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Saturday 22 September 2007

Art Therapy

One of my earliest ambitions - after I had emerged from the 'wild man of the woods' phase (see my profile) was to be a medical artist. Someone had told me of the people who sat in the observation areas of operating theatres and made drawings at various stages of an operation. Why that appealed to me, I cannot now remember or imagine. For sure I would never have had the draftsmanship to carry it off. Later, two of my friends were to become art therapists, though neither of them permanently. (I am not sure if that small insight into a dead-end stage of my development will prove relevant, but I throw it in on the chance that you might find it so.)

So much is but background. My interest in art as therapy really took off at art school. The agent for it was a commission for six students each to paint a mural in a public area of one of those vast Victorian mental hospitals, fortunately now confined to history. The man responsible for this project (a psychiatrist, as I recall) would visit regularly to check the progress of the work that nothing might be put there to inflame or excite his charges. One student, engaged on a scene of fishing boats on a beach, was reprimanded several times for allowing the masts of the boats to cross the horizon. This was too dramatic, too violent for the patients. Horizontal lines were what were required, for they were soothing. Definitely nothing crossing.

I have been a somewhat frequent waiter in waiting rooms of late: dental, hospital and others. On one of these occasions I overheard a patient describe a rather gaudy sunset as "therapeutic". To my mind the thing about therapy is that it does not have to be Art, but it does have to be done by the patient - or at the very least to engage with the patient, not just sooth. It is the patient's field of encounter with what is troubling him or her. It is a way of facing - and hopefully, facing-down - the current demon. As such, it is not for waiting rooms.

Always, though, there are exceptions to our rules. Along one wall of one large department in our local main hospital is a series of large coloured photographs of body tissues and fluids in a variety of magnifications. They are sumptuous images, sexy, sensuous, and, it seems to me, having a great deal in common with my fractal print-outs (16 March, 22 March and 24 April). More importantly, they are relevant to , or could be seen to be relevant to, the preoccupations of some patients at least. They may not have been done by the patient, but they might well engage with the patient at an appropriate level. And if only one patient comes to see one or more of the images as relevant, and by that came to see the problem as having its own great intrinsic beauty, might that not help, emotionally? Might it not offset to some extent, the ugly thoughts that had held total sway until then? Might that not trigger a change from negative to positive?

So much that is referred to as art these days is little more than self-expression. The boundaries are blurred. And not just in painting. In poetry, for example, Frieda Hughs wrote recently about the perception that more people are writing poetry these days then are reading it, and attributed that largely to the fact that much of what is written is self-expression, requiring no work, no discipline, no engagement with the language or with the rules and forms of poetry.

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