On Art Therapy and Museums : a brief history
29th Apr 2012Posted in: Blog 0
On Art Therapy and Museums : a brief history
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Art used to belong to the people. It was made in caves out of compulsion and impulse based in a need to relay a narrative. Art`s creations continue to be things of beauty, testimonials of human experience and the embodiment of our very humanity itself. It soon became apparent that the value of Art`s creations extended far beyond their initial utilitarian nature. A cup or a sword or an article of clothing were still useful artworks in themselves, but when inscribed with the visual history of a people, these objects took on new life, new meaning. Greek vases became story books of divine inspiration. Spanish swords gained supernatural strength through inscriptions along their lengths, round and flat metal pieces took on life as the currency of a people through the mere impression of a recognizable face upon them. Such creations had not only inherent social and political value but quickly took on economic value as well within a system of exchange between people living together within a culture. Socially, the objects told stories and brought people together to listen to them. Politically, the objects made statements of a religious or philosophical nature to keep the thoughts of the people running along a common path. Economically, the objects collected value like magnets because they were each one of a kind reflections of our existence, not to mention their often being made out of rare and valued materials like gold and gems. The craftsmanship required to produce the paintings of masters imbued a sort of divine mystery into works of art. People could simply not fathom how these objects came to be.  "It must be the hand of god" said the people as they stood before Michelangelo's chapel ceilings. These works took on concrete, monetized value extending well beyond their mere appearances. An ounce of gold will always be worth an ounce of gold, but an ounce of gold flattened into a tablet and inscribed with the stories of Mayan people is priceless. Actually, an ounce of clay inscribed with the ideas of Sumerian people became just as valuable because both the gold and the clay are living pieces of human evolution, gateways back in time to a place of cultural significance to us now.

Cultural "art-if-acts" would be pillaged bought or sold and for some strange reason, people were willing to die for them. Some smart people with a big share of the public trust discovered that when you control the artefact you control the narrative of the people. You can rewrite the story of the people with the artefact in hand. It has been possible for instance to re-author the bible, taking out a couple of paragraphs here and putting in a couple there. So long as one stands behind the artefact, one have special powers. Think for a second about what your national flag means to the people who stand under it. How does that flag shape the ideas and behaviours of the people around you? How have you been affected by the national identity represented to you by those stars and stripes or that maple leaf? People with political power have long known that it is possible to repossess a cultural symbol and supplant its meaning. Hitler did this with the Swastika which was an ancient Indian symbol before it became the symbol of fascism. In Canada we have taken the seemingly innocuous symbol of the Maple leaf while the Americans have taken red and blue stripes and white stars. Take a symbol which is inherently meaningful to a people (unconditioned stimulus) and you can then condition them to respond to is through gentle or coercive persuasion.  You can appropriate the culture and tell people it is their own. One group of people may not want to appropriate a cultural symbol but may decide it prefers to burn the artefact and claim to have no knowledge of its existence. Scary, I know, but that is what a book burning is This is negation of the culture of the culture of the other as opposed to appropriation. That is what happening when the Taliban blows up two  thousand year old statues of Buddha Or when just about any other religious group massacred any number of people in any number of places by first supplanting the culturally significant symbology.

In Islam, there is no depiction of the prophet because it is forbidden. The art is controlled in that way and the culture is controlled by being forbidden from using its own imagination to ponder the face of its own god. So the point is that if you control the artefact, you control the art and if you control the art, you control the culture. Here in the west, we do not live under explicit tyranny but rather voluntary submission to those who exert confluent force upon the maintenance and marketing of our western symbology. We voluntarily submit to higher authority when it comes to an understanding of our own culture. Our schools interpret it and break it down for us. Our museums give us the impression of preservation of our collective visual representation and art historians read the story to us. By the time we are adults, we have no only seen Picassos and Klimts but probably spent some time reproducing their work in art class or writing about them in english class. By the time we are adults, we get our music from the radio, our knowledge about the world from a text book, our movement and appearance from television, all tightly packaged for us to consume. We are not however active participants in the manifestation and experience of our own culture. Well at least, not until very recently.

Most recently, the Smithsonian presented the work of an artist who appropriated the cultural religious symbol of the Christians and successfully re-interpreted or repositioned the narrative of Christ here:

In this case, the museum was doing its job, exposing us to art, helping us reflect critically upon who we are, challenging our beliefs and assumptions. Bravo. Unfortunately, the museum in this case buckled under pressure and pulled the Jesus bit from the roster. Perhaps the museum was doing its job too well. The only way to get something pulled from the museum by the way, is to have it done by the people who control the museum. If you happen to be of the Christian persuasion and you control the museum then you control the narrative to some extent about the life of Christ. You have in a sense, a loud speaker through which to broadcast your views about the religion of the people and as time shows, people are only too happy to pay the price of admission to hear those views. If you give us Miley Cyrus and nothing but Miley Cyrus we are all going to see the show sooner or later.

