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Art Making – Life Making
by Karen Adler,
ATH Asst. Editor of Arts & Art Therapy


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‘Despair = Suffering without Meaning.’  ~Victor Frankel

I am learning to be still.

I am learning to be still as a rock, like a stone on the ground. I am learning to mould myself around hard moments and difficult times, cementing myself into spaces.

Art saves lives. Or perhaps I shouldn’t generalise – perhaps I should just say that art has saved my life. Time and time again, in big ways and in small. Which is why it continues to surprise me that artists continue to be portrayed in the media and thought of by many as bad, mad, addicted, unable to relate to others and to the real world. But this view of artists is why most art therapists are at such pains to point out to those who think that art therapy may help them, that no, being an artist or artistic is not a prerequisite.

Last week, a journalist who interviewed me about my work as an art therapist mentioned a film she’d watched which documented the lives of a group of artists and writers. All of those selected – Sylvia Plath, Jackson Pollack, Anne Sexton – came to a grim end. When I commented that I don’t believe that there’s a fine line between genius and insanity, that I believe there’s actually a great big chasm between the two, she answered with some reluctance, ‘Yes, but so many of them committed suicide or just lived totally dysfunctional lives.’

And that’s the problem with presenting research which pertains to a small but highly visible segment of a group and presenting it to an unsuspecting public as being representative of the group as a whole. The woman who interviewed me was intelligent and well-educated. And yet - perhaps because of the skill of the filmmakers plus this pervading societal view of artists as mad – she couldn’t quite see that if you select a group of black ducks out of all ducks, you’re bound to end up proving that the ducks you’ve chosen are black. And totally ignoring the hundreds of thousands of other ducks who aren’t black – or artists and writers who live quite normal, everyday sort of lives.

The linking of madness to genius is a long-standing one and one that has the potential to do great harm. Many people unknowingly use as their frame of reference the work of Ernst Kretschmer, an influential 20th century psychiatrist, who conducted a review of the evidence linking madness to genius. He concluded that men of genius ‘show in their psychological structure an unusual instability and hypersensitiveness, together with a very considerable liability to psychoses, neuroses and psychopathic complaints.’ [Kretschmer, 1929] Research conducted by Adele Juda into the genius-madness equation, concluded that ‘[there is] no evidence to support the assumption that the genesis of highest intellectual ability depends on psychological abnormalities… psychoses, especially schizophrenic, proved to be detrimental to creative ability.’ [quoted in Milligan and Clare, 1994]

The debate as to whether there is a link between creativity and mental illness goes on, with some research saying yes, other research, no. I, myself, wonder if the fact that most of this research concentrates on artists in the West, slews these results. I wonder if there were research conducted in countries such as Bali where there are whole towns devoted to the production of art [e.g. Ubud] and where art is perceived differently – e.g. as a communal activity, part of a spiritual tradition, the artist venerated as a living treasure – whether there would be any suggestion of an artist as being inherently in danger of pathology.

In the meantime, art therapists go to great lengths to convince people that the making of art is a natural human trait, that it is a healthy and empowering response to problems, that their art work won’t be judged on artistic merit, that they will be able to watch their mind quieten and grow more peaceful and that they will discover the pure pleasure of playing with paper and crayons, colour, form and shape. And not only all of the above but also that after a period of time, they will have a drawing or a sketch or a painting to show for that piece of time out of their lives rather than that same period of time spent in anxiety or depression or angst.

Yesterday, I was sick and depressed and thinking of running away. Today, I’m well and happy and still here. I did – finally – what I tell others to do. Courtesy of an article by Juliet Bruce posted here at All Things Healing, “Releasing Light in Dark Times Through Storytelling”, I wrote a story and did some art to make me stand my ground. And today I have a piece of poetry and a drawing that I’m quite proud of… and a next step to be taken.

As I said - art saves lives.

©Karen Adler, 2011


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About the Author

Karen Adler, ATH Asst. Editor of Arts & Art Therapy, is a Transpersonal Art Therapist, an artist, writer and researcher. She is a firm believer in the inherent healing qualities of the Arts. She has run art therapy workshops for the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction, self-harming behaviour, eating disorders, for post-flood and cyclone trauma and for people seeking to bring about positive change in their lives. Karen also uses Art Therapy to help in the resolution of her own life difficulties and is continually surprised by the insight it brings. 
Contact Karen at karenadler222@gmail.com or karenadler@allthingshealing.com.





Juda, Adele. The Highly Gifted Persons Study, 1927-1955.

Kretschmer, E. The Psychology of Men of Genius (International Library of Psychology), Berlin (1929), Routledge

Milligan, Spike and Clare, Anthony. Depression and How To Survive It. London, Arrow Books Limited, 1994.




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