Can Art Save Your Life?

We live in an age where depression is epidemic. According to the Black Dog Institute, depression is the third largest individual heath problem in Australia, after heart disease and stroke.  1 in 5 people will experience the black hole of internal nothingness at some time, maybe an extended period, in their life’s journey.

We have failed to find a secular replacement for the problems for which religion was once a solution. We no longer understand how to survive within our allotment of finite resources.

The reality is, we have not been given a whole lot of information about what this Birth to Death Project is about. We’ve had to make it up as we go. We train our children to pretend they get it, lest they lose hope altogether and do something drastic. We have been pretending for so long, we have fallen into the trap of believing that it is the answers that matter, not the questions. We have lost the most basic understanding of all – the understanding that it is actually impossible to know anything for sure. As a society, we really believe the answers are available, if we just try a bit harder, stress a bit more.

As far as I can tell, no-one really knows what we are doing here. Faith seems to be the process of living as though our best guess is right. Wise people and false prophets abound. Platitudes appear on facebook like a plague of toads.

Our culture has a long history of engagement with the sacred (I use the term sacred in a practical sense: the elements of life that hold the greatest value and importance). Art and scholarship are the byproduct of this. It is what we did when there was time leftover from the consummate work of survival. We put our heads up and said “what else?”. We didn’t always do it well, or artfully, but we always did it. Some evolutionists argue that this is the quality that differentiates us most from chimps, our nearest biological relative. We ask “why?”

There was once a time, within living memory, when a person could not claim to be educated without being able to locate themselves in time and space,  physically, psychologically and philosophically. Developing an holistic internal landscape gave us the data we needed to reference, cross-check and move forward intelligently and sustainably. Certainly only the elite were educated. But all leaders and decision makers were drawn from this minority pool.

Culture and art are not a quick fix. They are a 25 000 year old tradition that quickened 5 000 years ago, and then again about 200 years ago.

I’m not saying that art holds all the answers. But understanding the process of the last 5 000 years of engaging with the right questions may be the best we can do. And that may be enough.

Ghost in the Routine

I have painted for more than 20 years. I’ve done oils, acrylics, canvas, paper, board, large murals, collages, assemblages, installations, sketches. Now I’m 40 (plus GST) and still have several works on the go at any time. I don’t particularly enjoy it. In fact, mostly it’s torture (they don’t call it pain-ting for nothing).

Since the early days I haven’t  really sold much work, apart from participating in the occasional group show. And yet the drive to continue to make marks on surfaces has never abated, not for longer than a few months.

Continuing to practice something in the face of the lack of tangible reward seems to contradict human nature, at least as it is usually described. There is no economic rationale, no improvement in my ability to attract sexual partners – even the process itself is not particularly satisfying. It’s messy. And expensive. The results? Well, most of my paintings are stacked around the house, looking towards the walls.

So what is it about? Instinct? An expression of innate biological factors, like sucking, walking, and mating? Somewhere, buried deep below consciousness, there are these needs that manifest themselves as a series of connected thoughts that lead to this seemingly random action. It’s a bit creepy really. A bit like being possessed or inhabited by a ghost.

And yet. I am descended from 15-20 000 generations of people who made stuff. In fact, the products of their ‘urges’ are the only way I know of their existence. They were ‘resourceful’. They made marks on the walls of caves, tombs and palaces. They wove and stitched and glazed and forged and sculpted and chiaroscuroed, cross-hatched and crocheted. Some of them (like me) just did it. But some of them did it really, really, really well. Every parent knows how hard it is to pass information forward to one generation. Some of my ancestors made things that are meaningful thousands of generations later.

Even alone in my living room I cannot get away from my culture, the sweep of history I am a tiny part of. Many have said  the urge to create is what makes us human.  Others are now saying it’s the very thing that makes us almost extinct.

I know that the relics I can see and hold and contemplate from the past are a rare glimpse, not just into the past but also into what it is to be human. They are the only tangible answers I have ever found to the eternal and infernal question: What, for god’s sake, is it all about?

The Art of Looking

When I was four we acquired in our house two red books that were a gift from a relative. They were part of a set of encyclopaedia. Our relative had tried to be fair by dividing the books between us and my father’s brothers. We acquired P to T. I have never figured this out, as my father only had two brothers. Something obviously went wrong in the accounting.

Luckily our lot included the “R” section, containing a piece about the artist, Rodin. In it was a small reprint of a black and white photograph of one of his sculptures. I had never seen anything like it. I loved it. I called it “The Man Without His Head” and I regularly begged my father to find it for me. I admired it for hours, gazing upon its muscular marble flesh. Eventually the page began to wear away, and The Man Without His Head began to resemble a page from an ancient text.

This was my first of many experiences deriving comfort and well-being from focussing my eyes and perceptions on a great work of art. I was yet to discover the existence of hundreds of thousands of cultural artefacts upon which to feast my eyes. The process of contemplating beauty is a profound meditation. When those artefacts are the product of the development of the society I am part of, the process gains both depth and breadth. Our western forebears, the Ancient Egyptians, invented the aesthetic that has dominated western art for fifty centuries (Johnson, 2003). They understood that the eye could bypass the brain and give us direct access to deeper truth. The love of looking is their legacy.

Right Eye of Horus, Ancient Egypt.


At the age of twenty-eight I returned from years of adventure overseas. While travelling I encountered galleries holding the most important and profound works in the world, and was also witness to the agony and suffering of the human condition everywhere I looked. My eye was saturated, but my soul was fragmented, and I was ready for formal instruction. I decided to entrust my journey to the best elders and wisdom-bearers western civilisation has turned out, the universities.

