It is an accepted notion in many circles that making art serves a healing function, and even, sometimes, that art itself can be an agent of healing. Shamanic art-making, if you will. “Poet Antonin Artaud spent … years in psychiatric wards for his recurrent bouts of insanity. His view — that art first heals the artist and subsequently helps heal others — is an ancient one” (Kay Redfield Jamison, in Touched With Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, p. 121).
“In his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche introduced the art of medicine: ‘Here, when the danger to his will is greatest, art approaches as a saving sorceress, expert at healing’” (Shaun McNiff, in Art as Medicine: Creating a Therapy of the Imagination, p. 48).
Also from the same book comes the following: “Many artists view art as serious psychological inquiry: William Blake, D. H. Lawrence, Frida Kahlo, Charlotte Salomon, the surrealists. … . Pioneering depth psychologists such as C. G. Jung and Otto Rank realized that the arts are the channels through which the soul speaks… “ (ibid, p. 43).
Dr. Janos Marton, visionary director of The Living Museum, says, “Self-transformation is the objective of all art … (In the Flow, p. 13).
A description of how art might be considered as an object of healing comes from Tom Crockett, in The Artist Inside: A Spiritual Guide to Cultivating Your Creative Self. He says that “The work of a shaman is healing, empowering, enlightening, enchanting. The shaman-as-artist, or dream artist, does this work through images and artifacts. … . When you manifest spirit in material form, you bind your community together and weave yourself inextricably into it” (p. xix).
And Pat Allen, in Art as a Way of Knowing, has this to say about art objects holding energy, capable even of communication. “As you pass by an image, with no real effort, it will begin to speak to you, you will notice things about it” (p. 12).
She goes on to explain:
Remember that the image is the messenger of your soul and never comes to harm you. The misperception of the art school critique is that the image needs to be improved through criticism. The misperception of art therapy is that the image must be analyzed. Both approaches try to overpower the image with intellect. The image needs to be known, seen fully with loving attention and encouraged to speak, treated as you would treat an ambassador from a different world. Then it will develop and reveal itself according to its own logic. (p. 60)
In many indigenous cultures, there can be found examples of art objects considered to be healing objects, although the discussion becomes murky very quickly when we remember that in many of these cultures, the very idea of art as separate from life does not exist. Talismans, amulets, sacred shells and feathers, the ancient Druidic circles of stones — the list is almost endless — with accounts reaching back as far as recorded history. One small example comes from Ethiopia.
Healing art in Ethiopia has its origins in ancient Greek, Islamic, and Jewish mysticism. Abstract in concept and form, with roots in the Old Testament, it predates the New Testament narrative style of drawing. Talismans are not only visual art but also prayer, medicine, and ritual act. They are made by clerics of the Ethiopian Christian Orthodox SYTM Church, who are on their knees as they draw, a humbling constraint. The purpose of talismans is to rid the human body of the demonic spirits that are causing physical or mental problems. … . Recognized as extraordinary works in Ethiopia and by whoever sees them, they are both engaging art and powerful medicine. (Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe, NM, 2004)
Objects and places (not discussed here) have been, and continue to be understood by millions as imbued with sacred spiritual energies. It is only in contemporary Western culture that this idea is considered to be “woo-woo,” pejoratively new-aged, denigrated.
There are many techniques to help guide you deeper into your own knowing, your own universe of subtle energies and transpersonal guidance. This knowledge, these experiences, then become the doorways into shamanic art-making.
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