The role of the arts in the face of conflict, and the healing effect that artistic expression can provide in response to catastrophic events served as the key discussion points at Lesley University's 4th annual Arts in Healthcare Conference.
In the face of human conflict, the arts play a vital—some
would say unparalleled—role in restoring emotional equilibrium. The physical
activities that go into making art, music, dance, and drama provide a sense of
living in the moment, and this immediacy often opens a way out of despair.
The intersection of arts and healing falls into three broad
categories, according to David Read Johnson, director of the Institutes for the
Arts and Psychotherapy in New York and co-director of the Post Traumatic Stress
Center in New Haven, Conn. For some individuals, healing is achieved by inner
tranquility, arrived at through meditation or peaceful music. For others,
reenacting and reliving terrifying experiences in a safe environment—and
gaining mastery over them—helps sublimate or purge powerful emotions. For still
others, the arts serve as a rallying cry to redress the world’s ills through
such means as protest art and music.
Dr. Johnson delivered the keynote address “Conflict as a
Catalyst: The Role of the Arts at Lesley University’s 4th annual
Arts in Healthcare Conference on May 31 and June 1. He posed the question, “Is
there a place for conflict?” Most people would agree that order is better than
chaos, and peace is better than war, but is conflict ever useful? “It’s
important to ask ourselves what are we seeking when we look to transform
conflict? Is it order and control? The absence of war? A dialogue? Tolerance?”
he asked. Because the outcomes desired will shape the choices of the kind of
art and art therapy that are pursued.
Recent events such as the devastating tornados in Oklahoma
and the Boston Marathon bombings have left individuals and communities feeling
grief stricken, powerless, and heartsick. In a world where one tragedy seems to
follow hard after another, human beings feel the natural desire to reestablish a
sense of normalcy so they can go on with their lives. But as psychotherapists
know so well, powerful emotions such as fear, anger, and grief, if not
addressed, may lurk beneath the surface and bubble up in people’s lives months
and even years later.
The arts in all their guises provide a safe place to ventilate
feelings and the anxiety that goes with them, leading to the recognition that
these emotions are not intractable. “The arts are containers; they hold and can
transform painful experiences,” says Vivien Marcow Speiser, professor and
director of Lesley University’s Institute for Arts and Health, which organized
the Arts and Healthcare Conference.
For example, in one drama therapy exercise, participants are
asked to stage a family portrait using their fellow participants as stand-ins
for family members. Then the individual is asked how they would change things
in this family portrait. How would they move people around to alter conflicting
interrelationships and have their family behave differently, more in line with
how the individual wishes they would behave and interact? “This exercise can be
enormously playful, but it can also help people unpack their experiences,
reimagine them, and transform them,” says Dr. Speiser.
Conflict, then, if it leads to a deeper confrontation with
the self, one that is guided by a trained professional, can be a catalyst. The
human tragedies that shake up people’s sense of normalcy can be instructive and
productive, especially if such events galvanize a search for transcendence, for
redirection, or for activism. Or, as Read Johnson explains, a search for a way
to incorporate all three.
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