Art as Medicine


Art as Medicine: Creating a Therapy of the Imagination by Shaun McNiff (Shambala: Boston, 1992) is the source of the following quotes:


"Whenever illness is associated with loss of soul, the arts emerge spontaneously as remedies, soul medicine" (p. 1).


"Creation is interactive, and all of the players are instrumentalities of soul's instinctual process of ministering to itself.  Conflict as well as affection propel the process" (p. 1)


"It is through others that we discover who we are.  When we learn how to step aside and watch ourselves, the other becomes an agent of transformation" (p. 2).


"Since every aspect of art contributes to its medicine, we do not assume that some expressions heal and others do not" (p. 3)


"I encourage 'beginner's mind' and make the artistic process as simple as possible, describing how planned strategies block spontaneity.   In order to operate within this context, the artist has to relax ego and see it as only one of many players within expression's pantheon.  Curiosity and attentiveness become active participants in the creative process as we learn how to watch what we do while we are doing it.  This is not easy, because our ego 'judges' are thoroughly ingrained in us, but struggles abate as commitment and familiarity increase.   Art becomes part of the tradition of meditation where watchfulness is essential.  Whatever a person paints, dances, or sings has significance when we restrain ego's value judgments.  These discoveries are similar to the meditator's experience of wonder in something that was once boring and insignificant.  Judgment yields to awareness.


"So I am asked, 'How do you make a painting better?  Criticism is essential to art.  How do you perfect the discipline?'


"Through immersion in it.  If you are able to watch and respond to thresholds that emerge in their time, the process offers unending depth, surprises, and challenges.  Creation is a sentient and instinctual flow that determines where to go and what to change or omit" (pp. 12-13).


"Change is guaranteed only if I can let go of my attachment to each feeling as it appears.  New Englanders say that if you don't like the weather, don't worry, because it will change.  Expression is similarly characterized by fluctuations, while ego tends to lock onto things, especially things it does not like.  It gets caught in a single point of view.  Standing outside this perspective and observing it operate is the best medicine I know for psyche's ailments.  Step aside and watch" (p. 13).


"Art as medicine is more than a studio experience where we learn how to paint and experience therapeutic results.  The spontaneous expressions of participants demonstrate that deep movements of psyche are made visible through paint.  Art as medicine is therefore a depth psychology.   An approach that welcomes the spontaneous visitations of expression…" (p. 14).


"…when the soul is lost, art comes spontaneously to its assistance.  When the soul is depressed, isolated, mad, and distraught, artistic images appear…The creative imagination acts spontaneously as its own savior" (p. 16).


"Art as medicine embraces life as its subject matter, and separations among the arts are contratherapeutic.  As I work with individuals, I am open to their poetic speech, stories, body movements, dramatic enactments, sounds, and other expressions as well as to the pictures they paint.  I try to establish contact with as many aspects of the person's presence as possible" (p. 22).


"Today in art therapy, whenever people ask me how to begin, I say: 'Just paint.  Begin to move with the brush in different ways.  Watch what comes.  If you paint, it "will come."  Nothing will happen unless you begin to paint, in your own way.  Start painting as though you are dancing with your whole body, and not just using your fingers and your wrist.  Use your arms with the force of the body behind them.  Look at the shapes that appear, and think about what you can do with them.'  This philosophy of creative expression is carved out of my experience and observations of the people with whom I have worked.  The beginning painter often tries to represent images visualized in the mind in advance, making failure inevitable.  It is virtually impossible for the beginner to render a replica of a mental image, and so the process becomes tight.   I try to help people approach painting as tactile and movement-based.  We deemphasize the 'visual' dimension at first, to avoid concentrating too much attention in the controlling mind.  In our first pictures we simply move and express feelings while trying to suspend criticism" (pp. 33-34).


"The same thing applies in the other arts.  Nothing happens in the creation of a poem until the person starts to write.  Ideas emerge from the movement of the hands and their interaction with the mind.  All of the senses must collaborate if the expression is to achieve psychic authenticity" (p. 34).


"Art a medicine stays on course as long as we 'stick with the image'…'sticking with the image' includes staying with sounds, gestures, body movements, feelings, environments, and other aspects of art forms" (p. 55).


McNiff starts his book with the following quote by D.H. Lawrence:


"The soul is a very perfect judge of her own motions, if your mind does not dictate to her…The soul's deepest will is to preserve its own integrity, against the mind and the whole mass of disintegrating forces.  Soul sympathizes with soul."