The Psychological Function Of Art

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Margot Gabel

Most of what you understand, you’ve come to know through art.

This is accepting the idea that “art” is simply anything that is expressive. Mathematicians can give you the numeric code to understand a formula; but to learn it, somebody has to draw the lines and count with you using words and show you with pictures.

Art serves a greater psychological purpose.

Last year, philosopher Alain de Botton along with art historian John Armstrong published a book called “Art as Therapy.”

Essentially theorizing the purpose of art, they talk about how looking at classic masterpieces, alongside the ways in which we incorporate “art” in our everyday lives (through music, photography, etc.) and how it’s therapeutic and ultimately enlightening. They discuss its use and relevance and how it can “offer clues on managing the tensions and confusions of everyday life… how it can guide us, console us, and help us better understand ourselves.”

Some time after, Maria Popova of Brain Pickings summarized the theories with seven psychological functions of art: remembering, hope, sorrow, rebalancing, self-understanding, growth, and appreciation.

In those theories, she (and they) summarize the purpose and importance of self-expression. Why art isn’t a pastime or a leisurely activity, but a preservation of culture, and an actualization of self.

So like, what the hell does this mean to you, right?

It means that art is higher on the totem pole than is often communicated to us. Though art and music and writing is often brushed off as liberal artistic meaninglessness; though the aforementioned classes are often electives and not cores in our earlier education, though there are no parallels and trajectories for definitive careers in the arts and thus there are fewer potentials for compensation and rendering them less worthy in a cruel, calculating, disconnected world — it serves a much deeper importance.

So we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the art that is in our lives — that we make, that we consume, that has created us — because we have false ideas of what “real art” is.

Real art is the Marilyn Monroe quotes you posted on your Facebook in 9th grade. The finger paintings you made when you were little. The self-portraits you learned to draw in elementary school (and yes, the Instagram selfies that have taken their place); the albums you listened to in college. The books you treat like bibles. The doodles and quotes in your journal, the Tumblr photos you reblog. The glossy magazines you flipped through when you were a pre-teen crafting ideas about womanhood that you’d have to dismantle for yourself.

There is no one person more of an artist than another, that whole concept of making art elusive is just a mechanism of shallow thought. If the only art we consider legitimate is that which is “good,” what definition of “good” are we really accepting here? Usually not the one that serves us best.

It is through art that we’ve maintained cultural preservation, honed in on identity, moved toward self-awareness, realized recognition, externalized worship, and immortalized symbolism and found inherent beauty. These concepts in themselves are grandiose and existential and crucial and seem inapplicable — but they are not.

The healing element of art is the same as the psychologically imperative one. It’s often through healing that we most deeply find ourselves. We release our attachments to being closed out of fear and we allow our lives to more deeply unfold as they naturally would and will and do.

It’s only when we release ideas of what we can label as “art” and allow the genuine, psychological mechanisms to affect us at their greatest potential do we fully realize what expression was designed to do in the first place: extend one experience for another to recognize, and to understand that it’s all universal anyway. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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