Creativity and Catharsis

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I’ve been blogging over the last few weeks about how an arts practice can be a positive thing for wellbeing and mental health. In my last post I was musing on how in the process of making things we transform one set of things (paper and paint, thoughts and feelings) into something else, something beautiful.

I’m interested in the idea that as part of the process of making something, it is possible to use thoughts, feeling, ideas or experiences as a raw material for craft. The conceptĀ of artistic expression as a cathartic process is not new. The idea is that the artist may not only use their practice as a medium through which to express feelings, but in the process may somehow expel or ‘purge’ negative emotions from their systems and in doing so would be relieved from them. For many people some negative emotions hold such power that it may be difficult to actually articulate them. A sweep of dark paint across a canvas, or beating of drums or moving the body through dance, may be the way in which a person may actually be able to give some form to those emotions. Once the paint is on the canvas a person may be able to ‘see’ what they are feeling externalised, and feel the emotion is no longer contained within them, but has been ‘set free’. I understand this reading of catharsis as a little like mental vomiting, expelling what is noxious to be rid of it.

A few years ago I was very interested in how story and narrative may have an impact on us humans, and I read the work of (and had the privilege of meeting with) Prof. Keith Oatley, who was very interested in the idea of fictional literature as a kind of emotional simulation. He had a slightly different reading of catharsis that drew on a different translation of the Greek roots. He described how catharsis could be interpreted not as a purging, but as a process of ‘clearing away’ or making sense of emotional turmoil. The experience of being in mental distress can be highly confusing. Some have suggested that through the process of creating art out of an emotional situation, it can be possible to make sense of it. The act of externalising emotion through that sweep of paint on the canvas may not really be effective in removing the emotion from the inside, but what it may be able to do is help make sense of it so that it is ever so slightly easier to live with.