Naively, I believed that the highest institutions in the land were depositories of five thousand years of scholarship, and that they would bring this to bear in assisting me, and my fellow students, to make meaning of this montage of experience and find my place within it. What happened in actuality was that I became part of a dilemma, a dilemma much much bigger than us as we went about the business of photocopying “text” and trying to interpret the cryptic remarks of our academic instructors.

The dilemma, as I understand it, began in about 1650, the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment. This is distinct from the kind of enlightenment some hope to attain by holding yoga postures for a long time. It was during this period that scores of intellectuals began to stand against the abuses of church and state that were based on beliefs that had reigned since medieval times. Many philosophers were willing to risk their own lives to call for accountability based on a shared understanding, or a universal truth. This meant relying on empirical means, which are based on observation and experience, rather than superstition or the decree of those with power. Many were oppressed and persecuted. Science was born and civilisation was changed forever with the invention of the printing press to disseminate the new truth. It was a heroic time (see Richard Tarnas “The Passion of the Western Mind).

With the magnitude of achievements in this era, so began the renunciation of thousands of years of magical rites and sacred texts, denounced as superstition. A new form of persecution was born. A long tradition of babies being thrown out along with bathwater was pursued with a vengance. It seems the crucible of the human psyche cannot contain the pendulum swing of opposite beliefs for long. A backlash was inevitable. What happened during the Enlightenment, and the backlash to it, caused a schism that has never been rectified.

Within one hundred years a backlash movement, Romanticism (or the counter-enlightenment), was in full swing. Romaniticism is still the dominant philosophy today. This movement has it’s intellectual foundations in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant argued that the human mind is fundamentally incapable of knowing reality and is limited to a world created by the mind’s subjective filters. He declared the attainment of objective knowlege an impossibility.

As with any reactionary movement intent on the repudiation of a previous canon, the Romantics attempted to subvert the achievements of the Age of Enlightenment. Emotion replaced reason as the means to true knowlege. While previously education had been seen as a civilising force cultivating the animal nature of the “naked ape”, Rousseau’s notion of the “noble savage” held that society and culture are a corrupting influence on the human psyche, which is born intact and therefore in need of no influence other than that of “nature”.

Fast-forward two hundred years to a modern university, and you will find these two competing, equally valid, ideas of human nature have never been reconciled. Like dysfunctional parents intent on repressing their fundamental irreconcilable differences, their offspring becomes confused and disoriented, unable to decide which parent to trust. We limp out of university into the world clutching our bits of paper and accept that the world is never going to make sense to the likes of us. With luck we have the means to make a living and this becomes enough.

This schism is reflected throughout society in many different levels, not just the education sector. We need to begin with the underpinning philosophies that are the unconscious road-map for our path through the world. They need to be examined and rectified in order to make sense of our past and create for ourselves a meaningful future. I believe all the information and experience we need to do this is contained in five thousand years of human art, culture and scholarship. It is my intention to take a look.

Read:

Johnson, P. (2003). Art A New History. New York: HarperCollins.

Tarnas, R (1997). The Passion of the Western Mind. New York: Ballantine Books

We Need to Talk About Western Culture

This is what got me thinking seriously about the need for education within the arts of western society:

I was attending a workshop for adult educators. One of the facilitators was an indigenous Australian. Another participant, whom I knew socially from here and there, put up her hand and addressed the indigenous facilitator. She said:

“As an indigenous woman, you have thousands of years of culture to draw from in your teaching. As a western woman, I am bereft of culture. I have been displaced and dislocated from my culture, and feel a huge sense of emptiness because of this.”

I was shocked to hear this. The speaker was an attractive woman in her mid-fifties, with long red hair. I had seen her playing both guitar and flute at various events around town. I knew her to be an outspoken community leader, educated in psychology, a confident public speaker and excellent educator. No-one, including myself, commented on her comment. However, it got me thinking.

Western culture, as I understand it, includes five thousand years of scholarship and creativity. Why then would a woman, the recipient of the best of western learning, feel “bereft of culture”? What inspired her to express envy towards a woman of a cultural background that included displacement, not to mention outright cultural oppression, in it’s recent past?

I started talking to people, floating the idea of starting a website with direct links to education in the western canon. These are some of the responses I got:

“What western culture?”

“Oh, yes. Western culture. What a disaster.”

“Why learn about white people?”

It began to dawn on me that although I had studied visual arts for four years in the late ninties, at a major university, in a major city, in a developed country, I could not tell you anything about Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the origins of the Italian Renaissance, or in what year the Romans had withdrawn from England (the country of my most recent genetic heritage).

Trawling through my old university reading list, there was not a single reading from a publication dated more than twenty years previously. In fact, we had been expressly informed that anything written before the advent of 1960-70’s feminism was “located in patriarchal and colonialist assumptions and subjugated by hegemonic concepts”. Therefore, no longer relevant.

I began to feel I had identified a gap. Definitely in my own learning, but perhaps in that of my similarly dis-educated peers.

So began a journey of discovery that has been the most fascinating, sustaining and meaningful process on which I have ever embarked. The path is well mapped and illustrated, guided the elders of my ancestral story, many of them geniuses. Along with knowlege I have claimed a sense of belonging, wholeness, and, perhaps, the beginnings of wisdom.

You are invited to participate.

Read:

Bloom, A. (1987). The Closing of the American Mind. Simon & Schuster.

Hughes, R. (1990). Caravaggio. In R. Hughes, Nothing If Not Critical (pp. 33-37). Harper Collins.

Paglia, C. (1992). The MIT Lecture: Crisis in the American Universities. In C. Paglia, Sex, Art and American Culture (pp. 249-298). Penguin.