Art and Emotions

A piece of art is often described as making one feel a certain way. At times, observing the dark and suffocating colours of Rothko’s Red on Maroon makes me feel sad and morose, as if I am being swallowed up by the canvas. Or, on a different day, looking at Mary Cassatt’s Mother and Child makes me feel sentimental as I pondered my relationship with my own family. But what if, instead of looking for emotions brought about by looking at an artwork, one approached it with a feeling that needs attending to? Emotions play a key role in viewing an artwork. Usually, this discussion focuses on the viewers response to the artwork that is in front of them. In other words, what the artwork makes that person feel. The art comes first, the emotions second. But what if this was reversed? Emotions come first, the artwork second. How exactly would this benefit us?

Mark Rothko, Red on Maroon, 1959, Tate Galleries, London. Source: Creative Commons.

Several studies have proved that art museums are therapeutic environments and provide a range of health benefits, including lowering stress levels, a feeling of social inclusion and an improvement in one’s sense of self-worth. Such studies also show that museum and gallery settings are ideal locations for self-reflection, which is critical to a transformative and meaningful progression in life. Put simply, art provides us with a deeper personal, spiritual and emotional purpose. In fact, the practice of art therapy is a well-recognised tool for such a purpose. It gives the individual a safe space in which to express their feelings in a creative way and helps to regulate turbulent and troubling emotions. Rather like writing a journal, art therapy can improve one’s self-awareness and understanding. The American Art Therapy Association defines the practice as a “profession that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through active-art making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience…” Creating art gives people a new voice.

“Art can do the opposite of glamourising the unattainable; it can reawaken us to the genuine merit of life as we’re forced to lead it.”

Alain de Botton and John Armstrong, ‘Art as Therapy’, 2013 (p56)

Sometimes art can spark feelings of happiness that ignite fond memories of one’s experiences. Art can also serve as a well for our negative emotions, showing us that we are not alone in our troubles. Art is not only a regulator for turbulent times, it can also act as a reminder of what should be common themes in our society. The joy that we feel towards a particular painting, for instance, should remind us to feel the same towards others in our daily activities. This is explored in Alain de Botton and John Armstrong’s 2013 book, Art as Therapy. The authors propose a new kind of art institution that, instead of dividing artworks according to period or theme, museums instead allocate works to rooms titled with commonly experienced human emotions, such as ‘Gallery for when You are Happy’. For Botton and Armstrong, art can “correct or compensate for a range of psychological frailties.” (p57). In their imagined gallery, individuals could visit a particular room that suits their unique set of emotional needs.

Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child (The Oval Mirror), 1898, oil on canvas, 81.6cm x 65.7cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Despite the rippling implications of the Covid-19 pandemic and second lockdown recently in place, museums and galleries appear determined to maintain some sense of normality, with exhibitions being cancelled and collections moving online. But is this a radical enough change? Should this uncertain period not be used to explore more ‘unorthodox’ practices that could provide respite for the population? Botton and Armstrong challenge societal norms and push the boundaries of art criticism. Their words push the constraints of art historical teachings into the world of the public. Maybe their vision could be the next big step the art world needs to take.

If the arts are to continue to thrive it is time we question their role in our society and remove the separation between museum and daily life, art history and individuals. We must work on ways to encourage the public to take the lessons that art teaches us outside of the museum space and into our everyday lives where we can reap their benefits. In order for this to happen, however, the critical link between art and our emotions must be fully recognised.

Want to read more? , 2017, American Art Therapy Association

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