If you’re a regular reader of these here Times of Israel, you doubtless know that it is a unique platform for a diverse set of voices and topics. Chief among them is the stellar work by arts and culture writer Jessica Steinberg, who consistently offers up examples of fierce, brave creativity that challenges and blesses us.
While Jessica’s contribution to the Times is always valuable, it is critical to our mental health in this maddening moment in human history. Trapped in an endless, compulsively consumed loop of news, we are vulnerable to emotional storms. Jessica’s art items are an island of sanity in that storm, the respite our psyches need.
Normally speaking, art (especially the contemporary stuff), is meant to rattle rather than sooth — but bear with me for a sec, these aren’t normal times. With stress levels off the charts, our bodies and minds suffer terribly. Art is, in my opinion, one of the most useful, most important and most accessible treatments for what ails us. It has few side effects (OK, it can be addictive, but that’s not a bad thing), it’s relatively simple to undertake (trust me on this one, I’ll explain…) and offers a big payout. I say this with a degree of authority; I’m psychologist who (in this case) art practices what he art preaches.
I bet you’re asking yourself what I mean when I throw around the term “art” — am I talking about making stuff or looking at what others have done? Well, the answer is both, actually. It turns out that there is significant benefit from passive and active engagement with art. I call this “art health” and it comes from a balanced ‘diet’ of creating and experiencing.
Making art is well known to help children express themselves, get focused and stay out of all kinds of trouble (for a while). Kids seem to be instinctively drawn to art; they love the sensations and satisfaction it offers with little regard for the final product. We adults can learn a thing or two from our younger comrades, they are really on to something when they smear some paint or scribble with wild abandon. Somewhere along our journey to adulthood, we forgot how much joy and serenity these simple acts can bring.
Thee is an emerging body of evidence to support the claim that making art — especially as an ongoing practice — has all kinds of advantages. It induces hopefulness, lowers stress and increases focus. It can help with physical ailments and has been shown to improve cognitive ability. Creative activity triggers the so-called “reward centers” in our brain, giving us a sense of achievement, pleasure and “flow” — that special feeling of being at one with the universe.
At this point you might be saying to yourself “OK, Doc that all sounds great, but really, I’m lousy at art”, to which I will respond “Who cares!” just like you don’t need to be a great athlete to enjoy a walk or an opera singer to belt out a great tune in the shower, your technical skills in the art department have very little to do with gaining satisfaction from playing with paper and color. In fact (and here I’m sharing a little secret), it might even help—psychologically speaking. You see, the less you have invested in the final product the more you can enjoy the process; it really is all about the ride rather than the destination.
Adding art to your health routine requires little effort, just a bit of time and few supplies. To get you on the path, print out this informative guide called How to Develop an Art Habit . If you’re not sure which type of art suits you, experiment with simple, inexpensive supplies such a pad of paper, colored pencils, modeling clay, or pastels (they give good blend). It’s helpful (and fun) to simply play and get a feel for how these things move and look. For inspiration, go down a few internet ‘rabbit holes’ and discover easy, enjoyable how-to sites and videos. A timely new book entitled Open Studio features lockdown-friendly projects explained by working artists.
One of the most intriguing fun-facts to come from art health research is that you reap all the benefits even if you never complete a project. This means that you can really feel free to mess around and mess up…there is literally no way to fail. The magic comes from the interplay of body and mind — connecting with our inner “flow” energy.
Along with doing art (stop telling yourself you can’t, cuz it’s just not true), there is growing evidence that viewing art is a boon to our health. The Invaluable website reviewed the research and concluded that it causes a reduction in stress levels, increases empathy, strengthens critical thinking, offers relief from mental exhaustion and (my personal favorite) induces feelings of love. That last one happens because looking at art releases the hormone Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that among other things, gives us that special something often associated with L-U-V.
People, in my experience, tend to be divided between those for whom art galleries and museums are a slice of heaven and those for whom it is a version of hell. In an upcoming piece I will take a deep-dive into the former, exploring the question of why art spaces are sacred for some of us. For now, I turn my attention to those of you who have negative (or neutral) associations with galleries. Your ‘hate it!’ likely stems from memories of bland school trips, uppity guides and rambling ‘explanations’ that made little sense and were even less interesting. To you, I say take heart; there is truth in your criticism. Often, art spaces come across as cold and distant. Worse still, they can give off a vibe of snobbery, a kind of in-joke meant to exclude us ‘normals’.
However — and it’s a big HOWEVER — we need to get past all that so that we can all reap the rewards of spending time with art. In future installments I’ll suggest ways in which our public art spaces can and should become more welcoming and accessible. For now, though, they are mostly closed, which poses a whole set of other problems. At the very moment we need that art the most, it is least available to us. Sure, we can tap into the wonders of modern tech to connect with beautiful images and fun, friendly folks to help us understand them (BTW, Netflix star Hanna Gadsby is a legit art historian and has hilarious YouTube vids), but that’s only part of what we need.
I suppose that in the meantime, virtual viewing will have to do and perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe, by experiencing art at home from a safe distance with remote in hand, we have a sense of control. It allows us freedom to explore and discover appealing styles and works at our own pace. That just might undo the damage of the past so that we can reap the rewards of the present.
The bottom line: YOU NEED ART, we all do. Even if the pandemic ends soon (and it shows no sign of that), the psycho-damage has been done and will continue to be felt for some time to come. The making and viewing of art is not just a coping mechanism for these times of crisis, it will also be a way to make sense of and heal from our personal and collective trauma. Developing an art habit now is a kind of inoculation; it will give you immediate results and prepare you for the stuff that lies ahead. I’m reminding you that the Biblical Noah and sons had just as many (if not more) ‘challenges’ after they emptied the ark as they did during the flood.
So, what are you waiting for? Grab a scrap of paper (feel environmentally virtuous for a moment), fish around for a pencil or those freebie crayons your kids got the last time you took them to a restaurant (remember that?!) and start playing with colors and shapes. When you’re done with that, go hunt the internet for an artist who makes realistic portraits of celebrities out of cat hair (I’m pretty sure that’s a thing). I promise you, it will do you a world of good. You can trust me — after all, I’m a doctor.