Keeping it real
I was in a lecture given by a well-known contemporary artist, who’s name I shall withhold. He was giving a slide presentation of works by another well-known artist of another era, Pierre Bonnard. I barely remember the lecture, except for a few minutes that will forever be etched in my mind. The artist put a slide up of a painting of a nude woman in a room, and draped on some furniture was a red robe. He remarked, rather definitively, that the red robe represented her menses.
It was the late 80’s and I was living in Brooklyn after graduating from college with a BA in studio art. I was working in a gallery in SoHo and painting. At that time, I was doing what I thought I was supposed to be doing with a degree in art, but I wasn’t particularly happy about it. It was all slick and hype, and having a behind-the-scenes view just made it all worse. It just felt icky. But back to that lecture!
After he said that about the red robe I felt like I was in a film, or having a bad dream. I felt like there was a spotlight on me, and anyone who looked would see a young woman…enraged. I was incensed, but too much so to raise my hand and challenge this super star artist. It was a turning point for me, and one of the many pauses along the path that have lead me to become an Expressive Arts Therapist Why? In that moment, that painting was utterly defiled. I know many people have many opinions about art, and that’s not what I’m challenging. An opinion, feeling, or a take on something is a natural part of expressing our personality, individuality, and preference. However, being so sure of what an artist painted and why, without hearing it from the artist? That’s disrespectful to the art and the artist, and unfair to the viewer.
It takes away the process of meaning making for the viewer.
It interferes with the experience of really seeing and feeling the art.
It reduces the art to a single meaning, which is simply absurd.
In the field of Expressive Arts Therapy we believe that both the process of creating and viewing what is created is sacred. Not in a religious way, but in terms of reverence. What is created has deep meaning to the creator and in sharing that meaning the Expressive Arts Therapist offers an openness, safety, curiosity, and wonder. We don’t interpret the art, but continue the process in the sharing of the experience and the outcome.
Sharing the experience of creating, whether it’s a visual piece, a poem, or movement is like telling a story about the self. It brings to mind the storytelling that humans have been doing for thousands of years. This is how we learn about each other, our culture, and ourselves. The therapist is a present and attuned witness to the client. In turn, the client can feel the creative and psychological freedom to be in the expressive and creative process.
That artist super star from the 80’s may have been well served to explore his interpretation of that painting. I would love to go back in time and ask him about it. Until they invent time travel, I can go back in time to my younger-self and give her a pat on the back: “Thank you for noticing all that weird crap in the art scene (and other scenes) in 80’s. Thank you for not being swayed by the hypocrisy on Spring St. Thank you for wanting to get out the hell out of dodge. And thank you for being able to question absurdity. Look what we get to do now!”
Want to know more about how to bring the arts into your practice and your life? Check out our current CE workshops!
A Sensory Experience: Visit an art museum, or go to a poetry slam or concert, or a dance performance. Whatever you do, bring all your senses.
Bring a journal if you’d like and jot down how you’re experiencing the art.
How does it make you feel?
What images come to mind?
Do any memories come to the surface?
How are you being touched, inspired, disgusted by the art?
Don’t question or edit the feelings, thoughts, and ideas that come up, even if they seem odd, or not what your friend is saying. You get to experience art however you need to.