To Paint is to Love Again, Part 11: The Healing Power of Art

Just like I don’t need an ‘inspiration’ to start painting, I don’t need to be in any particular mood either. In fact, I paint in all sorts of mood. I’ve painted in ecstasy, anger, melancholy, apathy. I’ve laughed at the easel, I’ve cried at the easel. I’ve painted in pain, both physical and emotional, I’ve painted feeling joy. And what I’ve observed is that the process of painting is like an emotional stabiliser: it always brings me to the middle, to some sort of balance, both when I’m in my downs and in my ups — and those can be just as tiring as the bad moods.

If you type in Google phrases such as “the healing power of art”, “how art can heal”, “art as therapy” etc, you’ll get anything from 500,000 to 1.300,000 responses. The connection between art, healing and public health has been the subject of continuous scientific studies ever since art therapy as a profession began in the mid-20th century (the term itself got coined by the British artist Adrian Hill in 1942). But of course, the ways in which art can influence and benefit our lives have been known to the humans for centuries, and we can find various examples in the writings of the ancient philosophers such as Plato who believed that the arts were able to shape our character and stir up emotions.

The thing that differentiates art therapy from other forms of activities improving our well-being such as exercise and meditation is that while the former engages the body and the latter — the mind, art engages both. The hand-brain connection is incredibly powerful and I am the first to assert that even mixing colours on the palette or doodling helps me chase away troubling thoughts.

But art therapy is not merely a stress-relieving activity that can support a traditional verbal therapy. It actually works where the latter falls short — such as cognitive behavioral therapy and cognitive processing therapy which might not be adequate for military service members with post-traumatic stress disorder, as was reported last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association. As Girija Kaimal, whose work aims to strengthen the scientific evidence that art can heal, reports, in a project to aid military service members a group of art therapists “found that art making can help individuals who have experienced traumatic brain injury address their identity issues”.

Henry Miller’s own experience of making art was nothing but therapeutic, and the writer claims it actually saved him from losing his sanity.

Henri Matisse, La danse, 1909, oil on canvas, 259.7x390.1cm | Image via MOMA (fair use)
Henri Matisse, La danse, 1909, oil on canvas, 259.7×390.1cm | Image via MOMA (fair use)

But while the benefits of engaging in creative activities are widely known, it is worth emphasising that one doesn’t have to paint or pick up clay to experience these benefits, for viewing art is equally beneficial.

In The Gay Science published in 1882, Nietzsche wrote that:

Only artists, and especially those of the theatre, have given men eyes and ears to see and hear with some pleasure what each man is himself, experiences himself, desires himself; only they have taught us to esteem the hero that is concealed in everyday characters; only they have taught us the art of viewing ourselves as heroes—from a distance and, as it were, simplified and transfigured—the art of staging and watching ourselves. Only in this way can we deal with some base details in ourselves. Without this art we would be nothing but foreground and live entirely in the spell of that perspective which makes what is closest at hand and most vulgar appear as if it were vast, and reality itself.

In the third population-based Nord-Trøndelag Health Study, i.e. The HUNT3 Study performed between 2006-2008 in Norway, 50,000 men and women were questioned about their participation in cultural activities like attending galleries and museums and watching films. The study, which is considered one of the most extensive cohort studies ever conducted in any country, discovered that the benefits of participating in cultural activities — rates of good health, satisfaction with one’s life, and lower rates of anxiety and depression — “were found in people who both created or consumed the arts. That means that people who enjoy looking at art get the exact same health benefits as people who enjoy making art.

Since 2018, Canadian doctors can “prescribe art” to their patients — i.e. physicians who are members of Médecins francophones du Canada (MFdC) are able to prescribe visits to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA).

In 2013, one of my favourite writers Alain de Botton, together with art historian John Armstrong published a book called Art as therapy, which recontextualizes various art works from the history of art so that they can be “approached as tools for the resolution of difficult issues in individual life“. Again, it’s about looking at art, not making it, that the authors advocate as a way of dealing with our problems and sorrows.

I do this often myself. Besides going to see exhibitions and my favourite pieces at museums, I keep a collection of books which are at hand when I want to feed my eyes with images that make me wonder, ponder and unwind. Of course, anything can be found on the internet these days (and any museum visited virtually) but there’s something particularly calming about a heavy hardcover with beautiful reproductions printed on velvety paper. When I look at the monographs on Maria Anto, Balthus or Marlene Dumas, I am teleported to the land of goodness.

