Thursday, July 16, 2009

Art as Medicine

Throughout my travels I've been struck by how often art is used to benefit marginalized members of society: youth, the homeless, the incarcerated, the hospitalized, the elderly. These are groups without access to "normal" forms of self expression and institutions of societal and political control. It makes sense that organizations that want to empower these groups use art to give them voice and a sense of identity.

But why is it that the non-marginalized population of our society does not make art to give themselves voice and identity? With the exception of professional artists, it seems that most healthy middle-class adult Americans do not create art, and even fewer do so in community or put it on public display. Very rarely have I come across art organizations serving well-adjusted and financially stable adults. From a Marxist perspective, this group of people as a class has its self-interest well looked after by bourgeois media, cultural, and political institutions; they do not need to make art, professionals do the privilege-maintaining work for them. But from a spiritual perspective, this group is nearly as disenfranchised as any other. Average Americans rely primarily upon Hollywood to tell stories for them. They do not tell their own tales, but watch those of corporations and hope that one is close. Surely this must be deadening for the soul.

Furthermore, if hospitals find art to be healing, prisons find art to be restorative, and youth programs find art to be empowering, why is a daily regiment of art not as trendy as a daily dose of high fiber? Is art only to be used in instances of trauma, like emergency room surgery? Or could art be viewed as preventative (and maybe even transformative) medicine, the regular use of which leads to healthier living.

Anyway, enough rant based on my envy of all the fun kids' art activity at which people give me dirty looks when I try to join in.

An organization in Portland that is doing amazing work with street youth is p;ear.
p;ear has a drop-in center in the Pearl district where homeless and low-income youth can hang out, make a variety of art, and get healthy (they even make a point of trying to do organic and fair-trade) meals. A unique feature of p;ear is that the view that for street youth to become "productive members of society," they first have to encounter a healthy version of that society. For many street youth, the larger society only interacts with them through the contexts of abuse, drugs, and prostitution. p;ear tries to expose the youth to a different perspective on that society. First, they model it within their institution by providing a safe, reliable, and non-judgmental environment. Recycling, composting, using organic food, and having organizational transparency with the youth are also part of this modeling of what healthy society looks like. As compared to many other shelters in the area, p;ear has giant windows without bars or coverings that look out onto the ground floor of the street so that the youth can observe the daily activity of the city from a safe space. Finally, they take the youth to high culture venues to show them that they are worthy of such places.

p;ear is also planning to set-up a coffee stand with which they can train "pearistas" and give the youth employable skills.

A large open gallery to display the youth's work; the space is also rented out and serves as a major source of income

A band practice room. It was designed to be sound proof, but apparently its not quite.
There's actually a lot more to p;ear, but because it was full of youth, I couldn't take pictures.


Ben Colahan said...

Apparently I'm not the only one to categorize art as medicine. Powell's books shelves the book "Theatre for Community Conflict and Dialogue" by Sojourn Theatre's Artistic Director in the "Health and Medicine - General Medicine" section.

Elana said...

There's a whole subset of psychology called "Art Therapy."

I also remember (from my postmodern dance class) watching a short documentary about a woman who was diagnosed with terminal cancer, given a few months to live TOPS, who basically devoted herself to her passion--dance--and has lived decades beyond her diagnosis. Pretty amazing, the act of creation is indeed healing.