The way that the world understands art has transformed over the centuries, just as art understands – and challenges – the world. It has driven revolutions, inspired the masses, rejected ideologies and created new ones. Through hardships and golden ages, through good and evil, art has played a significant role in shaping and reshaping societies. Its connection with the spiritual and the metaphysical is as integral to a people as the philosophies which guides its beliefs, immortalizing legacies and providing a portal to and direct personification of other planes.[i] Because art functions as a mirror and true revealer and penetrates beyond the surface to open up deeper realms of thought, energy, and emotion, it is not only a universal healer on a personal level but on a social and cultural one as well. Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth When journalist Bill Moyers embarked on an extensive series of interviews with prodigal thinker Joseph Campbell, the Western world was captivated. Campbell combined ancient principles with modern allegories like the cycle of the archetypal hero, comparing ancient Greek heroes to pop culture icons like the protagonists from Star Wars. While Campbell’s astute observations and poignant interpretations and commentaries are plentiful, perhaps one of the most insightful revelations to come from the thinker is his discussion on modern society’s need for myth.[ii] He argues that “One of our problems today is that we are not well acquainted with the literature of the spirit. We’re interested in the news of the day and the problems of the hour… When you get to be older, and the concerns of the day have all been attended to, and you turn to the inner life — well, if you don’t know where it is or what it is, you’ll be sorry.” Campbell goes on to reason that without myth, not only does society lose a sense of self, but cultures and countercultures in turn create their own mythologies; graffiti culture is one example of this. The absence of occidental tradition – taking stories of the ancient world out of schools in the West – is just a small part of the problems which remain ongoing in our world. Cuts to the liberal arts and re-establishment of educational institutions as assembly lines for productivity in the industrial and commercial field have made the arts increasingly difficult to access – and we have seen the mark this leaves on society. Cultivating thinkers and people who can help to nurture a world which thinks logically and compassionately is a core component of the arts, mythology, and spirituality – and exactly what the Dalai Lama means when he states that “The world does not need more successful people. The world desperately needs more peacemakers and healers, restorers and storytellers and lovers of all kinds.” [iii] An Eternal Healer Part of the greatness of art is that it can connect to us spiritually even for agnostics, atheists, and other people with secular sentiments, but still resonate with spiritual dimensions. A grandiose and heavenly piece of music by Bach, an architectural wonder like Borobudur, or a striking masterpiece by Picasso possesses incredible power – a power which the shamans and priests of ancient people have harnessed throughout the ages in their art. Art is what connects us to our inner selves as well as the divine, as infinitely intertwined with the sacred as it is with the profane, two extremes expressed like in The Divine Comedy by Dante.[iv] But the absence of art can be detrimental – and as a society, it is this absence which continues to distract and deter individuals and cultures alike. Practices such as art therapy, for instance, are used to encourage the integral connection between the self and expression on both a personal and cultural level. As well as helping to treat people suffering from PTSD and social trauma – such as exploited minorities – it can also be an effective tool against addiction where individuals can seek sanctuary through an expression which is not confined by words, but liberated by feelings and impressions.[v] This practice has reinforced art’s function within a contemporary society, stressing its ability to connect and to heal. People who have successfully recovered through the power of art have commented on improved quality of life, while others have found fulfillment in the absence of the false sense of being that their previous addictions gave them.[vi] This has caused a new movement to surge in which art’s function is effectively re-established on a large social scale, documented appropriately by the medium of exhibits themselves like Alain de Botton’s Art Is Therapy.[vii] Perhaps a greater connection – or reconnection – with art would likely turn us away from the escapes of contemporary life which we see in addiction and distraction such as consumerism and substance abuse, as well as reconnect us with what truly counts. It is art which binds us to mythologies and opens up new realms and places of being, which gives us mediums through which to interpret our experiences, and becomes an experience in and of itself. Art’s ability to heal – whether it is intellectually, emotionally, physically, or spiritually – is one of its many wonders which we should never, ever take for granted, and which in this tumultuous day and age, we need more than ever – because it is perhaps more “real” than the world we witness around us.
[i] LifeForceArts.org. “Tag: Mythology”. Accessed March 24, 2014. http://www.lifeforcearts.org/site/component/tag/mythology
[ii] Jungland.net. “Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers: The Power of Myth”. Accessed March 24, 2014. http://jungland.net/Library/CampMoye.htm#1
[iii] My-beautiful-words.blogspot.co.uk. “Lovers of all Kinds…” Accessed March 24, 20.14 http://my-beautiful-words.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/lovers-of-all-kinds.html
[iv] PoetryInTranslation.com. “MEDITATIONS On The Cantos of Dante’s Divine Comedy Inferno Cantos I-VII”. Accessed March 24, 2014. http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Italian/MeditationInf1to7.htm
[v] ArtTherapy.org. “The American Art Therapy Association’s Mission”. Accessed March 24, 2014. http://www.arttherapy.org/aata-aboutus.html#whatisarttherapy
[vi] Recovery. “This is What Social Life is Like When You’re Sober”. Accessed March 24, 2014. http://www.recovery.org/this-is-what-social-life-is-like-when-youre-sober/
[vii] Rijksmuseum.nl. “Art Is Therapy”. Accessed March 24, 2014. https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/art-is-therapy Jen Francis is a former mental health worker who left behind a career in the social welfare system to spend more time at home with her children and concentrate on a writing career. Her goal is to help educate people on matters relating to health.