We should have taken arms in protest of this pulling of the Jesus from the Smithsonian. Unfortunately, we do not realize how important such acts of censorship are. Removing the Jesus being eaten by ants show seems to change nothing in our lives. Having it there however, forces us to reflect and be disturbed by the images. Removing dissent from museums ensures the status quo which is another way of saying: ‘changing nothing’ or ‘inhibiting change’. Enabling the voice of dissent and then sectioning it off and categorizing it into museum worthy pieces of art is only slightly better. Still, if we are going to cultivate a sanctuary for the voice of dissent, and that sanctuary must be in found in the social institution of museums then i guess that is better than nothing. Now if we are going to prohibit the voice of dissent from breathing in museums  then we shall have to take it to the streets. Prohibiting dissenting voices from the very cultural institutions in place to protect them does not quell the flames but rather stokes the fire. Leaving challenging thoughts and images in an exhibit however forces cognitive dissonance, emotional discomfort, eventually provoking an informed reaction and hopefully some growth out of that. A museum is supposed to be a force for positive creative change -not a force for relishing in the past, maintaining the present or preventing the future, just a force for enabling change. For some that change will be small, for others it may be earth shattering, whatever the case, the museum is there to provide us with an outlet for our own ideas about what that creative change might look like. It is not there to present us with the ideas of geniuses who tell us what change is.

Still, it has to be said that we in the west are somewhat better off than some other places where free speech is under duress. In Canada can actually ponder Jesus on the cross being eaten by ants while in a fundamentalist religious part of the world you can get yourself killed for drawing a picture of a prophet. All things considered, I would rather live here. That having been said, let's not get carried away as we often do in concluding that America and Canada are the best places in the world because this blog does not want any part of that kind of patriotism.

Over the centuries, schools, religious institutions, museums and the galleries they ideologically parent, have been the only sources for our comprehension of art. If art history were a stage, the museum is the producer, director, playwright, main actor and distributor. It paints the sets, sells the tickets to the show. It works the lights, determining which parts you see at which moments. These institutions have literally been the editor of art history. If the art of a people did not make it into a glass, air, temperature and moisture controlled box in the museum then it simply did not happen. The point I am getting at is that there is a huge concentration of  wealth and power in the art world, localized more specifically within the boards of directors of museums and owners of major galleries. Where there is a huge concentration of power, I am intensely interested in discovering what people are doing with it.

What I have done so far has been to discuss the somewhat under appreciated but inescapable importance of art in our world. I have presented the notion that the institutions we entrust to take care of our culture have been twiddling their thumbs, pandering to the crowds, exercising undue influence on the people`s culture. The museum has been shown as a kind of Doorman at a posh nightclub, which only lets in the people who reflect the narcissistic image of the club. The title of this post is: ‘Art Therapy and the Museum: A Brief History’, so I guess I had better talk about that relationship a little.

As with any of the posts on this site, there is a glitch, a point of tension which causes me to reflect on something in the hope of finding some balance or equilibrium. So here is the rub: Art therapy and museum culture have mostly found themselves at opposite ends of a spectrum as it pertains to their views about the valuation of art.  Where the museum views certain specific artist-creators as a supremely valuable to the understanding of personal and collective culture, art therapy views artistic creation itself as supremely valuable to the understanding of personal and collective culture. Where the museum views the product of creativity as the ultimate object of culture to be preserved above all others, art therapy views the process of creativity as the ultimate manifestation of culture to be preserved above all others. Where the museum-gallery is mostly concerned with the collection of art which fits into a theme, movement or genre in art history, art therapy concerns itself with creative production which breaks from those themes. Museums want something to fit in, Art Therapy is interested in things that stand out. Where the museum is a hierarchical top-down structure, art therapy is a structurally lateralized, bottom-up structure. While the museum determines value of a style of art and type of artist, art therapy assists in honing an individual`s personal style and artistic identity. The differences go on for ever and this is why you have never seen any exhibit related to art therapy happening inside a museum.

                The fact that art therapy and the museum appear to be incompatible is not the museum's fault. Though i have thrown a few rotten tomatoes at the museum as an institution, perhaps it would be more fair to say that art therapy is its own beast and it may simply belong somewhere else. After all, you can't sell a process which art therapy believes to be universally located within each one of us now can you? As it happens, somewhere else is exactly where we are finding art therapy. It is happening on the street in women's shelters. It is being offered in the form of art-as-therapy in community centers everywhere from Montreal to Peru. Art therapy stands at the call, in service of those seeking a creative experience. Beyond those ground level organizations, art therapy is happening within the walls of prisons and off the corridors of mental health structures breathing new life into stale places. In schools, children are gaining greater metacognition and social skills through art groups facilitated by seasoned art therapists. Wherever you look, art therapy is doing its job, serving the public individually and collectively. What has the museum done for you lately?

In this post, i have attempted to understand - through explaining - just what the relationship between art therapy and the cultural institution of museums is. In working this relationship out with words i am brought back to the essence of most of my : 1) art therapy is inherently a force for the democratization of art. 2) Art therapy will remain excluded from the tales of art history and museums because of that fact.


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