Making Art Is Not Enough

Woman wearing dramatic makeupMaking art is not enough. Storytelling is not enough. Writing lyrics and music is not enough. Dance and movement are not enough. None of these are enough to transform emotional pain and suffering into emotional freedom.

If a creative outlet were enough, we wouldn’t read tragic stories about talented artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Amy Winehouse, and Kurt Cobain. These great talents passed away because they succumbed to their demons. These demons were mental health conditions, or “disorders,” as listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association.

Dealing with Demons Alone

Amy Winehouse said that she dealt with her challenges by turning her life into her songs. The chorus of her famous song “Rehab” included the line,”They tried to make me go to rehab, I said no, no, no.” Her demons, as a matter of public knowledge, included substance abuse and addiction.

Demons are seductive: they can be difficult to manage and sometimes we let them consume us. Winehouse was particularly vulnerable because she did not develop healthy boundaries with her demons. She expressed her life experiences as lyrics. She went into her experiences alone. Although she shared them with thousands of fans, she became trapped and isolated with her own darkness.

Kurt Cobain was quoted as saying, “I bought a gun and chose drugs instead.” Was he intentionally communicating suicidal ideation? Were his words a self-fulfilling prophesy? Were they a call for help?

Kurt Cobain’s artistic expression and talent alone were not enough to save him from self-destruction. Outnumbered by a million strangers, he was alone and not alone at the same time. Cobain’s lyrics were expressed to a large audience who were helpless to aid him. The relationship between himself and his audience was one of an individual preaching to a mass. That mass of people had no venue to communicate back to him, except by purchasing tickets and CDs.

The relationship of one person to a crowd is a one-way street. His self-destructiveness was applauded. His audience identified with him. Cobain might have benefited from finding a professional who could see through the talent and self-destruction to the vulnerable human. He needed a relationship that offered honesty and feedback that, if he were open to it, could have helped set his life on a less destructive path.

Jean-Michel Basquiat was a prolific artist who suffered demons of substance abuse and possibly manic depression as evidenced by mood swings, impulsivity, grandiosity, hypersexuality, and mania. Jean-Michel Basquiat was quoted as saying that he feared that he was going to be a bum for the rest of his life. He also reportedly said that since the age of 17, he had a romantic notion that he would become a star like Jimi Hendrix or Charlie Parker.

Many have speculated that his artwork contained symbols of ritual and signs of his mental illness. Creating art itself did not provide a cure for Basquiat’s demons. It may have led to insight and self-awareness but his art alone could not transform suffering into healing. It appears that the manic side of his disorder was seductive, allowing him to channel manic energy into the production of his artwork.

The Stages of Art Therapy

Art therapy has multiple steps. First, art therapy provides a therapeutic relationship that supports the individual while they examine their demons. The therapeutic relationship is one in which the therapist—while empathic—does not emotionally identify with the individual, as a friend or family member might. The therapist stays anchored in reality, slowly guiding the individual into life experiences and managing the speed and frequency of bringing up new material.

The next step is to use the creative process as a communication tool. In this step it is important for the client to explore the meaning attached to an artwork. Reflecting on one’s artwork can facilitate useful discussion about the context that the artwork was made in and the experience of making the artwork. For example, if Basquiat produced what he considered his best work while on heroin, the therapist would have gained useful information in the connection between his creative process and his demons.

After reflection is the integration of these experiences. For example, if drugs were used to mask painful childhood experiences that were never processed or integrated, this step would allow for that to happen. With knowledge and understanding of one’s life circumstances, a person can choose to make change.

The final step in treatment is to identify disadvantageous behaviors, understand the reasons for those behaviors and then take action to replace them with new, more effective behaviors. The arts often attract people who have painful experiences to process. The problem is that making art alone does not transform emotional pain and suffering into well-being.

© Copyright 2011 by By Barbara 'Basia' Mosinski, LCAT, ATR-BC, MA, MFA, therapist in New York City, New York. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • sammy

    sammy

    August 10th, 2011 at 7:06 PM

    good article. gave an insight into what really happens with these people who seem to have it all yet throw it all away.and as you mention,art is not enough.that is very true if you are associating the art with the very demons that you are trying to get away from!

  • TED

    TED

    August 11th, 2011 at 3:54 AM

    Its surprising how some of them just seem to have the perfect plan to destroy themselves and execute it do well.Almost seems unreal at times.But it seems like it’s true that some geniuses cannot live to see all of their own glory.

  • ricardo t.

    ricardo t.

    August 13th, 2011 at 3:29 PM

    I’m really interested in how you can read into the signs and flags raised by artwork, Barbara. When each of us are so individual in our creative style, even if we aren’t particularly artistic, how can you tell what the underlying issues are if we don’t draw something obvious like for example violence against others?

    Wonderful article, Barbara.

  • dominique paul

    dominique paul

    August 13th, 2011 at 8:30 PM

    I find art therapy to be a fascinating topic and am curious how you as an art therapist decipher the paintings and so on. (I’m not sure that decipher is the best word to use in this context so forgive me if that’s a clumsy way of asking. It’s the best I can come up with right now.)

    Thanks for sharing a great post.

  • Arlene Gallacher

    Arlene Gallacher

    August 14th, 2011 at 3:38 PM

    Hi Barbara, I have a question please. So art therapy isn’t only related to drawings, sketches and paintings then? I assumed it was.

