Art used to belong to the people

Art used to belong to the people. It was made in caves out of compulsion and impulse based in a need to relay the narrative. A few thousand years later, someone realized that Art`s creations were things of beauty. Testimonials of human experience and infact our very humanity itself. It soon became apparent that the value of Art`s creations extended far beyond an occasional  utilitarian nature. A cup or a sword or an article of clothing were still useful, but when inscribed with the visual history of a people, these objects took on new life, new meaning. Such creations had not only inherent social and political value but quickly took on economic value as well within a barter system. 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 they were often made out of rare and valued materials like gold and gems. These objects took on concrete, monetizable value extending beyond the world of language and metaphor. These objects could be pillaged bought and sold. An ounce of gold was always worth an ounce of gold, but an ounce of gold flattened into a tablet and inscribed with the stories of Mayan people became 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. The fact that one object is gold and the other is clay is really secondary to the value placed on the historical significance of the object. Either way, they both become priceless because if you can control the artefact you can control the narrative of the people. You can rewrite the story of the people with the artefact in hand. As was done many times with the bible, you can take out a couple of paragraphs here and put in a couple there. You can appropriate the culture and tell people it is their own. Or, you can burn the artefact and claim to have no knowledge of its existence. Scary, I know, but that is what a book burning is

That is what happening when the Taliban blows up two  thousand year old statues of Buddha

Or when the Christians massacred any number of people in any number of places (sorry, they did most of their work before video was available).

In Islam, there is no depiction of the prophet because it is forbidden. The art is controlled that way and the culture is controlled by being forbidden from using its own imagination to ponder the face of a 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.

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 which makes 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 if you 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.

People should have taken arms in protest of this pulling of the Jesus from the Smithsonian. Unfortunately, we do not realize how important these acts of censorship are. Removing the show seemingly changes nothing in our lives. Infact, removing dissent from a museums ensures the status quo which is another way of saying: ‘changing nothing’ or ‘stunting growth’ or ‘inhibiting change’. Leaving challenging thoughts and images in an exhibit however forces cognitive dissonance, emotional discomfort, eventually provoking a reaction and hopefully some growth. A museum is supposed to be a force for positive change. Not a force for relishing in the past, maintaining the present or preventing the future, just a force for the enabling of change. Not any old change either. Not destructive change for the sake of destruction because after all, war is change too. Or maybe war is more of the same? Whatever the case, the museum is there to provide us with an outlet for our own ideas about what creative change means. It is not there to present us with the ideas of geniuses who tell us what change is. By the way, did I mention that this is exactly what museums have been doing for us for centuries?

Still, it has to be said that we in the west are somewhat better off that the mid-east because we can actually ponder Jesus on the cross being eaten by ants while in Iran for example, you could get stoned or beheaded for drawing a picture of the Prophet. All things considered, I would rather live here.

Over the centuries, 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 consumer. It paints the sets, sells the tickets to the show. It works the lights, determining what parts you see at what moments. These institutions have literally written 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 underappreciated 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 within the object being examined. 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 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 values, redefines itself as what it wants to be. Where the museum is a hierarchical structure, art therapy is structurally lateralized. While the museum determines socioeconomic value for a style of art and type of artist, art therapy assists in honing an individual`s personal style and artistic identity. The museum`s interest revolves around what the artist says about it, while the art therapist`s interest in the product leans more on what the product says about what the artist says about it.   Where the museum is interested in weaving the work into a constructed narrative of art history, art therapy is interested in seeing the narrative of the individual unfold in the art work then weave itself back into the universal stories of civilizations. Art therapy says everyone is an artist worthy of consideration, the museum says only some people are. The museum shows us exclusive and exhaustive versions of art history but art therapy insists that art is the inclusive story about all of us. The museum wants to sell you something, the art therapist wants you to be free.

What does all of this mean? Let’s just say that it means that art therapy is on a different path from the traditional path of the museum. The museum seems to be looking backwards while art therapy is always looking forward. This does not mean that the two paths could not converge at some point but i must say that the hair does stand up on the back of my neck when i hear art therapy being approached as a topic of interest by the museum establishment. You might think that i would be overjoyed to find that a recognized institution of culture, a pillar of society, is taking some interest in art therapy. It is no secret that art therapy desperately needs some public attention and i dare say some cultural affection because it is struggling to survive and find a place as a viable mental health option for suffering people.

Art therapists want to help those who need it, and we collectively seem to want to benefit from the power of art to make us feel better.  The difficulty is in putting those art therapists together with what i suspect is thousands of people interested in a therapeutic option which will place them as the most important part of the solution. In a sense, I am happy to see art therapy’s name in lights and the headlines of ever increasing newspaper articles. Yet, I wonder if the pairing of museum culture and notions of art therapy is just a little dangerous. After all, the museum is about defining, categorizing, interpreting and labelling which is pretty much every thing that art therapy is not. At the same time, i have always thought that art therapy is the greatest artistic movement of our time. However, when i say that it is the greatest artistic movement of our time, i in no way mean that to be the exhaustive definition of what art therapy is.  It is the greatest artistic movement of our time and so much more. It breaks with the tradition of what artistic movements have been because it places every single, living, breathing, creating individual at center stage and suggests that each one of these holds the keys for defining personal and collective culture. I just don’t know if the museum is ready for this yet.

