I bought my Mum this mug that reads Wake up and Be Awesome. It’s beautifully designed, with modern font and geometrically influenced pattern on it and before I wrapped it up, I found myself staring at it. I wondered why this design appealed to me, and indeed why I thought it would be an appropriate design to be part of the Mother’s Day gift we had picked out. It occurred to me then, that modern society in all its hectic glory, does one thing very well. It overwhelms us. It overwhelms us to the point where we constantly doubt ourselves, we get stressed, experience all manner of anxieties, addiction, depression and other illnesses. We become unbalanced. And this imbalance manifests itself more strongly if our environment is erratic and we lose our ability to connect.
The design on this mug is representative of a noticeable trend towards imbuing mundane objects with self-affirming reminders, or plastering our walls with pictures and quotes that tell us to cherish each moment. You can just imagine your day beginning with a steaming mug of tea or coffee, giving yourself a pat on the back while reading Wake up and be Awesome, trying desperately to remember how great you are. Does it work? Chances are that it doesn’t beyond those few moments. But not because the mug’s message is superficial. What we are missing here is the connection.
Not only does this ingenious marketing take advantage of our intrinsic need to feel value and our lack of time to find it, it also takes advantage of our fear of discussing our deepest troubles and our suffering mental health; our soul’s aches and pains. We are so accustomed to pouring money into quick fix solutions, to using technology and cleverly marketed products to trick us into feeling better, albeit briefly.
The Minimalist Movement is one such idea that has been born from this overly materialistic way of solving problems. An article from Time.com describes the movement like this;
“Minimalists like to say that they’re living more meaningfully, more deliberately, that getting rid of most material possessions in their lives allows them to focus on what’s important: friends, hobbies, travel, experiences.”
Discarding physical items is harder than many expect it to be. We attach a lot of sentimentality to our possessions because we feel some kind of connection to these things, but it is mere projection. If we want to experience a more genuine connection, we ought to be looking for something deeper. Something that can make a mark on our souls. If we are depressed or grieving, we ought to search for something that speaks to bones of that brokenness and sadness. If we feel elated, we ought to find something that helps us celebrate our happiness. Minimalism is a great first step, but arts and culture is where we will find that connection.
Our addiction to buying “warm glow” products, is a consequence of our unpractised ability to really connect with the world around us. So what sets art apart? The answer, of course, lays with the context imbued by the artist, the writer, or the musician and their ability to use their work to speak to each of us.
Our lives are made up of moments. Moments that we are often too overwhelmed to recognise. The arts have the capacity to capture those moments and draw our attention to what is significant. One powerful image, one chorus with heartfelt lyrics, one spoken word poem, one well told joke, one photograph, one portrait, or one story can make us feel acknowledged like we hadn’t before.
Our psychological responses to these moments engage our humanity. We want to feel, because to feel is to connect with the world around us. The problem is that the frame around arts culture is usually one of pristine white walls and sterile plaques. It is in events that are not widely circulated and therefore feel exclusive and a little pretentious. This only means that the impact of arts culture is sullied, our raw responses to the works happen mostly in private and the benefits that would then trickle out into the community are washed away.
We already know that our environment can be a precursor in deciding whether we are likely to develop an unhealthy addiction, and as Johann Hari explains;
“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.”
As our communities battle addiction, not just to illicit drugs and alcohol, but also to gambling, porn, and even social media it makes sense that we ought to be finding ways to bring our arts culture back to the people.
In a recent article in Overland Journal, Melbourne writer Alison Croggon writes: “I’ve long held a visceral hostility towards what I’ve called the ‘muesli theory’ of art. This theory maintains that art should be consumed because it’s good for you. Aside from anything else, the idea that art is good for you takes all the fun out of it. It gives art an air of lugubrious obligation that is completely at odds with the involuntary suspension of the self that is art’s most beautiful side effect.”
The secret to connection and engagement is not in forcing ourselves to seek out art, but in remembering to be open to new ideas, new feelings and new perspectives when you do. Alain de Botton suggests (see clip below) that we are often attracted to art that portrays some part of us we are missing or desperately crave. Similarly, he says, artists who portray beauty in the world around them (think of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies), are often those who understand the depth of darkness in the world. And I have long held the belief that our deepest connection with music comes from periods in our lives where we are processing the world through a gauze of emotion and angst. This explains our deep affection for the music we heard as teenagers, when music was the voice for the hormone-driven inner turmoil and rapid growth we experience.
When we engage with arts through our psyche, we will inevitably find some benefit from it and if we continue the discussion with others in our community, the benefits can be exponential.
“The problem with art is that it’s manifold, elusive and ambiguous, and whatever good it generates – in mental health, for example – emerges from its complexities. If art is useful, it’s because it generates meanings. Those meanings often emerge from our darkest truths and most bitter conflicts.
Sometimes art makes you anxious. That is part of its job. Sometimes its therapy exists in bringing to the surface our hidden traumas, our worst crimes, our darkest, most secret desires, and then forcing us to confront them. Making art is a process of examining our psychic unease in order to see it more clearly, inflaming rather than anesthetising our discomfort and pain. Art names our terrors as well as our joys. Sometimes, in order to make things better, art first has to make them worse.” Alison Croggon