by Barry Dougherty

Two waiters kissing while holding pitchers of wine; chickens arguing with feathers flying; dancing bears holding a globe; two old ladies boxing–such images can be found on canvases hanging in art galleries, or perhaps, in the minds of patients taking psychological Rorschach tests as part of an art therapy program. There has long been a complicated association between art and psychology, be it researchers trying to understand and ameliorate psychological dysfunction through the use of art or patients revealing symptoms within their subconscious through their artistic endeavors.

While it may seem a no-brainer for an individual to look at an abstract painting and make out an image that’s clear as day, the person standing next to them can imagine something completely different. One painting can garner a plethora of images distinct to each observer. Multiple minds conjuring up multiple images from one piece of art may not seem astonishing on the surface, but when coupled with studies of psychological, anxiety, and personality disorders, it becomes so much more than just an image on a canvas. It’s a key to unlocking issues and aid in a search for solutions. 

Art in relation to psychology has been debated by scholars and philosophers as far back as Aristotle. In later times Freud paid attention to the psychological effects art masterpieces had on observers. He saw art, be it viewing or actively participating, as a powerful tool for psychoanalytic analysis of personality. His studies evolved into using drawing therapy for children with emotional disorders. Whether it was to re-experience conflicts in order to resolve issues or to evaluate and help change behavior, it became a viable therapeutic method.

The early healers were artists and the medical field today continues to draw on various aspects of the arts for recovery and resolving psychological conflicts. Art therapy has since been used to help people improve cognitive and sensory-motor function, self-esteem, self-awareness, and emotional resilience. Artistic endeavors may reduce stress and health complaints, provide both physical and psychological benefits, and even help people live longer. It also provides access to multiple modes of intelligence, communication, and problem-solving.

Dr. Ellen Winner, Professor of Psychology at Boston College and Senior Research Associate at Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education, founded and directs the Arts and Mind Lab, which focuses on cognition in the arts in typical and gifted children as well as adults. In an interview last year Dr. Winner spoke about art that evokes negative emotions, which she noted can also be a positive thing. She acknowledged that even Aristotle was puzzled by the phenomenon that we gravitate toward art depicting tragic or horrifying events–such as paintings by Hieronymus Bosch or Lucian Freud, whose portraits are often distorted and grotesque, in spite of the fact that people try to avoid feelings of sorrow, terror, and horror. It seems, though, that any negative feelings about the content are matched by positive ones. The results being that we can allow ourselves to be moved by tragedy and horror in art because it is not about us; it’s a fictional world of virtual reality. And the experience of being moved by such works is not only pleasurable but can also be highly meaningful as we reflect on the nature of our feelings.

Influenced by Freud’s writings, surrealism was born of a revolution against the constraints of the rational mind, as well as the rules of an oppressive society. Outlined in The Surrealist Manifesto, published by poet and critic André Breton in 1924, this new era of art (and writing) is of the belief that the creativity that came from deep within a person’s subconscious could be more powerful and authentic than any product of conscious thought. Breton saw the unconscious as the wellspring of the imagination.

Surrealism was not without its outlandish moments, however, as evidenced by Salvador Dalí’s appearance during the 1936 International Surrealist Exposition. Dalí appeared onstage with two dogs on leashes in one hand and a billiard cue in the other while wearing an old-fashioned diving suit, complete with a “Diver Dan” helmet. During his lecture the artist began to suffocate, the helmet blocking air from coming in, flailing his arms toward an audience that assumed it was part of the show. Eventually he was rescued and remarked afterward, “I just wanted to show that I was plunging deeply into the human mind.”   So, if we go back to those ink blots created by Hermann Rorschach, regardless that some are skeptical about their validity, the concept still invokes abstract art and stimulates the imagination–and may very well call up a few psychological aspects to what the observer sees. After all, it was stimulating enough for Warhol to create his Warhol Rorschach series, which he created by painting one side of a canvas and then folding it vertically to imprint the other half. Although, he was inspired by his mistaken impression that patients created these images for doctors to decipher versus the images being on a series of specific cards the doctors show the patients. “I thought that when you went to places like hospitals, they tell you to draw and make the Rorschach tests. I wish I’d known there was a set,” he admitted. It’s best he was ill-informed, otherwise, we may not have had such an obvious crossover from psychology to art.

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Barry Dougherty is a New York writer whose articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Antiques and the Arts Weekly, and The News Times, among others. He is the author of several books including How To Do It Standing Up and The Friars Club Encyclopedia of Jokes. He has been the head writer for the Friars Club Roasts and is a contributing writer on the Living Out Loud: Writers Riff on Love, Sweat & Fears essay tour. He is the principal of BMD Communications, a multi-faceted writing services company specializing in writing, editing and PR.