Art is not therapy. As a young artist, expressing grief and trauma through art, this is what I was told by an art teacher. In order to examine, unpack and refute this comment, this narrative exploration will define the use of art as a therapeutic tool, the differences and links between art and art therapy, storytelling from the female perspective, the rise of feminist art and female artists who use their practice to talk about trauma and grief.
When I was told by an art teacher that “art is not therapy” and that I should not bring my grief to art school, I felt ashamed that I had been caught out, that my grief was pouring into my work and consuming everything I did. I felt ashamed that my art had become a narrative about my grief. Upon the advice of my teacher, I tried to remove my grief from my art, to remove myself from my art and to remove myself from my grief. But I began to wonder, if my art lacks my narrative, my autobiographical experience, what am I actually trying to say? Who am I and what is my own personal value in this world if not to speak my truth? Am I at art school to learn to paint cats? What use is art school if one cannot learn about the techniques of art making as well as how to express their individualism? Should art be void of therapeutic value for the artist? Weller (2017) has a similar view on professional practice vs art for therapeutic value.
Therapy is good. Art is good. Both are good together, and being creative has therapeutic value, but art is not therapy. Imagine a carpenter on a rooftop in the summer, hammering away and someone yells, “Hey, you have a great job! That’s great therapy you’re getting!” Yes, he is getting exercise and he’s out in the sun, but likely he never thought his job was therapeutic. The current growing stereotype is that the arts are therapy, one in the same. It’s an argument used by artists themselves to defend the arts, used because it’s assumed that it is easier for the public to relate to, but likely it’s causing more harm than good. (Weller 2017)
In one statement by one teacher, I felt that my art practice had been delegitimized and devalued. My practice went from being an attempt to grow into a professional with skills and a very loud voice, to a mere student seeking therapy with no professional value. In this moment, my grief became my enemy.
Grief has a tremendous relationship to love. We all grieve. We all try to find stillness in the midst of chaos. Grief is unrelenting and unforgiving, and it never really goes away, it recedes gently without us even realizing and washes back in like the ocean’s tide. The legacy of loss is one we all feel. We don’t move on from grief, it is not something we process and get over. However, we do learn ways to cope with our grief and move forward with it. We find ways to pass the days, to get through those overwhelming moments, and we all do it differently. In the end, we are all trying to reach the same goal; to be healed and to be free from sorrow.
It seems to me, that if we love, we grieve. That’s the deal. That’s the pact. Grief and love are forever intertwined. Grief is the terrible reminder of the depths of our love and, like love, grief is non-negotiable. There is a vastness to grief that overwhelms our minuscule selves. We are tiny, trembling clusters of atoms subsumed within grief’s awesome presence. (Cave 2018)
Suffering is not beautiful. It can take you to a place where death feels like a welcome escape and there’s nothing beautiful about that. Suffering is about realness. A real place in a real body where you face the other side of life and living. Grief is uncomfortable and nobody really knows how to navigate it.
I feel kindred with fellow sufferers, not because they suffer, and not because of some absurd vortex of victimhood camaraderie, and not because sufferers are in a state of grace, but because they go on, they endure. And because sometimes, the sufferer reinvents themself — and this kind of reinvention is what misfits are so good at. Misfits not only know a great deal about alternate and varied definitions of suffering, but misfits are also capable of alchemizing suffering, changing the energy from one form to another. (Yuknavitch 2017)
The other side of suffering is the possibility of self-expression and creativity.
Art connects people. To say that art is separated from its creator is to say that the mind and spirit are removed from the body. Even in the most unsuspecting manners, the artist is always present. Most artists want their work to be experienced, related to and understood by as many people as possible. It is in our nature, as humans, to seek out connections with others. Art is the link between the beauty of fantasy and the ugliness of reality, and it can contain both, it can contain sorrow and hope, pleasure and pain, hatred and love.
Art is where I go to release my shame and hang it on the walls. I am not the only person who experiences suffering, grief or loss. But I am willing to stand up and tell my stories out loud. To admit that I carry profound suffering and grief. It is a part of me. It is my truth.
