Outsider Art has its roots in occupational art therapy, but traditionally art therapies forfeit artistic merit in favour of a cure to a designated physical and/or mental ailment. Today, art therapy has been separated from its occupational roots into a specialist field in its own right and given a myriad of names from expression therapy to free association and more. To this end, the United States and British studies suggest art therapy presents effectiveness for helping to alleviate ‘physical and psychological conditions including asthma, dementia, coping with cancer, terminal illness, depression, schizophrenia, stress, anxiety, emotional eating and Autism Spectrum Disorders, but the scientific evidence of the success rate is scant.[i]
A survey on the effectiveness of art therapy carried out by the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia [PACFA] suggests there is little evidence available to support the acclaimed effectiveness of art therapy. The study which included examination of a variety of art forms looked at twelve articles for evaluating the effectiveness of art therapy, only five of which met the survey criteria. One of these was a systematic review, and the others, randomized controlled trials conducted in Europe, the UK and the USA. There were no studies carried out in Australia. Further, art therapies are traditionally based on psychoanalytic or psychodynamic principles which can account for any improvement. Indeed, most arts therapists utilize varied evidence based theoretical frameworks in their work. These traditions include depth analytic, humanistic, behavioural, systemic, and integrative approaches[ii] so it is almost impossible to detect which components in the therapy processes are the most reliable. Many art therapists will attest to the reality that the effectiveness of art therapy is based on what clients believe to be the benefits. Moreover, even if art therapy acts as a placebo it must have some merit, not just in the production process, but also in the social gathering, networking and communication. Progress depends largely on the individual.
James Rhodes is a highly sought after concert pianist who has publically discussed his views on the links between, melancholy, madness and art as well as the role played by art therapies. In an article in Britain’s Daily Telegraph Rhodes writes ‘If creativity can lead to madness, is art therapy really such a good idea?’ Rhodes explores his own experience of madness and he articulates his dissatisfaction with art therapies. He admits his ‘only qualifications to write about therapy and mental illness’ are a rudimentary knowledge of psychology and ‘around 9 months of in-patient care in various locked wards in 2006/7…’ Nonetheless, Rhodes states,
‘as an ex-inmate and artist … there is no question in my mind that in conjunction with other therapies, art or music can be a tremendous tool in dealing with various forms of mental illness from depression to Asperger’s.’ However, he also wonders if ‘throwing oneself into creativity in order to help defeat the demons is a solution or a hindrance.’ [iii]
Rhodes goes on to say:
‘During a stint in a psychiatric unit a few years ago I attended a few art therapy ‘classes’ that, no matter how well-intentioned, made me feel hideously uncomfortable and hopelessly untalented [ using crayons, please draw a picture of your happy place where you feel safest ]. Since leaving hospital I have thrown myself into a creative career and spent many hours a day rigorously practicing the piano in pursuit of that career. Whilst there is of course a huge distinction between a career as an artist and art as just a hobby, I’m still very much in two minds as to whether music or art is a good therapy or if it is in fact a potentially dangerous downward spiral into madness’.[iv]
Rhodes notes that engaging in the artistic process involves two of the most dangerous factors for the mentally fragile – ‘solitude and criticism.’ Rhodes tells how when working in a normal city job he was emotionally troubled, but nowhere near as troubled as he become on entering the arts,
‘there is rarely a feeling of accomplishment, hardly ever a performance one is pleased with, a constant and unending pursuit of the unattainable. Medication is outstanding [I’m forever indebted to Pfizer], but for me today, meds and music don’t mix – the invariable haziness, dulling of the senses and diffusion of feelings goes against everything the creative process demands.[v]
The links between mental illness and art have been visible throughout history. In the 4th century B.C., the connection between ‘Divine’ spirit and altered states of consciousness was clear so too was the distinction between those who were allowed to publically channel their inner voices and those who were not. In other words there were profound ‘differences’ between the church proclamations of the Divine and those of the heretic or ordinary citizen. For the latter the risk of Divine talk could lead to incarceration or being burnt at the stake. Today, much of the ritual that took place to justify religious belief would be considered mentally precarious if not down right ‘insane’.
As Plato wrote in the dialogue of Phaedrus:
‘Madness, provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings… Madness comes from God, whereas sober sense is merely human.’ [vi]
It is no wonder then that many who suffer from altered consciousness and delusions announce themselves as ‘God’ or ‘Divine’ or believe themselves to be someone famous or infamous. God equates with the most primal of human experiences and is expressed in numerous antiquities as a mirror image of all living plants and creatures.