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Art as Catharsis: Then and Now

Sierra Thompson breaks down the history of art as a method for healing


Image(s): The New Yorker

The world has always been imbued with chaos. It is interwoven even within the first moments of recorded history; war, famine, plagues, death all around us ever since the human experience has been written down. We look back on that history and ask ourselves “how did they get through that?”, simply horrified at their circumstances. And here we are—because history seems doomed to repeat itself—we have found ourselves amid a global crisis that has brought the world to its knees.

The entirety of 2020 was full of people desperate to distract themselves from the state of life, and many of them turned to art. Films, music, literature, drawing, painting, you name it. People around the world found solace in both the works of others and their own creativity, enriched their lives with ways to express themselves and their stress. Despite the chaos, 2020 felt revolutionary: people were re-realizing their capacity to create and their love of art, keeping to a historical pattern that not many were aware of. Throughout human history, people have consistently created art to cope with these fantastical experiences and to process their situations. To understand the present, we must first look at the past.

During an outbreak of a plague in London, William Shakespeare wrote two of his most famous tragedies: King Lear and Macbeth. There is no doubt that Shakespeare was a prolific poet and playwright throughout his career, but the fact that his two most iconic and dramatic pieces were written amid a pandemic was no accident. According to scholar James Shapiro, Shakespeare’s creativity in this period soared to new heights.

Shakespeare used these dramatic works—as well as the love poem Venus and Adonis—as avenues through which he could repurpose and redirect his feelings of dismay and uncertainty. Through Macbeth and King Lear, Shakespeare did just that, but through Venus and Adonis, he was able to provide a small respite from the tragedy of his time. While the poem ends in heartbreak—as does the myth of Venus and Adonis—there was still beauty to be found in the art of the poem itself. Venus and Adonis provided readers of the poem with a way to lose themselves, even for a brief moment, in the fleeting love that the titular characters shared. By creating these pieces, Shakespeare had the opportunity to express the spectrum of emotions that he was feeling around that time. By consuming these works, his audiences were offered an escape from the doom and gloom of their daily lives while also finding an array of relatable sentiments within every word.

Image(s): Alchemical Weddings

World War I is another poignant example of this: visual artists around the world engaged in the pursuit of creativity in an attempt to understand their lives and cope with their circumstances, much like a lot of us did in 2020. They expressed their anxieties, anguish, and pleas for peace through different styles, compositions, and techniques, able to capture the war through an array of perspectives. Printmaking was popular and common during this time, appropriated from its original purpose of the mass production of propaganda and turned on its head to display the horrors of war.

Still, though, many artists took traditional avenues to display either their pain or the pain of others; American war artist John Singer Sargent did exactly this, able to capture a plethora of scenes from France and Belgium. He was able to capture intimate scenes of the negative individual effects of war and humanized the experience of it through his other works. By focusing on the war and its effects at a smaller scale, Sargent was able to provide the public with the opportunity to acknowledge and reconcile with the fact that their fellow humans were at the center of the war, and that everyone was affected by it in some way.

John Singer Sargent, Two Soldiers at Arras, 1918; Image(s): The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Because artists like Sargent were able to expose the raw and oft-overlooked personal impacts of war, they were able to create pieces that were relatable to the masses who were all experiencing different variations of the same crisis. This art was an obvious catharsis—for both the creators and the consumers—because it translated and recorded feelings of despair and melancholy into visual situations that allowed the masses to process their circumstances.

In 2020, we saw this same pattern across a wider spectrum of art. Poetry has made a resurgence in both literary circles and the mainstream as a way to cope with the mental and emotional effects of the pandemic, and verse, in general, has become a pressure-free way for people to express themselves. Writing as a form of catharsis and creating has always been popular—as seen in the Elizabethan era with Shakespeare—but because this pandemic and several other civil issues have thrown the world into chaos, writing has never been more accessible. It doesn’t even have to be creative writing to be cathartic; journaling has also become extremely useful for people that don’t want to feel confined by any type of form. When they write, they can simply write everything that crosses their minds, or how their day went: nothing is off-limits, and people can truly pour their hearts out.

The consumption of film and music is something that also provided--and still provides--a way for people to take themselves out of reality and lose themselves in for a few hours. They afford a much-needed distraction when watching the news came to be too much, and the sheer artistry on the part of the people that produced this media was something that became immersive and personal for many. Film takes us to new places and allows for an escape into them, while music expresses specific emotions and creativity that put words to what people were feeling. Not only this, but this media also inspires its consumers to create art of their own that mirrored their own experiences while pulling from the concepts of those art forms as well.

Image(s): Netflix

Similarly, visual arts have also exploded into the mainstream by way of art therapy, even if it was initially inadvertent for some; it became an avenue through which one could display their emotions without words. Not only this, but the expression of emotions in an abstract way can help one better process them—again, much like the art of World War I. In some cases, creating art can help one to acknowledge and understand those feelings on a deeper level than they would have if they had just talked them out. Art therapist Tammy Shella has said that art therapy can help people “convey what they really feel on the inside and reveal things that they weren’t comfortable sharing with the world”, and this is an incredibly important thing to remember with all kinds of art.

Image(s): Getty Images

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that isolation and everything continuously not being okay has led us to pretend that we’re fine. When people asked, “how are you?”, the quick, automatic response was “I’m good, how are you?”, when things were anything but. The masking of emotions became normalized because we swore that we were okay even when our lives had drastically changed within weeks, even days. So, there came a demand for creative outlets to help us handle these emotions; some took up baking, some gardening, and some even delved back into their beloved childhood hobbies. Even though there was a vast spectrum of creativity being explored in 2020, all of them had one thing in common: they provided catharsis. They gave us something to be excited about, something to be proud of creating or participating in—they distracted us while the world was falling apart. While we might look back on historical crises and ask ourselves “how did they get through that?”, we can answer here and now that the creation and consumption of art was one of the main things that got us through 2020.


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