Beyond Catharsis & Expression: The arts play a deeper role in Expressive Arts Therapy

-by Wes Chester, MA, CAGS, Director, Expressive Arts Institute

The inspiration for this article started with a friendly chat with my friend via Facebook Elena Lomakin about a Picasso quotation she posted. Elena writes:

Duet Acrylic Mixed media and collage on board

Elena Lomakin-Duet-acrylic, ink, graphite & fabric on paper on a/f board 20” x 16”

“The reason I referred to that Picasso quote was because someone in a private group I belong to put a question mark in response to a very abstract piece of mine (shown above) as if asking me to explain what it was….This quotation WAS my explanation!”

Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the songs of a bird.- Picasso

Elena’s quotation made me think about my own response to this concept. I largely agree with Picasso’s sentiment, but I feel the metaphor falls a bit short. For one thing, birdsong is not random.
As a birder and an artist. I know birdsong is understandable. If you listen. They’re mostly talking about sex or about us (or other predators) or about food. A lot of their calls resemble our texts in the time before COVID.

Bird text

Understanding bird song takes a basis of phenomenological observation, but also the familiarity with a categorizing lexicon that takes many years of observation to get right. Otherwise, your understanding may be less than perfect.

Birds for Dummies

Art, on the other hand, is an ambiguous and completely novel form of communication.  Art says:

“Let me tell you a secret.”
“ Okay what.”
“Look at this painting.”
“Woah, That’s cool. What’s the secret?”
“ I dunno. It’s different for everyone who sees it.”

Circle of Life Acrylic ink and fabric on paper

Elena Lomakin- The Circle of Life – acrylic, ink and fabric on paper on A/F board 14” x 11”

Like birding though, the more you listen to art, the more fully and richly it speaks to you. The very power of images (visual, auditory or kinesthetic) is the simultaneous delivery of a diversity of parallel and even contradictory messages, all of which are in some measure, to some person, true. With exception of fully allegorical art, meaning is less important than the feeling it conveys, subtlety or even radically different to each viewer.

That ability is what takes art beyond the simplistic fantasies of catharsis and expression. We are given an opportunity to do more than “get out our anger on the page” or “express what is deep within.” Those things are possible and helpful. But they are not revolutionary. Allowing the art to speak back, to have its own independent and powerful language, speaking in its own non-translatable native dialect, allows us to transcend the limits of art as symbol or storytelling medium. Art becomes a partner in the dance of our imagination. It suggests ways of reconceptualizing our life challenges. It carries hints of imaginative new solutions. But to do this we must give up control of the process and product of art, in favor of a partnership with the art. When we free our art, it can carry surprises and solutions, rather than simple illustrations of our wounds and problems.

This is what makes the art a powerful tool for therapy. It has an undeniable presence in the world, and a cornucopia of possible paths for the imagination to travel towards new understandings of our own most closely held image, which is life narrative. Any image worth its salt has a multiplicity new ideas to share with us, and one of them might be the solution for a challenge that years of talking never uncovered.

It’s worth saying that approaching meaning of the art as a “both-and” rather than a either-or” diversifies the messages and metaphors that might serve to resource our imagination for change.

Expressive Arts founding father Shaun McNiff writes of art;

“ When a stranger shows up at your door, the first question isn’t ‘What do you mean’?”

Meanings and meaningfulness arises in dialog, over time and continues to transform as we change. And like the birds, you don’t have to understand the song immediately. You just have to keep listening…

Stay Healthy,
Wes

P.S. Find more art and writing from Elena Lomakin on her facebook page, and on instagram at ElenaLomakin2085