Beauty, Justice and What We Do

"The aesthetic emotion might have begun as a cognitive signal telling us to keep on looking, because there is a pattern here that we can figure out. In other words, it’s a sort of a metacognitive hunch, a response to complexity that isn’t incomprehensible. Although we can’t quite decipher this sensation – and it doesn’t matter if the sensation is a painting or a symphony – the beauty keeps us from looking away, tickling those dopaminergic neurons and dorsal hairs. Like curiosity, beauty is a motivational force, an emotional reaction not to the perfect or the complete, but to the imperfect and incomplete. We know just enough to know that we want to know more; there is something here, we just don’t what. That’s why we call it beautiful"
In a recent article in Wired, Jonah Lehrer gives a clue that helped me make a connection between art and social justice. It is beauty, he says, that keeps us engaged, via bodily sensation, an internal thrill, the experience of the hairs on the back of your neck standing up. I can almost summon that response via memory of a particular piece of music on one of my favorite world music CDs. I can't tell you the name of the track or the artist but from the first chord, my eyes tear up, my body becomes hot and I sit, riveted until the song finishes and fades away. As I write this, the word 'longing' comes to mind. Riffing on Lehrer's quote, it is that incompleteness that is the key, a gap is left in the song that for those brief moments of listening, I enter and complete. My emotional response is part of the whole gestalt. Stay with me here. What if through our art, whether painting, song or dance, we  offer up the beauty we discern where it isn't usually seen and offer others the hint that they can complete the work by stepping into it? We draw attention to something others see as a social problem and our art says: but also this, but also beauty... Instead of turning away in frustration or leaping to quick fix answers might we offer a third path, a path into the appreciation of a phenomenon?
As an example, I offer the work of art therapist Jordan Potash in the recent issue of the Art Therapy: Journal of the AATA where he presents "guided relational viewing" of art work as a means of social change. Art created by  individuals with mental illness was presented to their family members and to mental health workers through an art exhibit in a psychiatric facility.  The artists themselves were not present. Viewers were invited to choose a piece that attracted them and to make art in response.  This two-step process had the effect of "sustaining the encounter and making it more genuine for the participants" p. 78. A participant said this: "When I really used my hand to think, the genuineness of the response is more: I really did have something to say to him, it felt better, more genuine" ibid.
The absence of the actual artists is significant in providing for the viewer a space for inner reflection, identification and diffusion of boundaries. Mental health workers for example, became aware that the  hierarchy of therapist/patient and their own performance of a prescribed role could be suspended in the moment of viewing the art allowing a more egalitarian human response.
Many of the mental health workers and family members who participated had suggestions for actions to improve the lot of those with mental illness such as public awareness campaigns.  Ultimately, what Potash has done is to extend the relational nature of art therapy a step further by seeding future possibilities. This kind of work is a form of activism that literally 'activates' the latent empathy in individuals as they find a point of true connection with another who perhaps seemed 'other'. Creating the conditions for all of us to discern the beauty in ourselves and others and in the often difficult conditions we find in the world may be the surest road to justice as well. To quote Lehrer once more: "It is the beauty that keeps us from looking away."

To read  the entire article by art therapist Jordan Potash (2011), Drawing involves caring: Fostering relationship building through art therapy for social change
ART THERAPY: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 28(2),74-81.


  1. I think that what you describe is something that happens when people mount exhibitions of artwork around a particular theme like migraine headaches or hurricane Katrina. It helps people understand experience if they can see it rather than just reading or hearing about it. I also think that empathy is more likely to arise from communication between individuals, such as artist and the person viewing his work, than from more general information. An illness like breast cancer or an event like 9/11 becomes more compelling when you can see what it feels like to someone caught up in the experience.

    I've been involved with exhibits of the work of people with mental illness that have, I think, served to raise awareness in the community. Twice, I've been asked to judge the fine arts entries for the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival. Many of the entries are from people who make a living as artists, but there is also work from amateurs. The panel is composed of artists, art teachers, a couple of art therapists, and others involved in the local art scene. Work is categorized by medium...oils, acrylics, pastels, etc. We're charged with choosing the best three pieces per medium.

    The work in most categories can be on any subject. The exception is a category, added this year, entitled Military Combat Experience. Our panel got to judge that category, which was both a privilege and an enormous responsibility. It was also emotionally draining...the most challenging, gut wrenching, edifying part of our day. I left the experience with a sense of how isolating and alienating it must be to confront the horrors of war and then return to an appreciative but oblivious and sometimes insensitive society. There's a link below with thumbnails of the winner in each category.

    Here's a link to the Festival website. It will be held next month in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

    In any case, I agree that using art to help communicate experience and heighten awareness has enormous and largely untapped potential. The question of whether or not to exhibit patient art is a thorny one to be sure. The issue of confidentiality is usually raised as an objection. You've offered an excellent argument for judicious display of work done in therapy. As always, the decision over whether or not to allow display of artwork is up to the artist but many may welcome the opportunity to share their experiences with a wider audience.

  2. Hi Nancy,
    Thanks for sharing your experience. I think there is a qualitative difference in how we can experience art exhibitions of client work viewed through a social justice lens. I am especially interested in your experience of the veteran's art work. Viewing such work is one small step toward sharing the burden of those in the armed forces, who, whether we like it or not, are representing us around the world. I have often taken my students to the Vietnam Veteran's Art Museum here in Chicago to help them connect with how men and women have used art to make sense of their experiences in war.


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