This week Darcy and I spoke a lot about the reasons for needing art in our life. This question probably has different answers from the perspective of the artist and the viewer, but I in this post I will try to scratch the surface of the artist’s side.
A couple years ago, I received a comment on my website stating that “Work and chores get done, because the world needs them to be done. Art gets done because there is an internal need for it to happen.” I grew up doing a lot of arts and crafts, which did not necessarily stem from the outside, such as someone actively teaching me. I liked the process of creating something and seeing how it comes out in the end. It was a cathartic experience for me. But why is it so rewarding?
The biological reward system has evolved to increase our chances of survival in tough times. For example, the satisfaction we get from a good meal is due to the fuel it provides for our body. Animals will learn to press a lever on cue, as long as they are rewarded with a food pellet. But what about art? Why does it bring us such satisfaction? Why do some people (but not others) crave it so much? And why do some people enjoy viewing art, whereas others primarily enjoy creating it?
Expressing yourself through art provides an additional channel for interaction and communication. Literature indicates a strong correlation between mental disorders and artistic expression, such as in the case of Vincent van Gogh, who suffered from epilepsy, depression, anxiety and, according to some accounts, bipolar disorder. He used art as a method for processing his emotions.
In addition, in the case of physical brain dysfunction, “The turning to communication through art in lieu of language deficits reflects a biological survival strategy... It is adversely affected when these systems are dysfunctional, for congenital reasons (savant autism) or because of acquired brain damage (stroke, dementia, Parkinson’s), whereas inherent artistic talent and skill appear less affected.”
But in the healthy population, “Art is a symbolic communicative system practiced only by humans, and argued to have become a fully practiced behavior at a time when early human social groups grew in size and complexity, and communication through language and art promoted cohesion and survival.” There is a lot of evidence suggesting that a high percentage of artists are introverts and art may serve as an additional channel for their interaction with society. And this is where I can relate.
In our daily lives, we are constantly bombarded with face-to-face social interactions, of which not all may necessarily be pleasurable. Art provides a way to unwind from this feeling of chaos. Creating art is a meditative process and results in a feeling of “flow”, as described by Michaly Csikszentimihalyi.
Last year, I met a person who said: "You have a lot on your plate, you are an individual, a wife, a mother and a professional." As an adult with children and multiple responsibilities, I feel like art is one of the very few things I have left to feel like myself. Making art makes me feel more like an individual - it is something only for myself, where I do not depend on other people and no one depends on me.
The question, “Why do we do art” constantly rises to the surface in Yana’s and my discussions. I suppose it is because our primary work is very demanding and it take real effort to for both of us to put aside time to do our own artwork.
I rent a shared studio space with two other artists but during the school year I hardly darken the door. I have drawing space at home I can access when I have free time.
So, if art making is the last thing on the list of a busy life, why do it at all? I have had many people over the years say, “it must be so much fun being an artist!”. Not really fun; more like I am compelled to do it. I have creative ideas I want to follow, just to see where they go but art making is also the place where I can explore my own mind, check in on my individual responses to the world and to the artwork. To watch myself and the work evolve. Sometimes a piece takes on a trajectory of its own where I’m working intuitively, almost like an observer. It is difficult to get to that mental space but I never give up trying.
I have recently read a number of Eric Kandel’s books, Reductionism in Art, The Age of Insight and The Disordered Mind. In various contexts, Kandel summarizes research done using brain imaging during art making. The right hemisphere is very active during creative work. Many scientific studies indicate that the left hemisphere of the brain (where we think in a logical sequential way and where our language centres are), inhibits the creative right hemisphere where we tend to connect knowledge and experience into a gestalt or new picture of the “world”. Sudden bursts of painting and drawing can happen in people who have left hemisphere damage. The theory is that part of the left hemisphere’s function is to inhibit or dampen down the right hemisphere, presumably to keep us from winging off into “insanity” where we may connect too much and analyze too little.
The other interesting side to this research is that even though there are many examples of mentally damaged or unstable people making groundbreaking art (Kay Redfield Jamison, Touched by Fire), it is not necessary for an artist to be verging on insanity to be creative. We can train ourselves to diminish the inhibition of the left hemisphere by practicing. Kandel, in The Disordered Mind gives the example of Jazz musicians. Their right hemispheres are highly active during improvisation but it takes years of training for most people to achieve this.
So, other than insatiable curiosity, I do art to turn off the incessant chatter of my left hemisphere and just be responsive in the moment. It has taken a lifetime of practice. Yana and I discussed this as “flow”. Athletes use it, repetitive lab work requires it, as well as many other activities where focused awareness of the present is necessary and we must shut off the planning and ruminating that our left hemisphere bullies us into. For me, painting and drawing feel very insightful, absorbing and restful in a world where the dialogue is always on high volume.