Friday, November 26, 2010

Art Therapy and Art Not Therapy

Spent the night last night mostly in a turmoil. Personal fears, medical fears, the uncertainty of the future. Not knowing anything more than I do now about outcomes. Some part of you always wants to control what can't really be controlled, or even known. Wants to put a reconciling face on chaos. Wants to find predictability as comforting security where there is none.

Life's too unpredictable. I'm worried about things in the future, while I could die today in an accident. You never know. Every little setback seems magnified to giant proportions in the face of my recurrent fears about my own future.

You don't know what's going to happen. You really only have mastery over today. The rest of it, no matter how upset we make ourselves over worrying about it, isn't really in our power to control, no matter how dire, no matter how graceful. Faith and trust come into play at just such moments. I don't hope for anything. Hope is a toxic word that lets you build castles of expectations in the sky, which are doomed to crash on the mountains of inchoate reality. Faith is the irrational belief, sometimes supported by experience, that no matter what happens, you'll be all right in the end. Trust is the irrational sense that things do mean something, after all, even if you don't know what, and never do. That things mean something, that there is a point to all this random suffering, that somehow it does all mean something. Even if the only meaning to life you can ever grasp is the meaning you make for yourself, the meaning you invest in whatever seems random and meaningless.

I only mention any of my personal dilemmas because it leads to a discussion of art and therapy.

I hope, no doubt about to be disappointed, that art-making is not only therapeutic. Certainly making art can be therapeutic. "Art therapy" as a practical psychological discipline has a long history, and has helped many people. But there's more to art than therapy.

I grew up being taught by my birth-tribe (the Norwegian-American Lutherans) that expressing any strong emotion, much less anger, was forbidden. Even expressing too much joy was looked down on as aberrant. The ideal man was laconic and stoic. But I was always a passionate person, with very strong feelings, who had a problem with conforming to those expectations. I bottled a lot of anger in my youth, which came out very badly. When pushed too far, I lashed out far in excess of provocation. I scared myself with the intensity of my own emotions, which led to a renewed cycle of suppression.

As an adult, I learned and now still believe that expressing strong feelings directly is not only good, it's healthy and necessary, and can be done in appropriate ways. There are appropriate ways to express anger, and inappropriate ways. Most people, it seems to me, get tangled up about how to express their feelings, not whether they have them or not. Many people have a lot more emotions than they think they do, because they live in their heads, disconnected from their soma, living life virtually rather than immersed in it.

The stoic and laconic archetypal hero is sometimes afraid of his own feelings; he might be able to kill the monster with dispatch, but he has a hard time saying "I love you." The entire genre of popular "action" movies can be framed as artistically-sublimated male rage, in which blowing things up and cracking wise are deflective substitutes for genuine personal expression of one's feelings. Far easier to watch someone else fight the battles onscreen that you are fighting internally; it's supportive of one's fragile ego, attacked on all sides by life, to see the hero win the battle onscreen, when you feel like you're losing it in real life.

I learned through hard personal work to express my anger in the moment, and then it's done. I have ways to do so that don't cause problems. Many of my friends have mutual understandings and agreements about venting. Sometimes you just have to vent, to get it out of your self, and blow off some steam. Blowing off steam, reducing the internal pressure, keeps you from blowing up, later, more forcefully, and more inappropriately.

Of course one can do this with one's art, and I occasionally do so. I write the occasional poem that is nothing but emotional dumping. I write the occasional piece of music that expresses strong emotion artistically.

But I'd hate to think that art-making was only therapeutic. And in fact I don't think that for even one minute.

I have no problem with the occasional poem being used for deflecting anger, or blowing off steam, such as my own (controversial) poem "Kenosis." But I don't think it's something one can build an entire poetics on, no more than one could build on any other form of purely therapeutic behavior. Of course, that is exactly what many who practice the poetics of the post-confessional lyric believe that poetry's major function is: therapeutic. But this turns poetry into just another tool of (therapeutic) self-expression, and that narrows and limits poetry's scope unnecessarily.

