March 01, 2023
Art as Antidote
By Dr Kathy Weston
Last week, I had the good fortune to be invited to Harrow School to deliver a talk to Heads of an International Coalition of Boys’ Schools on ‘Contemporary Issues Affecting Teenage Boys’. There, I enjoyed some wonderful conversations with colleagues, but the highlight of the day was a private tour of this 450 year old educational institution.
We were treated to time wandering around the Old Speech Room and Gallery and there, I found myself alone, in front of a watercolour by Winston Churchill himself (a former Harrovian). Now, I couldn’t possibly comment on the quality of Churchill’s painting skills, but I was fascinated by the fact he had ‘given it a go’ and relished it so much as a hobby. Indeed, the quotation underneath the painting alluded to the fact that he was looking forward to painting in heaven, and hoped to spend eternity perfecting his brush stroke. Later in the day, I was lucky to attend a workshop in the library with Harrow’s Director of Art, Laurence Hedges. Unlike some of you, I’ve never attended a History of Art lecture, been to art school or illustrated anything other than a wonky daffodil on a doodle-pad.
Hearing how Laurence approaches a painting was a rich, exciting and new experience for me. I was surprised at just how much I could learn with a tiny bit of scaffolding from a knowledgeable teacher and how exhilarating and intellectually challenging the art study was as an exercise. The content of his presentation included slides of famous paintings, but I particularly enjoyed the pictures he shared of the chaotic studios of some of the greatest artists in the world, many of which reassembled junk yards. He then showed images of the astonishing and near ‘perfect’ art and objects that emerged out of these seemingly disordered spaces. The workshop and work of Francis Bacon provided one such example.
Laurence quizzed us, asked us what we observed and then challenged us to think differently about what was in front of us. The more we looked, the more we could see. “Wow”, I thought, “lessons in the study of art are so critical to developing children and adults’ thinking!” and left the workshop excited by the prospect of laying more emphasis on viewing and engaging with art with my own family. In the past, I have metaphorically ‘dragged’ my children to art spaces, perhaps for tokenistic reasons, but didn’t really understand how to support them to get the most out of these experiences. I wasn’t sure what I was meant to model, or how to frame conversations about what we were looking at.
Another barrier to family engagement with art has been time. However, I did some research and discovered that this is a particularly poor excuse. It turns out that we can still read about objets d’art and visit the greatest art collections in the world without even leaving our homes. Can’t get to Athens? just sit back in your chair and visit the Acropolis, or any other magnificent museum that takes your fancy. If you want to learn more about art from art historians and teachers, you can purchase recorded lectures and/or pay to watch them live.
If you want to hit the ground running with a fabulous introduction to some of the most important museum pieces in the world, get reading A History of the World in 100 Objects as a family. Based on a past television show, this book is a history of humanity through 100 objects from all over the world, created over a 2 million year period; all of which are contained within the British Museum. You might choose to dip into the book every weekend and talk about one object. Quickly, children and teens will understand how a single object can reflect a culture, historic values, give insights to life back in time and invite appreciation of human ingenuity.
Those of you parenting younger children will have likely noticed how they want to naturally make and consume art. They hit the ground running when in front of crayons and paper, play-doh, sticky bits and glue, and seem motivated to get going with their ideas. As parents, we need to sustain and encourage this wonderful creativity through those earlier years. So, what can we do on a practical level?
First of all, we can model an appreciation of the little artistic endeavours that they have taken time over. When they bring their work home from school or nursery, before you move to say ‘that is nice’ and then surreptitiously place it in the recycling box, why not ask them some curious questions: How did you do that? How did you choose the colours? How did you get your idea for this? What excites you about it? How does it make you feel now that you have made it? What a lovely picture, can you tell me about it? Imagine how deeply motivating it is for a child to receive that level of interest from a parent or carer. These questions encourage children to think, reflect and to consider the process that they embarked on to deliver the end product. By praising persistence over performance, we teach our children that great work takes time and grit; mistake-making, rubbing out and perhaps starting again, are all part of the creative process. We can model openness and curiosity when it comes to creativity and self-compassion when things don’t quite turn out as we had hoped. We can encourage discussion about choice, emotion, symbolism, meaning and metaphor. We can tell stories and communicate with speech or without. We can chat or simply listen to the sound our artistic marks make as our tools land on surfaces.
When ‘out and about’ with our children, we can simply model an interest in observing and noticing detail in the world around us. Sometimes a great book can kick start this process. If you are planning a trip to the beach over Easter, I recommend the book, What a Shell Can Tell by the award-winning marine biologist, Helen Scales.