    Judging by your article creative written work like song lyrics, and I would guess poetry too, is also included in that. Is that correct, that it extends beyond the boundaries of paper and paint? You’ve got me wondering about that now. :)

  • maddie tan

    maddie tan

    August 14th, 2011 at 7:52 PM

    Art making is about as equally effective as telling what your problem is. What the truth is is that art is a conceptual language and that’s how we can often tell how someone is feeling if they can’t put it into words properly. Art is an alternative medium to articulate their emotions.

  • Rowena Ball

    Rowena Ball

    August 14th, 2011 at 8:47 PM

    @maddie: Correct, but you should only interpret their creations if you explicitly ask them to draw their feelings if that’s the right word. If you were to look at H.P. Lovecraft’s works for example, you would think he was as insane as the characters in his books rather than one of our planet’s greatest literary minds.

  • Jacob Witherspoon

    Jacob Witherspoon

    August 14th, 2011 at 8:58 PM

    @Rowena, here’s a little trivia about Lovecraft; He actually suffered regularly from nightmares. It wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to assume a person can have severe mental health issues rooted in trauma and still be able to use that experience in their creative writing, music, and art. If you were to insinuate a creative individual is deranged judging by their entertaining works however, you could well offend them.

  • Georgia

    Georgia

    August 15th, 2011 at 4:46 AM

    It is situations like this that make many parents cringe when their children express that creative side. I know that that sounds shallow but most of us want better for them, not for them to be haunted by the inability to create something that lives up to their expectations. Not that you can keep them from this, but I just hope that the more situations like this that we see that we as parents will better allow our childredn to express themselves and to be themselves without beating up on them. They get so much artistic pleasure from being able to showcase these talents and we tend to smother that. Let them be who they are but take care to not let them in on the uglier side of the business.

  • Roxanne Bucks

    Roxanne Bucks

    August 15th, 2011 at 8:52 PM

    Amy’s music reminds me quite a bit of The Rose, a movie starring Bette Midler which is based on the life of Janis Joplin. I don’t know if Janis yelled out “Sex, drugs, and rock and roll!” to a crowd, but we all know that she was a drug addict and died from a heroin overdose.

    Yet another creative soul that lost her life lost too young. It makes me wonder if you need to be seriously disturbed to be a real creative genius.

  • Dustin Green

    Dustin Green

    August 15th, 2011 at 10:02 PM

    I’ve tried putting my negative feelings on paper, such as writing an angry letter and then choosing not to send it, or to just take my anger out on random people on the internet by being belligerent. Childish, I know. No success reported here. Writing isn’t cathartic for everyone. Maybe I’m going about it the wrong way…

  • mannyn

    mannyn

    August 16th, 2011 at 4:04 AM

    I totally agree that therapy through art is not enough. There are a lot of factors that interplay in the person’s environment and these should be taken account for. Unless the person is in a controlled environment perhaps there is a great chance for Art Therapy to be very successful.

  • Lily C.

    Lily C.

    August 17th, 2011 at 2:02 PM

    It would be nice if we could have a guide to deciphering artwork, and how certain parts of art can mean somethings. I read before that a hole in a tree could be a sign of sexual abuse on this site, but I simply cannot make any connections to it outside of the yonic and phallic imagery of a hole and a tree.

  • Simone Drew

    Simone Drew

    August 17th, 2011 at 3:24 PM

    @Lily C. : If you google Interpreting Children’s Art, you’ll find a link to a PDF on interpreting human drawings done by children. I understand that reading into art and art therapy can be aimed at children since they cannot put things into words as easily as adults.

    An example it gives is how long arms can mean the child wants to control others and desires power. It’s definitely worth a read.

  • Lily C.

    Lily C.

    August 19th, 2011 at 4:26 PM

    @Simone Drew: Thanks for the help! I found it easily enough, and you’re right. It was worth a read. When I look at some scribbles I did when I was in school, I see just how I was when I was young and I really didn’t know how to say it. I was never sexually abused, but the rape hysteria in my hometown made me draw people with legs close together.

    The bizarre thing was that I didn’t know what the mechanics of sex were until I was almost twelve. I led a very sheltered life.

  • Mark Wheeler

    Mark Wheeler

    February 22nd, 2012 at 1:47 PM

    Art Therapy and Art Psychotherapy reach the parts verbal therapies may not reach (or that take much longer) because art making is such a direct emotional experience (whereas words are filtered by the parts of our brain that try to stop us doing embarrassing things). This is why Art Therapy techniques ARE SO POWERFUL. Anything that works also has side effects, which can be dangerous in the wrong hands, hands 3 years undergrad, at least a year assisting then 2 years post grad (MA/MSc) are needed for safe practice. Then that safe practice is amazingly healing.

  • Judy Weiser

    Judy Weiser

    February 23rd, 2012 at 7:47 PM

    Hi Basia! I just saw this long-ago article, thanks to my UK colleague Mark Wheeler (another photo/video-therapy enthusiast!!)…
    I think its final paragraph needs to be hammered into the head of anyone who thinks that “art-making together” is all that art therapists do (and that it should be sufficient for healing to happen!!)
    — and also into the brain of those who train those kinds of art therapists, also!!
    MANY thanks for this extremely well presented paragraph!! Judy

  • spg

    spg

    October 2nd, 2014 at 1:53 PM

    i don’t think you can mention creative arts therapy in the same sentence with Hollywood performers. i don’t think we should even call what they do as “making art”. what these people do is sell out, they sell out there souls for money and for fame. that is the opposite of healing, that is destruction. so i would highly disagree with this article but i do agree that no form of therapy alone is enough. a mix of therapies for people with severe conditions is advised. for the rest of us, go out and express yourselves and you’ll probably discover something beautiful and liberating within your souls, making art is sometimes enough.

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