Painting heals. It heals the painter and the viewer.

Henry Miller, Untitled watercolour painting, 13 in x 11 1/4 in, pencil signed and dated 58/63 | Image via Bisdquare (fair use)
Henry Miller, Untitled watercolour painting, 13 in x 11 1/4 in, pencil signed and dated 58/63 | Image via Bisdquare (fair use)


Henry Miller “To Paint is to Love Again”, Part 11: The healing power of art

In the space of a few months, my then wife who was running a cellar in the Greenwich Village, the Roman Tavern I think it was called, decided to exhibit my watercolors. No one except a few close friends knew that we were man and wife. If she mentioned my name in public, it was always “my friend, the writer”. Strange that no one ever asked me the titles of my non-existent books. Except for the mezzotints which we sold from door to door, nothing of mine had as yet appeared in print, not even in a local newspaper. Because of the peculiar life we were then leading, the underground life I always call it, I rarely visited this Roman tavern of hers. When I did, you would think the Prince of Wales had appeared. Usually there were never more than a half dozen clients in the joint at any time. They were the same types one sees today in any bohemia: all talkers, pretenders, spongers, hangers on, like myself. “So you’ve taken a painting, have you?” someone would say, and I would nod. Whereupon, they would follow a painful inspection of my watercolors, accompanied by the usual irrelevant, asinine highbrow comments. Not being able to vanish to the floor, I would put my tail between my legs and scoot. Around 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning my wife would walk in and blandly ask why I’d run away, adding that the fellow in question had really liked my work — “You should have heard what he said about you after you left”. My answer to such remarks usually was: “Have you brought anything to eat?” If she had, I would fall to it like a famished wolf. And then, in the manner of the insane, resume watercoloring till dawn. Not a penny in it, of course. A crazy life, what? Particularly in view of the fact that I was supposed to be at work on the great American novel. Now and then of course, I did write a few pages. Often they made no sense whatever. I typed merely to salve my conscience. My dodge now was watercolors. I dabbled in them, as the expression goes. It was a joy to go on turning them out like a madman, perhaps because I didn’t have to prove anything, either to the world or myself. I wasn’t hepped on becoming a painter. Not at all. I was simply wriggling out of the straitjacket. Small wonder that painting is offered as therapy in our mental institutions. 

Years later, re-reading “The birth of tragedy”, I was electrified by Nietzsche’s therapeutic lines concerning the healing power of art. Strangely enough, I was again in a desperate plight. Having written the “Tropic” books and a few others to bode, I was back in my native land as penniless as when I left it ten years earlier.

Again, I’m painting watercolors. This time not to while away the time or stave off madness, but to requite my numerous benefactors for their kindness and sending me little sums of money, clothing, food, umbrellas, painting materials, and so on. Was I to take offence because a generous soul offering me two bucks demanded one of my good watercolors? One of my quondam benefactors had the cheek to ask for a brace of watercolors, saying that the two dollars he was transmitting ought to prove ample. I did as he requested and without a word of sarcasm. After all, how could a lieutenant commander in the United States Navy be expected to know the value of a watercolor? Sometimes I wonder if, like the Marquis de Sade, I shall spend my closing days in an asylum, painting delightful little watercolors for the other inmates. The Marquis, it will be remembered, staged and directed his own plays for the inmates of the asylum in which he was confined. What a joy it must have been for him to find such an outlet. And what a tragedy when, to the satisfaction of his lifelong persecutors, he was ousted from the asylum. Like Rembrandt, he died in the gutter. 

I hope I do not give the impression that I take to making watercolors only when desperate. Most of my painting periods have been delightful ones. One of them, like an attack of measles, occurred in a little village outside Paris, where my only companion was a fierce, oversized dog who knocked me down every time he greeted me.

Occasionally he would sit and watch me paint. During these sessions, I found that I could hold communication with him. If he didn’t approve of the job I had done, he would walk on it, piss on it, or chew it to pieces. We had remarkable talks now and then, and in such figures as Fra Angelico, Bruegel the Elder, Mantegna, even Piranesi. When he had had enough, he would simply curl up before the fire and go to sleep. I would then continue the discussion by myself. 

Click here to read Henry Miller’s “To Paint is to Love Again”, Part 10: Art and Insanity

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