Art heals best by having only itself, not healing, as its goal
Poet Robert Lowell put the question this way: “Is getting well ever an art,/ or art a way to get well?”
Any discussion of the arts and healing involves a certain tension, a sense of uncomfortably crossed purposes. In the purist’s view, art is not something to be prescribed or tailored to a purpose, no matter how worthy. It simply exists, radiantly free of any objective other than to be the truest and deepest expression it can be. Anything else corrupts and exploits it.
Healing is an equally serious business, perhaps more so, driven by moral and ethical imperatives. Enlisting the arts in its service raises concerns about efficacy, appropriateness, false hopes and accountability. Who’s to say, finally, whether the arts figure substantially in healing or whether healing is pertinent to art?
In technical terms, the processes of art and healing are both complex and highly codified. They are also irreducibly subjective. Art that works wonders for one person, aesthetically or therapeutically, is certain to be irrelevant or even harmful for someone else. One patient’s effective treatment may do another genuine harm.
At the risk of leaping to generalizations from a mass of contradiction, art heals in its most universal way by being true to itself. Art isn’t primarily an agent of healing, although millions have benefited from it in that way. Art is healing, an intensification of mortality and aspiration, an embrace of what makes us human in the fullest sense.
Music reminds us that we live in time, expansive and finite; dance that we exist as bodies in space; painting that we seek light; poetry that we have language. In all these things we are doomed to fail, to falter and die, and are determined not to. That’s why dissonance in a Beethoven or Mahler symphony can feel so vitally charged, yearning for resolution. Rembrandt’s self- portraits seem eternal to us because they embrace the dissolution of the body with such unblinking candor and affection. Rothko’s floating colors, massive and weightlessly poised, do the same for the soul.
Art can make us whole by letting us see life whole, things unfathomable made fleetingly clear. For Prospero, at the end of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest, ” it comes in gorgeous acquiescence, a becalmed understanding that “our little life/ Is rounded with a sleep.” For Prior, an AIDS survivor for six years in the final speech of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” it’s a plea for “more life.”
Twelve years ago, when Stephen Spinella first spoke those words on the Eureka Theatre stage, AIDS was 10 years into its devastation. The pain, then and now, was inextricably bound with despair and hope. Art’s power to heal rests finally in its amplitude of spirit, its way of placing us, if only briefly, in the terrifying, consoling presence of life’s ceaseless flow.
“The world only spins forward,” Prior says. “We will be citizens. The time has come.”
E-mail Steven Winn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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