Frida Kahlo painted her life and her experiences, both internal and external. She was left bed ridden after a bus accident in 1925. The accident changed her life forever and left her with serious injuries, both psychologically and physically. Her parents encouraged her to paint by setting up a custom-made easel for her so she could paint in bed. To alleviate the pain and to keep her mind occupied, she began painting and finished her first self-portrait the following year. Over subsequent years, Kahlo suffered multiple miscarriages, extreme chronic pain and fatigue, and endured 32 surgeries.
Since my subjects have always been my sensations, my states of mind and the profound reactions that life has been producing in me, I have frequently objectified all this in figures of myself, which were the most sincere and real thing that I could do in order to express what I felt inside and outside of myself. (Kahlo ND)
“Henry Ford hospital” is a depiction of what Kahlo experienced during a painful and traumatic miscarriage in 1932. The surrealist painting is filled with symbolic imagery which directly deals with the grief and trauma Kahlo experienced. The painting shows Kahlo lying naked on a blood soaked bed, holding 6 ribbons to her stomach. Each ribbon is attached to an object that floats around the bed. The symbolic images include a male fetus, an orchid which looks like an uterus, a snail which represents the slowness of the operation she endured and parts of the human body. Kahlo’s struggles with fertility and her physical and emotional pain are common themes in her surrealist style work.
In the late 1960’s, women began to push back against the male dominated contemporary art world, to change the art canon’s legacy and to intervene on the systematic oppression, erasure and indifference towards women throughout art history. A new art movement in art was born of the female perspective. The feminist art movement sought to rewrite falsely male-dominated art history, to write women into art history and change the way in which women are viewed through the eyes of the male in art. Feminism gave women a voice, to speak their truths, to be the subject instead of the object and to determine what the female body is used for in art. Women went from being the desired, the nude, the object, to legitimizing and talking about their lived experiences, their sexuality, their traumas, their grief and the taboo.
Louise Bourgeois’ works were obsessive, haunting and visceral, disturbing yet beautiful. She spent her long career exploring a variety of mediums including sculpture, drawing and printmaking. Her work contains recurring themes of domesticity, family, sexuality, body, death and the subconscious. She claimed these themes connected to events from her childhood years and stated that she considered her art to be a therapeutic process. Bourgeois was devastated by her domineering father’s 10-year affair with her English tutor and used artmaking as a form of catharsis for dealing with her feelings of animosity, bitterness and grief around this part of her life. In her sculptural installation “Destruction of the Father” Bourgeois described the narrative of this piece;
“The children grabbed him [the father] and put him on the table. And he became the food. They took him apart, dismembered him. Ate him up. And so he was liquidated…the same way he liquidated his children. The sculpture represents both a table and a bed.” (Bourgeois in Bergstrom-Katz 2008)
Tracey Emin is a controversial feminist artist who openly talks about things many would find difficult to hear, relate to or discuss. Emin’s courageous persistence and her ability to put herself into vulnerable positions means that her art has not always been taken seriously and has been criticised and ridiculed by the press and the public. Emin uses her life events as inspiration for her work by making autobiographical art about taboos such as rape, abortion, losing self-respect, bullying and suicide. Emin’s work can be described as naïve, juvenile and unrefined. But her evocative work has enormous power over her viewers. Emin confronts the traumas of her past, by using uncomfortable titles like ‘They held me down while he fucked me’ and ‘The abortion waiting room.’ It is clear that she is not afraid to reference both her rape or botched abortion. Emin’s works are often brutal and she creates an honest and disturbing portrait of female pain. Emin (2019) states
I talk about my life and my experiences because I know for an absolute fact that it’s helping some 16 year old girl, or some 14 year old girl, who went through the same experiences as me. And I think for a long time I’ve been misunderstood. People have been willing to bully me and deride me because they didn’t want to take on the issues that I was talking about. (Emin 2019)
Art therapy is based on the concept that self-expression and exploration can have therapeutic significance for people who are seeking a deeper understanding of themselves, their personality traits and their fundamental beliefs. By employing a range of techniques such as drawing, painting, collage and sculpting, art therapy can be useful in helping people express their trauma. Self-expression through art helps to examine the psychological and emotional undertones a person may be experiencing. Art therapists are trained to ‘decode’ the nonverbal messages, symbols, and metaphors in their client’s art. When a person experiences a traumatic event, their memory may be affected in numerous ways, including the ability to recall memories of previous events, memories of the event, subsequent events, or their thoughts in general. Traumatic memories are often suppressed and difficult to access, therefore, creating art may be an effective way to access them. Through art therapy, survivors of trauma may be able to make sense of their experiences, creating accurate trauma narratives and aiding the healing process. Art therapy may alleviate trauma-induced responses such as anger and shame. Trauma survivors have a higher chance of achieving feelings of empowerment, self-fulfilment and validation through the guided use of art as therapy.
