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.

The Good and the Generous

I just ordered a great pair of earrings. I got them at the Richard Dawkins website (A Clear Thinking Oasis) for $22.95. They are beaded, amber, in the shape of double-helix-es, and they are also available in other groovy colours. Being a spring natural, amber looks great on me. And they go with most of my wardrobe.

Richard says we don’t need religion to be good and generous. I agree with him. What we do need is a good heart. But has this always been true? For someone who understands so much about evolution, where does he think humans learned to be good and generous?

I don’t think there is any reading of history that presents evidence that human beings are innately good and generous. In fact, there is a wealth of evidence to the contrary. It seems we have attained the virtues of goodness and generosity that we now take for granted very, very slowly.

We seem to have forgotten that the idea of loving one’s neighbour and turning the other cheek were once radical concepts that went viral two thousand years ago. The fact that they are now thoroughly embedded in a secular society is due to great hardship and suffering on the parts of many of our ancestors who were willing to go to the lion pit to defend these concepts, and change the trajectory of history.

And of course, whenever human nature is involved, things become very complex. The corruption of the good and the generous into institutions that oppressed and tortured it’s fellow human beings was to be expected really, considering that oppression and torture were de rigueur (and still are in many places where human nature reigns unchecked). The crusades and the inquisitions were not a Christian idea. They did not appear as an isolated event against a backdrop of people going about their business, cooperatively building a better world. They were a continuation of a long tradition of humans trying to get it over one another.

Richard Dawkins claims to be evidence based, and there is much evidence to show that goodness and generosity are religious ideas. Although we no longer need religion as a vehicle, without it, who knows where we would be? For me the more interesting questions that go to the heart of things are about what we really are under the veneer of civilisation we take for granted?

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?

Give Reality a Chance

I had my two babies as a public patient in Katoomba, Australia. The birthing unit was run by midwives, with several doctors on-call to intervene if the need arose. The birthing room was cleverly lit to give the appearance of soft candlelight, with spotlights to allow the professionals to see what they were doing. There was a large bath filled with warm water. I was encouraged to bring my favourite ambient music. My children’s father was supported and given the option to participate at his discretion. After the birth I was given round-the-clock support by lactation consultants during my stay. Back home, these well-trained, compassionate, bossy, experienced women were available to come to my home whenever needed. All on the public bill.

After my babies were born, a theme arose in the social commentary surrounding the care of newborns. Many people told me of a time in history when we lived as a village, when mothers were supported by extended family, when raising children was as much a part of life as harvesting crops and celebrating the change of seasons. This utopian period stood in contrast to the present day, when the mechanistic medical model of the west had co-opted the wonders of natural childbirth and turned it into a production line of mothers churning out babies, factory-style.

I hear about this utopian village so often, in many different fields, such as home-birthing, complementary medicine, environmentalism, feminism. It seems a little daily comfort is  needed to foster the luxury of idealism. I have come to think of it as a kind of medieval Avalon, or Brigadoon. In other words, located entirely in cultural mythology. It seems to serve the purpose of allowing us to feel that we may, someday, stumble upon the magic formula that will allow the mists to part, at which time all will be well.

It is possible that the supportive village may have existed sometime or place, for a nanosecond in human history. The reality of childbirth and parenting in our cultural history, and nearly all others past and present, is so completely different it’s almost impossible for the modern human mind to comprehend. It is understandable that we could have created the utopian myth to protect ourselves from the psychological impact of reality.

In fact humans are pretty much unique among primates in our practice of infanticide within our own species (Broude, 1995). Abandonment, slavery, sexual abuse and battery are far more common parenting practices within our species than care and nurturing, a relatively modern development. A feature of life in Europe until the rise of foundling homes in the 17th century (the first established by St Vincent de Paul in France) was stepping over babies abandoned in the street, frothing at the mouth as they died of malnutrition. This would have been as frequent, and acceptable, as the sight of homeless male adults present today in the streets of most cities.

A history of child-abuse is not unique to developed countries. There is little evidence for humans treating children with the care and love we now take for granted, from anywhere around the world or through the ages. Note: Read Robin Grille’s book “Parenting for a Peaceful World” for some mind-blowing research into the history of parenting. I don’t agree with his conclusions, but his research is fantastic.

Somewhere in the last 200 years we have invented the idea that children are precious. To treat them with love and care is a fundamental principle going to the heart of our humanity. We have integrated these ideas to the point where we take them for granted and imagine they must be part of our ‘nature’. We have developed systems of child protection which, though fallable, would have seemed foreign in a history where most children were disposable.

We have changed the very basis of our human consciousness in a very short period of time. During the same period of evolution we have polluted and out-fished our water systems, over-exploited our soil reserves, over-populated, changed the climate of our planet.

If we insist on identifying ourselves with myths about who we really are as a species, we run the risk of needing to learn these lessons again, god forbid. As we hurtle towards an industrial environmental calamity, let’s take an honest inventory of who we really are and where we’ve been.

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.


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

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