Some have argued that the museum brought us “outsider art” or “art brut”. It is an interesting point. We might not have heard of such things unless the museum had collected, catalogued, shown, distributed and written about it. But it still would have existed. It would have existed in every primary school in the country in the form of children’s art. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, children’s art has been excluded the grasp of museum comprehension. It is not possible to market children’s art in general except for when you are sending it in for juried exhibitions under the pretext that it was made by an adult. Ask any museum director, he will tell you: “children’s art? No, we don’t dabble in that”. Children’s art by the way, is of tremendous interest to art therapists however, because it tells us about what an artist is. In the mind of Picasso, we are born artists but spend our lives shedding that identity. How then can we exclude children from major national museum exhibitions? Why is their work not placed on par with that of the supposed great masters?

Back to “outsider art” for a second: the problem with outsider art is that it does not exist! It is an artificial label stuck on something which has been in existence since the beginning of human creativity. Think about it for a second…If there is outsider art, then what is insider art? Is insider art like insider trading? Insider art is by definition, what is inside the museum. Outsider art is what exists outside the museum. Once it appears inside the museum, it ceases to be outsider art. Here is what Wikipedia had to say about outsider art:

Dubuffet characterized art brut as:

“Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses – where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere – are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals. After a certain familiarity with these flourishings of an exalted feverishness, lived so fully and so intensely by their authors, we cannot avoid the feeling that in relation to these works, cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade.” – Jean Dubuffet. Place à l’incivisme (Make way for Incivism). Art and Text no.27 (December 1987 – February 1988). p.36 Dubuffet’s writing on art brut was the subject of a noted program at the Art Club of Chicago in the early 1950s.

Dubuffet argued that ‘culture’, that is mainstream culture, managed to assimilate every new development in art, and by doing so took away whatever power it might have had. The result was to asphyxiate genuine expression. Art brut was his solution to this problem – only art brut was immune to the influences of culture, immune to being absorbed and assimilated, because the artists themselves were not willing or able to be assimilated (Cited in Wikipedia here:

I am not one of those people who believes that religion and science can’t sit at the table and have an honest discussion. I am not that person. Though I believe they are talking about different things and that any reconciliation is quite difficult, even after science has proven that god is in the brain. Yet, I am quite apprehensive about museum’s getting interested in art therapy because there is a huge power differential between the art therapy profession and the museum institution. The museum is big enough, strong enough to eat up art therapy as a whole and make a nice light snack out it. The knowledge field of psychology could do the same thing. In fact, as art therapy is on precarious professional grounds, fighting for every inch of any professional or scientific merit it acquires, there are many standing on the side lines, looking for opportunities.

The museum could decide to narrate the knowledge field of art therapy as simply another people empowering artistic movement. Because the title and professional practice of art therapists is not currently protected, the field of psychology could decide that art therapy is just another specialization within it’s vast repertoire of clinical operations. Psychology departments within universities and continuous learning sector could rake in huge profits by offering continuing education credits to psychologists, counselors, doctors, social workers and nurses all eventually leading to a certificate in art therapy. In fact there is some evidence that the McGill psychology program is heading in this direction as it offers for the first time course in the psychology of art. How long will it be before they are offering minors in art therapy? Let’s say in the worst case scenario that the powerful world of the American Psychological Association could decide to offer a 12 week intensive training program leading to certification in the area of art therapy. How hard that would be for us art therapists who worked all our lives accumulating knowledge and practice in the fields of art and psychology, just for the right to practice art therapy? It would be devastating. Make no mistake, the stakes are higher now than they have ever been.  Art therapy finds itself with “dangerous friends” on either side of its borders. To one side, the monstrous beast of professional psychology which knows no bounds in terms of expansion while on the other border sits the museum constantly seeking to multiply and validate its role as the one true purveyor of culture.

What if the museum decides that it will host art therapy and in fact be the sole distributor of it. In this scenario, the museum packages art therapy as an artistic movement having something to do with artists breaking from traditional art world values and empowering individuals. The museum then showcases some art from alzheimers patients and hangs the art on the walls with the help of a savvy curator who knows what people want to see. Next, the art exhibit invites people to participate in a session of art therapy facilitated by someone with no training in the discipline. And there you have it. The museum stole the show. But wait, who was it who said that “any press is good press”? Probably Warhol. Warhol the genius who made millions pandering to consumers and corporations alike by  bringing our favourite corporate logos out from behind the stage as sponsors to center stage as “pop art”. Thanks but no thanks.  Hmmm, now that I think of it, maybe we should take the free publicity. One thing is for sure, when a new profession emerges there are a couple of fears. The first is that it will be diluted and distorted by intermingling with too many different ideas which take away from the purest essence which the knowledge field wants to be concerned with. The other is that a larger more scientifically valid profession could either eat it or kill it. If it is eaten then art therapy belongs to the science of psychology because you are what you eat. If it is killed then it is laid to rest with the people but is officially dead on the job market.  As you may know, art therapy has no legal representation and no official, government protection as a title. That means that it still belongs to anyone who is courageous enough to take it on. Anyone unfortunately can hang up a shingle and call themselves an art therapist. We are working hard to change that but we are small and our voice is faint. Gandhi was not a  big screamer though and so I tell myself that if one has a true voice, it need not be loud to be heard.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Shopping Cart