Art: A Universal Language, A Universal Healing

If art were not a universal language, would we as viewers and consumers of art experience such intense emotions that run the gambit from exuberance to despair?

Running with the idea that art is a universal language that can overcome differences in cultures and languages, it is easy to see how art brings about even more communication. This communication is between artist and audience, but it is so much more than that. The audience communicates amongst themselves, and this can create a broader understanding of those we may deem different than ourselves. We create to communicate, and communicate through what we create. Art is an expression of ideas and emotion, which by nature, are ephemeral and ethereal. Art fills in the gaps when words fail us. We may also realize that we are all more similar than we realize, and this realization can hopefully bring about an era of social harmony.

I began with the assertion that art is a universal language in the sense that it communicates feelings, ideas, and cultural dynamics without the need to rely on the written or spoken word. The “Universal” aspect of the universal language of art does not mean that interpretation of the art is the same across all people. Instead, it means that because art often conveys a sentiment, it can inspire reactions as varied as the viewers themselves. One does not need to be fluent in a foreign language to understand heartbreak, joy, anger, or fear depicted in a work of art. This is especially true of portraits or in other representations of the human form. Regardless of the spoken or written language, logic is rarely applicable to matters of the heart.

 As a graphic designer, I use my knowledge of art and design to convey a message in a poster, or create a cohesive design in a book. Without art, graphic design would not exist. Arguably, these reasons are selfish, as they apply only to me and my career goals. However, art is important on a broader scale–especially as it applies to mental health and children.

The National Institutes of Health references studies of how art therapy–specifically music, writing and visual arts–helps in the recovery and treatment of stroke patients and individuals with depression. An article in News in Health published by the NIH states:

“Scientists are also studying how art therapy can help to ease pain and stress and improve quality of life. Megan Robb, a certified art therapist at NIH’s Clinical Center, says, “When traumatic memories are stored in the brain, they’re not stored as words but as images. Art therapy is uniquely suited to access these memories. “Once you draw or paint these images, she explains, you can then progress to forming words to describe them. This externalizes the trauma–moves it out of isolation, onto the page and into a positive exchange with the therapist. This process, Robb says, gives you “an active involvement in your own healing” (NIH).

In my own battles with depression and anxiety, I have found that listening to music and creative writing have been tremendous aids in my treatment. The NIH also states that, “Several small studies, some of which were supported by NIH, have suggested that art therapy can help improve health status, quality of life and coping behaviors. It can improve depression and fatigue in cancer patients on chemotherapy, and help prevent burnout in caregivers. It’s also been used to help prepare children for painful medical procedures, as well as to improve the speech of children with cerebral palsy” (NIH).

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) concurs with the NIH’s findings. According to Taylor Bourassa in her article on the NAMI website, “Art is an incredibly emancipating activity that helps with the release of pent-up emotions and may help someone to better understand these emotions. During manic episodes, art may be both a therapeutic tool and a tool to document certain activities” (Bourassa).

Bourassa goes on to write, “Noah Hass-Cohan and Richard Carr hypothesize in Art Therapy and Clinical Neuroscience that the repeated methods of making art and communicating with others through art could have positive effects similar to cognitive behavioral therapy in changing brain functions. With this knowledge individuals may be able to change their behavior leading up to these episodes. They may avoid certain people, activities and places that place them in a negative situation. The idea that art can help people is based on its expressive nature and its role in emotional and stress release. From a scientific point of view, what happens in the brain when one participates in art may help explain why it is such a therapeutic activity” (Bourassa).

Frida Kahlo is a prime example of how art can aid in processing trauma. In 1925, at the age of 18, Frida Kahlo survived a horrific accident. The bus on which she was a passenger collided with a street car, and she was impaled through the abdomen by a handrail. Her spinal column was fractured, and she suffered many other internal injuries and broken bones. Her self-portrait, The Broken Column (1944) depicts the aftermath of the accident. Here we see a fierce and determined Frida, but she weeps because of the pain from the accident. Her body is broken, and she has painted her broken spinal column as an actual column that is crumbling on the verge of collapse. All over her body are nails which further represent the anguish she feels. The background looks like sand dunes and dry cracked earth, representing her infertility as a result of the accident. Her back brace, which essentially holds her together, is also what keeps her bound like a prisoner in her broken body. Kahlo channeled her pain and frustration at her physical condition into her paintings. Her notoriety is not what brought her healing, it was the self-reflection through art.

Because art is so beneficial in a variety of ways as evidenced by scientific study, it is incredibly important for the arts to be a permanent part of the academic curriculum for K-12 students. All over the United States, funding for the arts in public schools has either diminished, or been cut altogether. This is a tragic mismanagement of funds which will ultimately negatively impact students. According to author Lauran Martin, writer for the educational website, Learning Liftoff, “For young kids, drawing, painting, and sculpting in art class help develop visual-spatial skills. Dr. Kerry Freedman, Head of Art and Design Education at Northern Illinois University says, Children need to know more about the world than just what they can learn through text and numbers. 

Art education teaches students how to interpret, criticize, and use visual information, and how to make choices based on it” (Martin). Martin goes on to explain how the arts teach students how to reason. “The arts strengthen problem solving and critical thinking skills. How do I express this feeling through my dance? How should I play this character? Learning how to make choices and decisions will certainly carry over into their education and other parts of life–as this is certainly a valuable skill in adulthood” (Martin). The article lists ten reasons why art education in schools is so important. The reasons Martin outlines are as follows: “creativity, improved academic performance, motor skills, confidence, visual learning, decision making, perseverance, focus, collaboration, and accountability” (Martin).

Before delving deep into the healing aspects of art, I defined art as requiring a significant amount of skill, practice, or raw talent to create a performance, painting, sculpture, or other work that expresses an emotion or idea, while also being aesthetically pleasing. While I have learned that my definition may not always be the definition of art, I have come to appreciate art in all its forms, especially because it has so many practical benefits.


Works Cited

Bourassa, T. (2016, April 19). How Art Can Help Monitor Bipolar Symptoms. Retrieved April 30, 2017, from https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/April-2016/How-Art-Can-Help-Monitor-Bipolar-Symptoms

Kahlo, F. (1944). The Broken Column [Painting].

Martin, L. (2015, December 02). 10 Reasons Why Arts in Education is So Important for Kids. Retrieved April 30, 2017, from http://www.learningliftoff.com/10-reasons-arts-in-education-important-kids/#.WQY2IdorLIU

National Institutes of Health. (2008, June). More than a Feeling: How the Arts Affect Your Health. Retrieved April 30, 2017, from https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2008/june/docs/01features_01.htm

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