Art helps us better understand ourselves, our deepest emotions, and in that sense, is a form of therapy

One of the first things we do when the kid starts tasting everything around is to thrust a set of crayons into its hand. We believe drawing is good, keeps the kid calm and cheerful. When he’s cranky, we divert him with pictures of trees, blossoms, birds — the outdoors. Can art — viewed or practised — bring about behavioural change?

Yes, says Alain de Botton (co-author: James Armstrong) in his book Art As Therapy. Art should be viewed as a tool to find solutions to difficult issues in life, he argues. When we talk airily of ‘art for art’s sake’ we hold back its potential to heal. Look at great art for its hidden emotions. Art is not about history or technique, but about the relationship, the emotional bond, between the viewer and the work. We should not be embarrassed about expressing our feeling towards a piece of art. When museums give you precise information about great works of art (date / dimensions / bought-and-sold), they miss the point of what art is all about, he says.

Take the painting Spring (Fruit Trees In Bloom) by Claude Monet. It is serene, joyous, peaceful — satisfying like siesta. This is how Monet would have wanted us to respond. You can see art as a laundry-chute to throw out excess of emotion, or as a bridge that connects us to others in empathy. Either way, art helps us better understand ourselves, our deepest emotions, and in that sense, is a form of therapy.

“Art makes you an admirer of life,” believes artist Ilango. What is seen / felt through the eyes is pulled inside, and a silent movie, a slide-show, is created. And then art takes you to that point where the activity of creation is pure joy. “It is possible to touch deeper states of being through art, of restfulness, peace and anandha (bliss),” says Srivi Kalyan, art teacher. She says she encourages people to observe themselves and Nature closely, deepening their awareness from within. Then art becomes a tool as well as a tangible and thoughtful friend.

More than just one feeling, art expands and deepens children’s capacity to feel every emotion in a more nuanced way, she says. “The depth of joy I have seen has resembled a tumbling waterfall sometimes, a quiet pond at others. Art creates the space for a wealth of feeling, both conscious and subconscious.”

The themes one chooses to paint or create can have an impact on the nature of one’s happiness, she says. But more than the subject matter, it is the process of creating itself that is the art. “I have seen children so focussed in their work that just a tiny flick of their finger would give away the depth of joy they are feeling, while others have screamed loud, laughed and run around, sometimes all the way out of the classroom to express feelings they are overcome by.”

Practise art when feeling depressed, she recommends, but don’t be judgemental about what you create. Healing happens only when we let art move through us, taking the grief, moulding it, giving it form, then dissolving it. “I would call it compassionate practice of art.” It teaches us how to find happiness, both in creation and observation.

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Psychological functions of art

(from Art As Therapy)

Remembering: When we see Vermeer’s Woman In Blue Reading A Letter (1663), we get to know what is important about her. Art is a way of preserving experiences.

Hope: The dancers in Matisse’s painting put us in touch with a blithe, carefree part of ourselves that can help us cope with inevitable rejections and humiliations. It is a rare occasion when life satisfies us.

Sorrow: Art can transform suffering into beauty. When sorrow meets art, we feel less alone in our suffering.

Rebalancing: We may have a tendency to be too complacent, too insecure, too trusting, too suspicious, too light-hearted. Art can balance this, by restoring the missing disposition. We call a work beautiful when it supplies the virtues we are missing.

Self-understanding: When we respond to art, our half-formed thoughts are taken up, edited, and returned to us better than it was before, so that we feel we know ourselves more clearly. The art with which we surround ourselves publicly is a language of communication, self-packaging we practise as much on the walls of our homes as we do on social networking sites.

Growth: When we come across views radically different from our own, we overcome our chronic fear of the unfamiliar, and accept the unknown.

Appreciation: Jasper Johns’ Painted Bronze (1960) nudges us to look at a mundane and familiar object with new eyes. It teaches us to look with kinder and more alert eyes at the world around us.

Healing happens When we let art move through us