Why We Need Art

Why we need art?

Do you have a favorite artist?  Have you ever thought why you admire their work so ? Chances are it speaks deeply to you, in ways that may be difficult to put into words.  This is because the place this conversation is taking place, is not the mind.  It is a deeper place than this, and knows before the mind does.  The poet David Whyte says “what is precious to us does not with to be known by the mind.”

 Professor and pioneer of Art Therapy, Shaun McNiff, explains how art works on us, deeply.

 "Yet artistic images encourage us to look at them and reflect upon their natures, both physical and psychological. Interpretation enters the world of the image in response to its nature. Rather than labelling pictures from our frames of reference, we meditate on them, tell stories about how we created them, speak to them, listen to what they have to say, dramatize them through our bodily movement, and dream about them. All of these methods are dedicated to the ongoing release of art's expressive medicine. Analysis and reason make many contributions to our meditations, but they do not dominate."
— Professor Shaun McNiff Art As Medicine: Creating a Therapy of the Imagination

In  Australian Indigenous worldview/cosmology, creativity seems innate, a way of making meaning,  and intimately connected with country, and reciprocal relationships with and in, country. Paintings can be  maps, to food and tell stories of daily life, as well as teaching stories.  These stories impart wisdom and belonging.    The painting below, is of 2 women, seated, with their coolamons (wooden food gathering bowls)  and their diggingsticks beside them, sitting around a fire.  The outer ring  tells of where to dig for yams, andalso where water is. 

The creative process is at the beginnings, and the heart of humanity, helping make us fully human, and alive, vital beings.  Here we see, in this ancient ontology or way of being in the world, the origins of Art – making or appreciating it, as healing or therapeutic.  In this way, art becomes a written language, documenting belonging to the land and a place of oneness with the land and non human animals. Picasso famously said, that we are all creative as children, and that it is when we are adults,that we lose this.  As kids, art is both a natural and symbolic  expression of life and being alive.  Children are most  likely to be in the realms  of imagination, intuition, sensing and impressions, which are able to  recognize symbols and imagery.   As we mature it seems we develop more the functions of  of judging, analyzing, and logic. Unfortunately, this can shut down the more child like qualities, by comparing, and criticizing, and this is a shame. Sadly it can be comments from teachers and parents, that can precipitate this, albeit unwittingly.   It is important for our wellbeing and balance, that we keep a healthy, inner child, even as adults. And that means valuing creativity, for its own sake, and not as a means to an end.


 The following are traits of creative people.  How do you do on this IQ test?

  • flexibility
  • curiosity
  • openness
  • auton­omy
  • humour
  • playfulness/spontaneity
  • willingness to try things
  • elaboration of ideas

Philosopher Alain de Botton (de Botton A. and Armstrong, 2013), who is the founder of the School of Life, has identified 7 functions of art, and why humans need it.  Think again of your favorite art.  Do any of the functions below, resonate, as to why you are attracted to it?

  1. Remembering
  2. Hope
  3. Sorrow
  4. Rebalancing
  5. Self Understanding
  6. Growth
  7. Appreciation

When the benefits of  art therapy in a variety of health settings,  is studied, the below list is typical of the findings, that consistently emerge are as follows:

  1. Increased understanding of self
  2. Distraction from overwhelm
  3. Personal achievement
  4. Self-expression
  5. Relaxation
  6. Empowerment
  7. Expression of feelings
  8. Promotion of communication
  9. Anger management
  10. Expression of emotions

The development of empathy  is at the core of relatedness, to others, and can be present in the process of  art making and art appreciation.  Art can convey  empathy for our subject, our audience and also the medium that we choose to work with, can expand our capacity for noticing and becoming more present.   Mindfulness in art making, is a way of developing presence, and  being in the now, or mindful. The artist process demands that we look again, and again, and embraces the paradox of fluidity into form, at the heart of the medium of watercolour.   Art is a trialogue:  a conversation between artist, subject and image. The artist investigates, then expresses what they have  seen. Art is an invitation in the now, and this presence feeds our authentic selves, or our souls.  In this way, being creative and art making,  is medicine for our inner lives. Watercolourist Jeanne Carbonetti is inspired by the unity she finds in Zen and the Tao, and paints for self knowledge and acceptance. Watch her at work in her studio.

LINK: Watercolourist Jeanne Carbonetti


Earthart is a movement gathering momentum across the world.  It is inspired by connection to nature, and also by the current environmental crisis humans are facing, of our own doing. Earthart or Landart was pioneered by such luminaires, as Andy Goldsworthy, in the UK, andMartin Hill in Aotearoa/New Zealand.  Both use materials found around them, and both make work that is largely, transient, or ephemeral.   The wind, waves, or other elements, will eventually take it.    It celebrates beauty, in spite of its fleeting nature.  It is informed by world views and ideas of  Ecopsychology, which is a relatively new psychology, but often based on cosmologies and connections to nature, of many Frist Nations peoples. Ecopsychology is defined  by Andy Fisher as  a  “project” and diverse social movement, thatrecognizes a synergy between human mental health and wellbeing, and the health and ecological integrity of the natural environment.” (Fisher, 2013)


Eco-Art Therapy is a term  for creative therapeutic experiences, often in and using natural materials.  There is no waste, and connection to nature is invited, as part of the process. This connection is healing, as we realise we are part of nature, and not separate.  Eco artTherapy, stimulates our eco-imaginations and eco-selves, and in this way, is a movementfrom Egocentric, to eco-centric, that is part of all life on earth, human and non-human. This movement to eco-centric, is healing for person and planet, as they are inextricably linked.

Environmental or ecological expressive therapies (eco-arts therapies) establish a new emerging approach to nature-based therapy.  Nature-based expressive therapies are characterized by their original theoretical framework, which includes a paradigm and forms of therapy that bring the arts and nature together to provide beneficial effects both the human and nonhuman worlds.  This new approach strives to achieve well being and multiple treatment goals for individuals, families and communities, and promote stainable styles of life through people’s involvement in expressive and creative activities in relation to environments in which they live.” (Rugh, 2017)


Works Cited

de Botton A. and Armstrong, J. (2013). Art as Therapy. London/NY: Phaidon Press Ltd.

Fisher, A. (2013). Radical Ecopsycology Psycholgoy in the service of life. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Rugh, A. K. (2017). Environmental Expressive Therapies Nature assisted theory and practise . New York: Routledge.

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