On The Necessity of Art by Cathy McGuire
Despite its physical presence every-where, art has receded from our culture, locked behind the twin barriers of the museum/gallery complex and the adver-tising/tv screen. We have become so detached from the effects of creativity/art in our lives that we don’t realize how sorely we need it. Where once art was a wellspring of joy, energy and power, now it’s a specimen on display, something “not-mine”.
I didn’t consider myself an artist until I was 37, despite being drawn to almost every creative medium since I was a child. Creativity was my salvation through a difficult childhood with very troubled parents. I not only reveled in the fantasies and creations of others, I expressed the images in my mind with poetry, stories, plays, drawings and crafts—at every spare moment. But never did I imagine I was “doing art”. Luckily, I was still drawn to create, no matter how un-entitled I felt; for years, creativity was the only thing holding me together.
While working with children at Raphael House, a domestic violence shelter in Portland, I became aware of the children’s spontaneous uses of art to heal from their trauma. I knew I wanted to work with that process. Going back for my Masters in Art Therapy required that I take all the formal fine art classes that I’d been avoiding. To my shock, not only was I doing good work, but I found myself enjoying my whole life—not just the classes—more than I had for years. The creative response spilled over into and improved all areas of my life, a power I hadn’t known about.
It seems to me that art has simultaneously been trivialized and rarefied—removing it from the sphere of “necessary daily actions”; making it both a luxury and a trifle. The huge (ridiculous) prices for certain modern and classic artworks take it out of the experience of the average person, and the mountains of advertising reduce beautiful artforms to an insidious wedge to be resisted mightily. In both cases, the non-artist can feel like art has nothing to do with her—so wrong!
The physical act of creation connects us both with our own bodies and with the external world. Pushing and molding, moving through the space around us—this brings us “grounding” like no amount of thinking can do. The sensations of color and shape as they move under our hands connect us with the true reality of this moment; the joy and frustration that arises teaches us the contents of our hearts. The synthesis of artmaking is the opposite of the compartmentalizing actions of society. When I pull image, color and texture together into a new whole, I have to pull from my whole self and everything I’ve learned about the world. And the process gives back to and informs my whole self and my surrounding world.
Besides feeling un-entitled to art, some people shrink from art due to the deep emotions, including pain, that often arise during the process. Because it’s such a deep connection, artmaking can release very strong emotions quickly. This can lead to quicker healing, but it can also be frightening and—if the person digs down rashly—can be re-traumatizing. I have several times made paintings that brought up such overwhelming feelings that I had to leave the room and take several breaks, and then share it with another and talk about my feelings. But artmaking—creative acts—are both essential to our daily lives and worth the risks. It is only when we act out of our authentic selves that we are truly alive.
Do you want to stop feeling like the weeks and months are disappearing? Spend some time every day being creative. Watch time slow down, and become solid, palpable. Paying attention while making things keeps us to “natural time”—the real pace of drying paint, physical gestures, rising bread—as opposed to the nanosecond pace that most of us maintain in our heads; thoughts flashing through, attention scattered in a blitz of speed. And when we slow down, our lives begin to feel real, instead of “where did this week go?”. The product of art is less important in this context than the act of making, because what we are really making is ourselves.
Somehow we must erase both the expectations of huge financial rewards and the cynicism of manipulated emotions—the twin curses of “art-as-asset” and “art-as-advertising”—in order to see that the reward for art is in the inner shift: a new, deeper opening to ourselves and the world around us.
Cathy McGuire, A.T.R., is an art therapist, artist and writer with an office in SW Portland. Her experiences with art and writing span her lifetime; her personal growth art classes and art therapy practice are somewhat newer. You can reach her at [email protected].