In her research essay, Chocolate or shit aesthetics and cultural poverty in art therapy with children (1998), Felicity Aldridge compares and contrasts the art of traumatized children with established famous artists. Aldridge examines the similarities between the work of Rachel Whiteread, Gilbert and George, Cindy Sherman, Helen Chadwick and others, comparing it to the similar imagary and themes in the children’s art. The common threads include expressions of trauma, neglect, abuse, assault, emptiness, disgust and horror. Aldridge concludes that art therapy for her child clients resulted in their images of poo, blood, dirt etc became transformed through therapy into objects of love and nourishment, such as chocolate. Aldridge states
Both the artists and the children are making societal taboos beautiful and acceptable so that they can be discussed openly. The taboos of society: sexual and physical abuse, neglect, no food, family secrets, domestic violence, being dirty, death, loss, going into local authority care are still very difficult to put into words. Society would rather not hear about these issues. To be discussed, they need to be transformed so that the powerful feelings they engender can be borne. Art allows the feelings to be transformed. The children were able to fill themselves with the beauty of their art objects so the space inside was not so empty and did not hurt quite so much. Artists are bringing the same issues to the attention of society so that they can be further discussed. Things that have remained secret for many years are now coming to light. The inside of our lives is now becoming the outside. (Aldridge 1998)
Because of my willingness to speak about the taboo, my voice has often been met with resistance, exclusion and oppression, fuelling my desire to openly talk about these experiences. I find myself in good company amongst artists like Kahlo, Bourgeois and Emin; woman who have clearly benefited from the therapeutic value of art making and who are well recognised for their artistic practices. The secondary benefit of therapeutic catharsis does not lessen the value of their works.
I am a griever. Creativity has always coalesced with my grief.
Through art, my traumas are processed, and I learn to live wholeheartedly in new ways and states of mind. This is the narrative of my life and my art, and I’ll never be the person drawing cats. Creative grieving is not about seeking closure or moving on or getting over it. It is about creating connections and learning how to stay connected. My creative expression is based around grief and trauma healing and as long as I love, I will grieve and as long as I grieve, I will create.
- Aldridge F. 1998, Chocolate or shit aesthetics and cultural poverty in art therapy with children, Inscape, 3:1, 2-9, DOI: 10.1080/17454839808413053, Taylor and Francis online, accessed 14/06/19, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17454839808413053?journalCode=rart19
- Bergstrom-Katz S. 2008, In Focus: The Destruction of the Father (1974), Artslant website, accessed 14/06/19, https://www.artslant.com/la/articles/show/2711-in-focus-the-destruction-of-the-father-1974
- Cave N. 2018, The Red Hand Files, ISSUE #6, The Red Hand Files website, accessed 14/06/19, https://www.theredhandfiles.com/communication-dream-feeling/
- Emin T. 2019, Tracey Emin: A Fortnight of Tears White Cube Bermondsey, Wia website, accessed 15/06/19, http://wearewia.com/tracey-emin-a-fortnight-of-tears-white-cube-bermondsey/
- Kahlo F. Frida Kahlo Biography, Frida Kahlo website, accessed 14/06/19, https://www.fridakahlo.org/frida-kahlo-biography.jsp
- Weller D. 2017, Art is Not Therapy, blog post, Nov 2017, accessed 16/06/19, http://duncanweller1.blogspot.com/2017/11/art-is-not-therapy.html
- Yuknavitch L. 2017, It’s a myth that suffering makes you stronger, TED website, accessed 12/06/19, https://ideas.ted.com/its-a-myth-that-suffering-makes-you-stronger/