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Art and Self-Care

Updated: Oct 13, 2020

Art makes life more palatable This reality is embraced by artists, but denied by many people who would rather see the writers, poets, dancers and painters of this world laboring alongside them in mundane jobs. I’ve never understood the cultural opposition to art or the conflicting messages our culture tends to give concerning art and its creation. Michelangelo--good. Teenagers spending time drawing their D&D characters during study hall--bad. Emily Dickinson--good. Your husband spending his evenings writing poetry--bad. It’s as if we only appreciate art if we can’t see the labor that went into creating it. Why? Why is it such a bad idea to spend time on art?

Art Takes Time

Not even Rembrandt woke up one morning and began painting masterpieces with no practice or learning curve. Even the Bronte sisters had to practice writing and edit their novels. Sure, Falkner may have written As I Lay Dying in six weeks, but that doesn’t account for months and years of mental work that happened before he set pen to paper. Good art takes time. End of story. So why do we suffer from the cultural delusion that time spent pursuing the arts is time wasted?

Art That Meets Needs

I contend that all art meets some human need. Certain art forms meet more obvious needs than others. Cooking and food preparation, for example, address the universal human need of nourishment while poetry doesn’t obviously address any physical human need. Still, we’ve all heard the criticisms of prices at “unnecessarily fancy” restaurants or perhaps listened to someone dress down a cook for paying special attention to presentation. These naysayers object to the concept of art for art’s sake, but what if it turns out that art itself is the solution to what ails us?

My mother-in-law’s church used to provide monthly meals at an inner-city soup kitchen. Her pastor’s wife always took care to make sure the menu included something that could be prepared in a visually pleasing manner. The team from the church would prepare individual gelatin salads with pleasant-looking garnishes. The desserts were served on individual plates and made to look as appetizing as possible. My mother-in-law recounts many times when those she served at the soup kitchen remarked on these little extras. By paying attention to beauty and creating something pleasing to the eye as well as to the taste, this group of volunteers gave the gift of human dignity to the people they served.

The Merits of Art

Art, in its truest forms, speaks to the soul. Taking a few moments or hours to create or experience art brings healing on emotional, mental and spiritual levels. As an educator both of children and adults with developmental disabilities, I saw firsthand the difference that art makes in the classroom. Children and adults retain and process information more efficiently in a pleasant and comfortable setting. Recreational time consistently helps to improve language skills. In the words of Douglas Adams’ character Dirk Gently, “Everything’s connected.”

Researchers have complied oodles of information about the benefits of art. While I enjoy reading many of these studies, the benefits of art are something I prefer to experience personally. To me, the way my shoulders relax and my breathing slows when I’m working with watercolors is all the proof I need that art is effective and healthy. The way in which I sleep more soundly after an interpretive movement class is all the evidence I need that dancing is healthy. It makes perfect sense to me that test scores tend to go down at schools when drama and music programs get cut. Humans are creative beings, and we desperately need to feed our creative minds by practicing creativity. In fact, participating in artistic endeavors might be one of the most effective forms of self-care.

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