Friday, November 06, 2009

Aesthetic versus Psychological Placement of Art Elements

One thing I have found while working with art is that it is the actual doing of art that is the most therapuetic part of therapy art. Yes, art can be used to diagnose things like schizophrenia and possible sexual abuse; but that is not therapy, that is diagnostics and should only be done by someone who has training in doing it.

There are several reason for this, but one of the major mistakes I've seen made by people, who attempt to do this because they think they can know people better than the person themselves, is that they don't understand that not all elements in a work of art are there for psychological reasons. I once questioned the reason why art therapists are required to take studio art classes, because I found that my art professors had a tendency to insist on certain elements in their student's work. This outside control may make good art, but not good therapy. I understood the need for learning how to do the art, in order to help the client use the materials, but I often felt at odds with my profs. I finally accepted the fact that my art professors were only doing their job and teaching us aesthetics.

Even though an art professor can encourage a student to do something of personal meaning to them, they still will introduce elements into the student's work. Take a look at this lithograph I made last year.

Sing a Song of Sixpence by ~mamaslyth on deviantART

Now, there is a lot of personal symbolism in the piece. I am the first to admit that. However, while discussing this piece with a counseling professional without art therapy training, he asked me about the symbolism of the floor tiles. I said in a rather reactive fashion that the floor tiles had no real significance, though I then added some possible symbolism for it. My reaction was emotional because I didn't make the decision to put the checker board tiles in the picture. It was my lithography professor's idea. My reaction was from a neurotic need of mine to not take credit for another person's ideas. This tends to be a very big deal to me, hence the knee-jerk response.

My lithography prof had me introduce the tiles because I had too much white space for a good print. Even though I could come up with possible symbolic reasons for the checkerboard, none of them had any real connection to the actual meaning of the print, itself. I chose to copy the element in other prints in the series because part of the assignment was to make the series coherent and repeating elements is a quick and dirty way of doing that. Had the counseling professional had the same exposure to art education that I had, he would have not put much significance to an element added there to improve my grade in a class.

If you want more proof that checkerboards really aren't that significant to me, feel free to check out some of my other art. You will see that, outside to the American Mutt series, I rarely use checkerboarding in it.

More art

Another major mistake, one most frequently made by lay people (and some professionals, I'm not going to let them off the hook, either) is not understanding that the most important meaning of a symbolic element is what it means to the artist. In my understanding, there are at least three levels of symbolism: the personal, the cultural, and the archetypical. As someone who has written poetry since the age of seven, I have had the cultural and archetypical meanings applied to my work by strangers with really amusing results at times. Because of this, I always make a face when someone wants me to proof read poems.

My favorite example of the differences between levels of symbolism is the color yellow. Archetypical, yellow represents things like the Sun, warmth, joy, intellect and a host of other things with are common among most humans that live on this planet. An example of cultural difference is how yellow can mean cowardly to one culture and divine in another culture. We can also have subcultural meanings. Take the sports fan - depending on what team they cheer for, yellow can be either a good thing or a bad thing. Then there is the personal level. For me, personally, yellow is a color I usually avoid wearing because it emphasizes the yellow tones in my skin, making me look like I'm sick. For a friend of mine, yellow is one of her favorite colors because when she was a kid, she used to hide among her grandmother's yellow rose bushes when she needed peace and quiet. For her, yellow means peace and security. For another friend, yellow is a terrifying color that can trigger flashbacks because it was a color that had ritualistic importance to her abuser.

Of the three of us, I am the most likely to use yellow for aesthetic reasons in a work of art. In fact, the way I found out about their personal meanings for yellow was because, several years ago, I used yellow as a major element on a webpage and they shared their reactions to it. I almost changed the element for the second friend, but we agreed that it was my webpage and I needed to go with what I felt would work. I did, however, avoided using yellow on certain pages for her.

I am willing to admit that 80 to 90% of the time, you can get really close using the cultural and archetypical results. It's that other 10 to 20% that's going to mess you up. That's not really a problem if you are reading something for your own benefit - you should find your own meanings in art and literature. Just don't attribute it to the artist or author!!! In fact, by taking responsibility for your interpretations - that it is truly yours and not another's - you will actually gain a better understanding of yourself and your world, in my experience. Besides, that 10 to 20% lets you, the audience, become part of the work.

In regards to personal therapy, though, this is a bad thing. It is better for a therapist to avoid putting too much of themselves into a client's piece of work. The idea is to let the client have their voice and express their thoughts and feelings - not to echo the therapist's philosophical systems. Some connection needs to be made between the therapist and the piece, but a good art therapist can say "This is how I view the piece and this is how the client views it." And once the client has made their view known, the therapist can share their view to show that they also have been touched by the work, as well as offer possible alternate ways to look at it. If any of the alternate views strikes a chord with the artist/client, then the therapist has a better understanding of what is going on than when no chord is struck.

Anyway, the point is personal symbolism will trump the other symbolic meanings of an art element. If you don't know the personal symbolism behind the elements, or how the elements were chosen, then chances are you will be wandering in the wrong direction, while attributing meaning to a piece of art. In the strict audience sense, that's fine. In a therapuetic sense, it's not.

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