Reflections on the Role of the Arts in Personal Development

     What positive effect does creative activity have on people? Can it carry over into the rest of one's life, to heal and enhance one's state of mind, and one's relationship with family, school, job, the latest crisis, etc?

     Many adults and children alike choose to play music, or write, or draw, to help them cope. Many more also find it relaxing to enjoy the arts as a spectator. The arts help to self-soothe. Even if it is “just a hobby”, it provides an outlet, a way to relax, or channel restless energies. 

     The dedication to cultivate one’s art also provides a sense of personal agency, discipline and accomplishment.  You will make many mistakes, and learn from them. If there is a sense of pride, it is usually hard won through repeated failures and renewed efforts. 

     And there is a state of “flow” attained during the practice, in which the artist experiences a heightened awareness and presence, a mindfulness and sense of oneness with the act.

     But really, at this point we could be talking about any activity one finds relaxing and engaging on a personal level: sports, mushroom hunting, stamp collecting. What differentiates the arts is that  they are forms of expression and communication. They are essentially forms of self-talk, as well as communication with others, and many of us have things to say, or inquiries to make, of ourselves and others, that can not be said in any other form.

     Practicing the arts, or even just enjoying them, provides a reality in which the artist or audience can see their large, complicated issues in a smaller, more manageable format. A new perspective is found. And this is true even when the subject matter is not necessarily the issue at hand. The cognitive processing engaged through the arts mirrors the deliberating we all go through in managing our daily lives. There is a set of thinking skills gained through dance, sculpture, etc that are useful for “real” life’s bigger situations as well. 

     No matter what the subject, and whichever art-form, here are some of the basic issues of process: 


1. What materials tools, materials, and techniques will you use?

     Understanding your medium means understanding the most basic underlying framework for the given situation. In art, this is your chosen medium. In life, this is your most basic outlook. For example, a stone sculptor engages in a medium in which he/she removes everything that does not belong to the finished product. Film editing, too. The process is a kind of purging and revealing. A  similar framework in the bigger picture, means any real life problems or needs will be approached through clarification, by letting go of what is not needed. The solution is already there, and we need only see it and reveal it.


2. What choices are you going to make? And why? 

     How do you see it in your mind’s eye? How do you want to see it? In the film, Le Mystere de Picasso, we watch as the artist works on the same large scale painting for months, painting whole scenes in an out of existence, one at a time.  He reaches a point where he finally says, “This is going very badly,” and blots out nearly the entire canvas. Then he creates the whole thing from scratch in one day because he can finally see it. The synthesizing and analyzing done by the painter, is much the same as any of us would use in trying to make sense out of something that seems senseless. We try out different permutations of possibility, and ask ourselves if it is true, or if it is helpful. 

     If the inner canvas is your medium, you will be paying attention to your own thoughts, and noticing the ones that are working for you, and those that seem to be working against you, as in cognitive behavioral therapy.  We have more choice than we give ourselves credit for. We can choose how to talk to ourselves.


3. What are the relationships between the various elements?

     In dance, for example, there may be a leader and a follower. One dancer may catch another, or lift them. The call and response of the dancers’ faces and bodies indicate the relationship. Is there interest? Is there trust? Animosity? Does the exchange undergo any kind of shift during the performance?  In real life, it might remind you of some one you know, or might even be symbolic of one’s relationship with a certain concept or dream. The elements embodied may be: good and evil; past, present, and future; man versus nature, etc


4. What is in focus and what is background?

     A band playing together builds a soundscape in which various voices and instruments come into focus in turn. In creating the song, they may explore many options for how to build and shift the focus. Each soloist plays their unique immediate sound into this musical backdrop. There can be a sense of individual liberation from and simultaneous harmony with the other instruments. Perhaps this is another way of looking at relationships. We look at our relationship to the whole. The bigger picture. In field theory from Gestalt therapy, one learns to distinguish what is happening right now from the residue of past experiences. In all forms of therapy, we can learn to shift the focus.

What feelings come across? And why?

     Actors often reach into their own experiences to generate the feelings conveyed by their character.  A really good actor can reproduce those feelings in the audience, along with associated thoughts and bodily sensations. For the artist, it can be challenging to externalize difficult feelings through imaginative work, but perhaps not as challenging as confronting them directly. The theater, (or the canvas, or the song) is a safe space in which to explore important feelings. 

     The making of a painting or drawing, the playing of music, or the act of writing, etc, externalizes the inner world, and helps us integrate and negotiate that inner/outer exchange. These are cognitive skills that  carry over into other aspects of our lives as well. Symbolism and metaphor exist to help us understand abstract concepts, and access a sense of meaning in our lives. As Victor Frankl said, “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”  Artistic activities exercise the same mental muscles that allow us to draw meaning from our own lives, and cope with challenges.

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