I am in Florida, at the airport, on my way home from two weeks of intensive studio classes for my masters degree. There are so many layers and angles to my experience here...I am still digesting it all, but a theme definitely emerged.
During our final discussion for the printmaking class, one of the other students, Annette Saldana, said "just like you can be fake with other people, you can be fake with your own art."
Wow. Wow! I love that!
It leads me to think about many things. What is fake? How does fake show up, what does it look like? What does it look like for me? How does fake feel?
Expressive arts makes it safe to be real
One of the things I love about the expressive arts approach is that the goal is healing, so a lot of emphasis is placed on creating safety so you can take creative risks. The two classes I just took are in an academic setting, and the goal was not to explore healing, but to learn how to make art in a new way. The culture is so different from expressive arts. Academia is uncomfortable with open expressions of emotion in the classroom.
In my ceramics class we were given an assignment to create a box or an altar to hold an object precious to us. Many people made boxes to honor lost loved ones. When they spoke, they held back their emotion. They said as much as they could without losing it. I hardly spoke about the meaning of my box. It didn't feel safe to talk about the meaning of the symbols. In expressive arts, it would be fine to get very emotional, to speak further, to experience a catharsis. This is even if it is done in a non-therapy context. It is safe to be real in a way that is not fully appropriate or comfortable in a university classroom.
Can non-artists be experts on the healing power of the arts?
But I feel a tension in expressive arts too. The low skill methods, approachable by anyone, are not judged on their aesthetic merits. None of the structures, skills or concerns that are present in an academic fine arts setting are brought into expressive arts. In fact, many of those in the field of expressive arts do not have much training in the arts. They come from the field of therapy. They don't know about technique, they have not participated in critiques or public displays. They are not artists. And yet they claim to be experts on creativity, on how it can heal. Can they really, if they have not mastered an art form?
Many people have a story of being creatively crushed, like an insensitive comment by a teacher or a parent that they didn't have the talent or the vision to be in the arts. The perspective of the creative therapies rallies against this, and thus there is a direct conflict between the context for healing and a context for making art that will be shown publicly. I am interested in this space.
Because healing art can be fake too.
Healing art accepts mediocrity. It accepts selfishness. It accepts self indulgence. It accepts cliche. The healing approach sees no validity in the academic fine arts approach, and thus creates its own sorts of limits.
Play, improvisation - these are valuable in both contexts. But the fine arts involve a dialogue with the viewer that is not addressed in a healing approach. You might be able to dialogue with yourself through your own art for a long time, but eventually you need outside influence. You need to toughen up. You need to separate private process from public communication. You need to think about the viewer. You need to put yourself out there. It needs to become a social interaction. Otherwise your healing art will cease to heal you and instead will become a hiding place where you play victim and stay stuck.
Your own art and artistic process can be used to bullshit yourself. And many in the healing field don't have the balls to tell you when you are being lame, over analyzing, being stuck. But many in the fine arts, particularly professors, have no trouble doing that for you! And that is not a bad thing.
It's all about balance
For about a decade now I have been exploring making art in a more spiritual, healing, personal way. And I love it, I believe in that approach. But I also love good art. I love being on the receiving end of beautiful art. My two weeks in Florida have shown me that my own art process is in need of ramped up skill and fresh perspectives. Luckily I saw this not because anyone was brutal with me, but rather because I found other people's art to be more compelling than my own because they simply had more skill than I do. By improving my skill, while still being mindful of the practices of healing art, I expand my own experience of creativity.
Communication and context are important. You have to know when you are ready to engage an audience. You have to be aware of who you are doing it for, and not get confused, and unconsciously seek validation from those who may give you brutal feedback you may not be ready for. Protect yourself, but not forever. It is good to get a kick.
Making art in a safe, supportive community that is void of critique and evaluations of skill is essential. But it is also good to leave that context and actualize what you discovered there out in your normal reality. There seems to be an idea out there in the world of healing art that using your skills is detrimental to your free expression, and that improving your skills organically rather than with training is somehow more healing. I disagree. It is good to learn how to be a better artist, to learn new skills or practice familiar ones, to have some discipline. Showing your work and engaging others is part of the cycle of healing that occurs when you make art. It is part of maturing as a creative person.
How do you deal with criticism, skill development and expression? Do you think skillful art is in opposition to healing through the arts? Do you think it is important to show your art in ways that expose you to feedback that might be hard to hear? I'd love to hear your perspective!