feb 2014.
- People Who Do Noise, 2008. Film. Directed by Adam CORNELIUS. USA: Adam Cornelius Productions.
- What is Outsider Art? Available: http://www.rawvision.com/what-outsider-art. Last accessed 26th Feb 2014.