Poetry must express all of the conditions and experiences of life, even beyond just human life, or it becomes too simplistic, even reductionist. Art must joyfully praise as well as be a source of solace. I think Robert Lowell, the poet most associated with the origins of confessional poetry, was unable to make this leap out of pure self-expression; although I think Philip Larkin started from a similarly splenetic place, he occasionally did make the leap past the purely confessional into something more universal. I'm not a big fan of Larkin, I find him generally too dour and misanthropic, but I do appreciate his ability to take nasty bits of life and make art from them. By contrast, I view Robinson Jeffers as not misanthropic, but focused, rather, beyond the human drama, onto a larger canvas, in which human drama plays a part, but not the central, most important role. Confessional poetry leads all to quickly to narcissistic mannerisms, whereas the poetry of Jeffers—and of some who followed in his footsteps, like Gary Snyder—leads us towards transcending the human tendency towards self-regard with the knowledge that we are part of a larger world, and not always the most important part.

There are some performance artists who, in using themselves, their own bodies, as part of their artistic process, who speak of stepping out of themselves into a kind of trance, or other transcendent state. When you watch one of their performances, when they are totally engaged with what they're doing, it becomes almost ritualistic. Is it therapeutic? I think for some performance artists, it's like shape-changing: changing the self. For others, I think they never get out of their heads, really; they sort of distance themselves from life by enacting their art. I think artists who live in their heads can be found in every genre. The psychology of this is interesting.

I've heard it said, since we're on to psychology now, that sociopaths are never creative. I think that's wrong. I think it comes from some wrong definitions, although that may be open to discussion.

Sociopaths are a specific kind of personality trait and set of behaviors. It's not yet known if there's an organic component; there may be, but childhood environment also contributes. I've known a few sociopaths in my time; one of these was my paternal grandmother. To a sociopath, other people are not really real. Sociopaths know that it's not right to hurt other people, they know that their actions have consequences, but they can't perceive other people as being as real as they are themselves, so they often hurt others without realizing it. It's not always malicious, but it can be manipulative in the extreme. To sociopaths, only their own emotions and needs are real; other people aren't perceived as having similarly authentic feelings. A sociopath is perfectly capable of being creative, and more than one artist-sociopath has become famous or considered a great artist. What sociopaths seem incapable of feeling is empathy, even sympathy, for others, and unable to really understand others' feelings and needs. A sociopath still knows right from wrong, however, which is something a genuine psychopath cannot understand. It's a matter of degrees.

Art can be a way of enabling empathy. It can be political, which often evokes little more than the empathy of mutual revulsion, it can be personal within the larger context of being social, which to me seems more nuanced, more capable of making connections. If you ask artists what they're to do, they might discuss their politics, or their craft (technique), or what they're trying to do in a social or theoretical context. But artists can't be entirely trusted to reveal themselves, or their core selves, in anything but their art. A lot of art criticism by artists is about hiding the self, rather than revealing it. Even the poet of total honesty and self-celebration, Walt Whitman, edited and censored himself, when talking about his poetry. Artist often have large egos, and both painters and performance artists can be notoriously self-involved. It's not just ego, though: it can be using one's own self as raw material for exploring larger meanings. You start with the self, but you end up in a larger space. Except for course, for some artists, their process stays stuck in self-regard: and that can end up as therapy-art, confessional art, and never reach transcendence. Is that egotistical confessionalism? Sometimes, perhaps, it ends up there.

If you surmise that I'm biased towards transcending the personal self, say rather that I think it's a greater life-goal, not just an artistic goal. Art reflects life, which reflects art, and so on. I'm more interested in art that goes beyond: beyond my own limits, and conceptions; beyond the ego, beyond self-representation, beyond involvement with the self. If that's transcendence, well and good.

The bottom line is that confessional art just isn't very interesting to anyone but the artist, if it doesn't somehow get past the personal and into the universal. The ego tends to love itself so much that it can't see past the mirrors it has set up around itself to regard itself in.

That would be an interesting performance art project: to have an artist, naked, stuck inside an eggshell-shaped container made of mirrors, which she would have to break to get out of. Until then, all she could see would be herself. Breaking through to the outside world might involve cutting oneself by accident on the mirrors. (Just like my own nighttime worries about my future.) A little blood might be shed before she could escape into the outside world—which might be like being born.

