Psychology and Art

The relationship between psychological science and art extends beyond therapy. What does it mean for psychologists to embrace art, and for artists to embrace psychology?

Art therapy has a long and fascinating history, often tied to the conventions, ideologies, or peculiarities of its era. It’s hard to say, too, that many great artists were not engaging in their own form of therapy through painting, sculpting, composing, or writing? But as an identifiable area in it’s own right it only really began in the mid-twentieth century. Now, suddenly, art as therapy is experiencing a resurgence: most notably perhaps, moves to enable social prescribing or arts therapy in the UK indicate a new recognition of the beneficial and therapeutic effects of engagement with arts (or, more properly, the “doing” of art).

One typical challenge for a lot of art therapy, traditionally, is that it struggles to demonstrate, to hard-nosed science, its value over and above conventional medical treatment. In common with a great deal of applied (“real world”) research it is hard to demonstrate cause and effect because therapeutic environments for art-based therapies do not readily lend themselves to RCT-type studies or neat, compelling control groups. Studies that have explored whether staring at a Rodin leaves people feeling happier, or whether walking through a Yayoi Kusama installation makes you less anxious, often appear so superficial as to be worthless. It’s a little like giving Scottish football fans a questionnaire asking whether they’re more likely to experience a heart attack after watching Scotland play a World Cup Qualifier; everyone knows the data – in the days when Scotland played in World Cups the male coronary rate in Glasgow soared! – but I’d imagine the experience of watching Scotland play football and the physiological reaction to it is different for each Scottish fan, just as much as it will be a very different experience for many England fans. Recent ambitious plans for a demonstration of the broader benefits of arts in education from birth to 25 years are certainly welcome, but any such large scale survey inevitably bakes in (or, in weaker research, bakes out) the “messiness” of real life and will never satisfy experimental purists.

But, perhaps, purity of the RCT-flavour is precisely not the point of art? And, consequently, prescribing in its literal sense a specific art drug is not the true purpose art therapy: if there are benefits of arts therapy one would hope they extend beyond those of mere distraction activities or simulation because, almost by definition, they offer a more ontological treatment. Demonstrating the deeper benefits of art is maybe necessarily elusive, and many who engage in artistic activity report that changes in function or mood are more the consequence of personal realisation, fulfilment, self-expression or self-development. Moreover, a body of evidence is beginning to emerge that shows reliable benefits of the arts in health.

Compelling though recent studies on the therapeutic benefits of arts are, I must admit it is not an area of research that particularly stimulates me. My own interest in art-science collaboration lies in understanding the collaborative process, the ways in which joining together of the different perspectives can create new ideas, new understanding, and new ways of seeing the world. I am interested, in this respect, in innovation and convergence. And, of course, given much of my own psychology research has focused on processes of communication and collaboration (knowledge and learning), how that happens.

Science seeks to describe the world, but good science also generates theories to explain or represent it. Theory generation is in many ways a creative process, as is designing a novel experiment or developing theory. Art seeks to represent the world too, but good art says something more about that representation and perhaps the human condition. Any art that simply seeks to reproduce reality achieves little more than an impoverished version of reality. When you ask young children if a picture is good or not, they will judge its quality based on the accuracy of the representation (“it doesn’t look like a horse”, “the eyes are a bit wonky”). Young children do not rate Picasso, but Gainsborough is the bee’s knees (and was, literally, very good at painting knees)! Adults, but not all adults, are better at recognising the significance of subjectivity in art (both its production and appreciation).

And, more controversially, I’d argue that good science involves an appreciation of subjectivity (and intersubjectivity) too. Understanding how judgments are made, and how the perspectives of people can influence those judgements, does not weaken the rigour of knowledge but defines its boundaries. For instance, scientists send papers for peer review, acknowledging the relevance of others’ views and the ways in which we communicate ideas is subject to others’ evaluations. And good science is about ideas, and their creation, not conveyor-belt-checking the facts as they are spewed out from an external world where the eye of the beholder (the processes) sees neither beauty nor feels any emotion. It is not the case that, to everyone else, we are all just another object in the world.

So science arts collaborations are rightly emerging as the way in which genuinely new understanding and new knowledge can be created. Arts can embed scientific knowledge in the human experience and give scientific endeavour purpose. Science can open art to a fuller appreciation of the world and its workings. Together art and science can make great music… and poetry, drama… Art is good for the soul. Oh, and it can be good for your health too: therapeutic benefits are a happy side-effect.