On more formal trips to museums and viewing art, if, like me, you feel unsure about what to say to your children or how to help them make the most of the experience, reassure yourself that just giving them time to look and observe is sufficient; a tried and tested task set by art teachers. Let them know that their response to what they are seeing is just as valid as anyone else’s. If we don’t know too much about art, we can at least appreciate some of the elements of design: line, shape, value (how light or dark lines, shapes or colours are), colours and textures. Every piece can stimulate some sort of family discussion. Here are some more tips on how to ‘read a painting’ from the National Gallery. Perhaps take them to a gallery and try them out?
Discussion about art doesn’t need to be limited to paintings or drawings. Why not introduce children to different forms of art: sculpture, ceramics or textiles? and to artists of all ages and stages (Otentu is a great site supporting new and emerging artists to showcase their work). I recently told my own children about an amazing eight year old called Caspar who I had come across recently and who is undoubtedly gifted. I also introduced them to the work of the artist, Ai WeiWei, and the process of creating his ‘Sunflowers’. You can already imagine what an antidote this kind of reflective time could be, compared to time spent scrolling through social media or Netflix.
Music and art can both provide platforms through which people who might view the world differently can invite others into their psychological landscape.
Who wasn’t moved by the extraordinary performance of young pianist Lucy at Leeds train station last week on Channel 4’s ‘The Piano’? Aged 13 and described as ‘blind and neurodivergent’, she played a highly complex piece of music, Chopin’s Nocturne, Op 9, No 1 in B-flat Minor, with passion and fluency. Her performance, in front of a crowd of passers-by (skateboarders, business people, children, students, shoppers and tourists), was captivating and breath-taking. Each person who stood and listened will have undoubtedly responded to the music they were hearing in a variety of ways. Some may have felt sad, others elated, relaxed, happy, or simply reflective. Music, like art, can transport us into different ways of being and thinking, shift our feelings and have an impact on our mood and general wellbeing.
Last week, I came across the work of artist Yayoi Kusama, who sparked my interest in the relationship between mental health and the sharing of lived experience. Yayoi was 10 years old when she experienced visual hallucinations which she described as ‘flashes of light’ or dots; a motif that pervades her work and that has influenced many other art forms and artists. Watch this clip about her work here and visit her famous mirror rooms at London’s Tate museum until August (booking is open until the end of April).
So what is art an antidote to exactly? Here is an anecdote to explain. A few weeks ago I was with a teacher and a group of teens who found public speaking very challenging. The school wasn’t able to get any of them to talk during a workshop exploring performance anxiety. Until, that is, they were given some coloured paper and pens. At that point, the air began to fill with quiet chatter and everyone began to enthusiastically doodle and draw. Drawing is a way for children to communicate non-verbally. We have known about the benefits of mindful drawing for some time as an antidote to, or at least as an alleviator of, anxiety and stress, but it was exciting to see it in action. These teens were happy to talk (side by side, rather than face to face) and enjoyed being given the freedom to draw whatever they wanted. They were excited to move their hands, share ideas, choose colours and, despite how anxious they may have been feeling, were able to draw the most joyful of images: kaleidoscopic, detailed flowers featured heavily. Sometimes we can’t express how we feel, but we can draw it and this is true no matter our age or stage.
The same applies to music. The freshest of research studies show us how music can heal, be a stimulant, a relaxant or an aid to overcoming. A new study by the British Academy of Sound Therapy identified a common ‘dosage’ for the therapeutic effect of music. Apparently, it takes 13 minutes to release sadness and nine minutes to make you happy. There are fascinating snippets of other research studies featured on the British Academy of Sound Therapy website, including one that talks about the benefits of singing for acne reduction and younger skin! To help improve mood-state, the organisation recommends that we all choose songs that give us goose-bumps and aim to sing for at least 5 minutes. If you are feeling particularly down, then choose a few of your favourite tracks that add up to around 14 minutes. If you are stressed, aim to sing for 20 minutes. Better still, form an online Karaoke group with your friends. Group singing for fun reduces levels of cortisol (a hormone associated with stress) even more effectively.