But once you realize, with your greater self, that there is much more to both your self and the world than the ego, or the personality-ego, you start to see a bigger picture. You start to have faith, perhaps even trust, that something more than yourself is out there, and is worth paying attention. Artistic self-regard might open up into artistic splendor. This is harder than it seems, as the personality-ego is tenacious: even nature poets have a tendency to simply use nature, as a set of images or events, as a reflection of self. The worst kinds of political poetry, the bathetic "I feel your pain" political poetry that tries to generate empathy through associating lists of atrocities with one's personal dramas, never get past self-regard, because the only person the poet can really see is the one in the mirror. It is a laudable attempt to generate or recreate empathy. But it's not genuine. It gets stuck in the mirror.

Breaking the mirror is possible, though. The best political poets recreate the experience of empathy in the reader, and in themselves, not with mirror-tricks but with simple reportage. Whitman's poems of long lists manage, through sheer accumulation, to pull the reader in by direct connection. The best poets who sometimes get labeled nature poets give us an experience of true empathy, by evoking life directly: by giving us what the hawk feels, soaring on the wind, rather than telling us what the soaring hawk makes the poet feel, which we ought to feel as well. The simplistic, clichéd workshop formulation for this evocation in poetry is "show, don't tell." I would rephrase it as "evoke." Get me inside the experience. I am become the deer nibbling the sedge in the mountain glade. I am become the world turning slowly. This requires imagination, not only narration. In fact, the best "nature poems" often have a sense of time that is eternal, timeless, not bound to linear progression, the Now in which most animals live. Do wolves spend sleepless nights, as I do, worrying about their futures? No. The wolf rules for life are ever more useful to me as a role-model.

Art can be therapeutic, in this sense, too: that it takes us out of ourselves, away from our petty concerns, for even a little while. It can be a brief vacation. That's perfectly valid, although again it's not all that art is, or can be. It's okay to take a break, though. Which is why "escapist art" like occasionally reading your average blandly-styled beach thriller novel is nothing to feel guilty about. You can't survive on a diet of only "art" literature; a little trash fiction, or doggerel, is good for the digestion. I sometimes go back and re-read a well-thumbed favorite SF novel just to have a break from myself and my daily life.

But art cannot be limited to the therapeutic purposes, the relief of psychological pressures, anxieties, or needs. It must be more than that. Just as with my domineering birth tribe, the Norwegian-American Lutherans of the Upper Midwest, just as with my passionate later-life rebellion against those social constraints, art can container joy as well as sorrow, ecstasy as well as suffering. The rebellious boy who feels so much joy at being alive that he can't contain it, it will certainly blow his heart right out of his chest at any moment—that's a feeling that can come from great art, too, no matter what it's theme or subject matter might be. Art is a container. Not just for what's judged valuable, but for everything.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I can’t agree that confessional art is only interesting to the individual and doesn’t touch on the universal. Emotions are universal. The poet may be talking about themselves but I have no real idea what was going on in their heads when they wrote it; I have only have the residual words to ponder and make something of. Every poem I read becomes mine, or at least gets tried on for size. I personally find a lot of ‘universal poetry’ boring because it’s too abstract; it’s not a good fit. It’s horses for courses. You’re allowed to like what you like and so am I. Evoking is like everything else, if I’m not in tune with the writer then I’m not going to be evoked no matter how well-intentioned he is.

8:04 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Those are valid points. Emotions are indeed universal, as are many other aspects of the human experience. In art, I agree, the personal can become the universal, which is how art can connect people together.

At the same time, I base my judgment on reading a lot of poetry, a lot of post-confessional lyric poetry, and a lot of it really IS narcissistic and shallow and uninteresting. it doesn't stick in my mind.

As a reader, I find that NOT every poem DOES become mine. And it's not just about whether or not this particular poem was able to evoke a response in me, the reader. Of course, in some cases, that is an important, as you say, but not always. I always check to see if that's the intention, or seems to be, on the part of the poet. I think a lot of lyric does carry this intention, and so the failure to connect is either mine, or the poet's.

In some instances, contemporary lyric poets are trying hard to be populist—Billy Collins, Ted Kooser, for example—and they end up writing a lowest-common-denominator kind of poetry that also doesn't evoke anything for me.

There's a lot of poetry that refuses to let me, the reader, inside itself. It wants to stand back a ways, and not get too close to the reader. I find a lot of contemporary neo-formalist poetry, and LangPo, to be equally standoffish. And some of these poets, in their critical writings, go so far as to say that they WANT to create that effect of standing off from the reader. And a lot of this poetry gets overpraised, merely because it's "difficult." Not because it's any good, but because it makes you work.

11:11 AM  

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