What's the Rush?

Here’s an interesting idea: Slow Art Day.  This weekend (Saturday April 27, 11am-2pm), various museums and galleries all over the country (and world) will sponsor a moment of art appreciation and conversation.  Basically, if you register at a local gallery or museum (see the list of participants here: http://www.slowartday.com/2013-venues/#letter_5175bfce2bf77_N), you’ll gather with other viewers to spend ten minutes looking at five pieces of artwork. Then, over lunch, you’ll have a chance to discuss your experience. What did you notice about each piece?  How did your reaction change as you leisurely considered and walked around it?  Did you examine it for meaning or simply enjoy the colors, shapes, and texture?

Too easily in the US, our hectic, overactive lives lead us to focus on efficiency and speed.   That mindset can be difficult to overcome when in an art museum, and Slow Art Day is a way to encourage a “mindful” approach to each painting and sculpture.  Ultimately, it encourages gallery-goers to steep themselves in the effects of the artwork, to luxuriate in the colors, shapes, and textures. 

“Mindfulness” has become a recognizable concept, one that’s been translated into a way of combatting stress and even problems with overeating.  It can be a way of life as well, facilitating an attunement that enriches and expands your experience of the world around you.

If you join the fun on Saturday, you will only see a few individual pieces of art, but you’re likely to notice aspects of each you wouldn’t on another day, in another way.  If you happen to live in the Triangle region of North Carolina, the Ackland Art Museum at UNC-Chapel Hill is participating.  Sign up here:


If you don't happen to live near the Ackland, you can always arrange your own outing with friends.  The North Carolina Museum of Art and the Nasher have great collections and restaurants too.

Do You Have to be Emotionally Off-kilter to Be a Good Artist

Apparently, it’s a discussion that will never die.  As a psychologist and writer, I frequently hear it:  “You have to be at least a little crazy to be a good artist.”  And out on Saturday night with friends, the debate began again.  A music lover asserted that creativity derives from an emotional “imbalance” or mental “unhealth.”  …  Sure, we can all think of famous artists who abused alcohol (Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Jackson Pollack) and of ones who suffered from a major mood disorder (Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, and Van Gogh).  Does that mean, though, that everyone who struggles for emotional stability becomes a great artist?  (You wouldn’t assume that if you’d ever worked in a psychiatric hospital.)  Does it then mean that if you’re normal and love writing, you should hang it up and opt for banking?  Or basic journalism?  Not in my opinion.  I can think of many celebrated artists who have no history of mental illness. 

Personally, I believe that artistic greatness stems from a devotion to craft and an ability to convey universal emotions or themes while delivering them in a unique, fresh style.  Think of Monet, whose impressionistic paintings embodied a different kind of realism.  Picasso too. Think of Frank Gehry’s architecture: designs that play with boundaries to deliver buildings recognizable and compelling?  What about the Latin American writers who veined emotions through magical realism? Ray Bradbury and Frank Herbert?  They shifted our perspective on true human experiences by creating alternative worlds.

Literature is what I know best, and my most ready examples hail from there.  Still, I don’t think that other art forms are any more inherently correlated with psychological dysfunction.  No doubt, emotional upheaval can spawn the intensity necessary for a dramatic piece, but it is never enough.

Ironically, research suggests that there might be a different connection between creativity and health.  As it turns out, almost everyone has the urge to create, and individuals tend to be happier when they have time to innovate or express themselves in novel ways.  That doesn’t have to mean painting on canvas or choreographing a dance routine.  Instead, it might be gardening or cooking or improvising to fix a pesky problem in the tool shed.  If viewed from a 180-perspective, maybe writing poetry or painting is what helped Vincent Van Gogh and Anne Sexton live as long as they did.

We can all find personal satisfaction in actively using our skills and resources to produce something new, and there can be an invigorating sense of self-discovery along with it.  Whether our experiments become valued art is irrelevant.  I can’t even count the number of times I’ve met someone who on learning that I write poetry, immediately said, “I wrote a poem once.”  Typically, it’s someone who doesn’t read poetry or even literature very often, but that smile is memorable.  The process of writing that poem made the person feel happy and proud.  All kinds of art matter, and you don’t have to have problems to create it.  Let’s separate what art does for us personally from the interpretation of its greatness and then again from our assumptions about the person who makes it.