Personally, I am most interested in the impact of art and music on children’s thinking. There is already widespread recognition that exposure to art can enhance children’s social-emotional development, but there’s also new research suggesting that creativity can mitigate the risk of a type of thinking associated with dangerous and extreme ideologies. Recently, I had the good fortune to interview political psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist, Dr Leor Zmigrod, an expert on the cognitive and emotional characteristics that make individuals susceptible to ideological extremism. Her work identifies cognitive inflexibility as a predictor of extremist views and as a precursor to radicalisation. Dr Zmigrod helpfully suggests that exposing young people to creative endeavours is one practical way to promote the sort of flexible thinking essential for the cultivation of empathy. As she says, “Doing something which prompts us to be spontaneous, original and creative allows our brains to become more flexible, plastic and resilient”.
So, whilst we might all be focused on having urgent conversations with young people about toxic influences and influencers, an additional approach might be to invest in opportunities to introduce young people to art in all its forms. Perhaps we can trust art to trigger the kinds of thought revisions and small epiphanies essential to learning and to ignite the sort of intellectual humility that inhibits attraction towards harmful online philosophies.
The creative arts provide the richest possible platform for learning, innovation, improvement, self-acceptance, self-discovery and higher order thinking; qualities and characteristics that clearly lay essential foundations for effective learning across subjects and for wellbeing in general.
Arguably, nurturing our children’s creativity is also essential for developing their employability. According to the World Economic Forum’s most recent Future of Jobs survey, creativity is in the top five skills that will be required by companies in 2025. Creativity gives us a vehicle through which we can explore feelings, problem-solve, consider our own and others’ viewpoints, make mistakes (and bounce back) and cultivate mental states conducive to perseverance. When engaging with the creative arts, we are taught to look ‘beyond’, avoid assumptions and explore possibilities. Who wouldn’t want to have people with these skills on their team or in their life?
In fact, a test has been designed to evaluate creative thinking capability. The Divergent Association Task (DAT) was designed by researchers from McGill University, Harvard University, and the University of Melbourne to assess divergent thinking (the sort of thinking that means people are able to come up with diverse solutions to open-ended problems). This is apparently a key job skill in what has been termed the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. Obviously, I did the test and scored above average so now consider the test to be an excellent evaluative tool! Try it out.
What is apparent to me is that we should prioritise our children’s access to the creative arts; as many mind-expanding and jaw-dropping experiences as we can, without expectation of impact. Trust what they view to do its work; to disrupt their thinking, challenge worldviews and prompt them to come up with their own ideas. We don’t need to be artists or experts to bring art in all its forms in front of our children. At a very basic level, appreciating the joy that everyday engagement with artistic endeavours can bring to the whole family is something to strongly consider.
If we can draw children’s attention to the way creating art makes them feel and how it shifts their mood and thoughts, surely this can be an exciting antidote to the chaotic, overly stimulating junkyard of social media so readily consumed by young people? Art offers new perspectives untouched by algorithms, fresh thinking generated by the consumer rather than the creator, and a world of possibilities and freedom. We don’t need to ‘stay within the lines’ when we create or when we think. This message will stand our children in good stead as they enter labour environments in the future that are actively seeking out creative, resilient, critical thinkers; employees who are prepared to take risks in the pursuit of innovation.
Only those who have been encouraged to ‘give things a go’ in childhood could hope to achieve the self-confidence required to put themselves in the vulnerable position of suggesting an idea or a concept that may or may not work. Every creative act requires a dose of courage so let’s facilitate that process by giving our children permission to think, make-mistakes, fail and fail better. Creative thinking is messy, uncomfortable and values individual ideas; a badly needed tonic in a world where perfectionism, homogeneity and conformity are the norm and seemingly the safest routes towards acceptance.
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If you fancy dipping your toe into some mindful artistry, our 30 Calming Drawing Ideas, created in collaboration with artist and drawing teacher, Fiona Meakin, will give you and your children some food for thought. For some helpful strategies on asking children effective questions and encouraging them to think creatively, check out our top tips for unlocking children’s thinking. You might also be interested in our exploration of the concept of ‘aporia’ (the confusion we can experience when looking at, experiencing or processing something new). Written in conjunction with The Philosophy Foundation, we’ve got some great advice on helping children to recognise and work through these feelings of perplexity, rather than being frightened of them. The library also contains material on normalising mistake-making.
As I’m sure you are all too aware, it’s World Book Day on Thursday, so here’s a quick reminder of all of our fantastic book lists. Whether you are looking for books on supporting young people’s mental health, preparing for a new sibling, books featuring characters with ‘diffabilities’, books to promote kindness and empathy or to open up conversations about puberty or sex and how babies are made, normalising mistakes or helping children to cope in the sad event of a bereavement – we have a list for you. Can you think of something we’ve missed? Why not let us know?