Art For Myself – When Art Matters More Than What Ends Up On The Page


‘Drawing is the honesty of the art. It is either good or bad.’

Salvador Dali


Art carries a heavy burden.

Those who do it for a living rarely make one, and the artists we most revere are often long dead. Anytime we, us unpaid amateurs, come to create something, the pressure Salvador Dali spoke of can seem a murky barrier between the canvas and us. We must be creative, and what we create must be good.

But it goes further. As Ivan Hewett points out, ‘everyone – including politicians – assumes the arts help to solve social problems’. Art is a magical fix for our social ills too! So as well as being critically acclaimed, art has to improve our maths ability, create social cohesion, dissolve racial tensions and rehabilitate prisoners. And when it fails to achieve these desired but unrealistic outcomes, art is to blame.

Clearly much is expected of art. But do these expectations create a barrier to you picking up a paintbrush and making your art project ideas a reality?

Art needn’t just be about masterpieces, creating geniuses or fighting crime – it’s far more important than that.

Let’s start by changing our mantra from Dali’s to Friedrich Schiller’s instead:

‘Art is the daughter of freedom.’

The Art of Play.

Art is more than the marks left on the page. Art is a direct experience of our creativity, and our creativity is a container of a number of wonderful human qualities: curiosity, imagination and play.

And while they are wonderful, these are three qualities that are often laughed off by our rational adult brains as needless or even downright irresponsible. Yet we celebrate them enthusiastically in children. Why is this, and why do allow these qualities to fall away as we grow-up?

In the TED Radio Hour show ‘Press Play’, play is defined as ‘doing an activity that has no end goal, except that it’s fun’. And this may point us directly to the heart of our problem.

Language matters, and ‘fun’ just isn’t serious grown-up currency in our serious grown-up lives. Between our hectic schedules, the need to earn a living and all the other pressing worries demanding attention, doing an activity with no end goal purely for fun easily falls down our list of priorities.

Yet there is so much evidence that this widespread demotion of play is an unwise move. There are reams of research papers and parenting literature to convince us that play helps children develop. It helps them develop dexterity, coordination, imagination and emotional strength, and teaches them how to interact with the world. But beyond puberty, does it just become pointless kids play?

Grown-up Playtime.

No. Adults need play too.

Recent research showed how participating in art at any age offers notable benefits, including ‘improved functional connectivity’ in our brains and ‘significant improvements in psychological resilience’. When we give dismiss play as something for kids or not worth our attention and time, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to continue to learn and develop much more than our artistic palette.

When a child joins a game on the school playground, they break down social barriers and create empathy and mutual understanding, though obviously this is unlikely to be their motivation as they run over. More likely ‘that game looks fun, I want a go!

So too occasions of play in our adult world. From sharing computer games to mindless doodling, play creates experiences where the products are not the tangible results but rather the positive personal effects of the experience.

Some we may not recognise; others are more obvious to us. As a participant in a Contact Improvisation jam, (where participants dance without the goal of performing or the structure of pre-planned choreography), noted, ‘the usual feeling at the end of the jam is one of peacefulness, and I’ve found myself more in touch with my body and feelings in the following days.’

The Play of Art.

This quality of play is central to art’s positive impact on us. By actively engaging in the process of creating something, you engage in an act of play that involves all of you. 

For participating in art, rather than simply a game, requires more than just our physical selves. Art engages our emotional, psychological, intellectual and social selves, and so benefits get spread through more of us. Anyone who has participated in art for the sake of participating understands this. Art offers a space for us to process our worries or concerns, to express what we cannot find words for and, literally, to make a mark we wish to on the world. Yet what is made at the end of it is often only a secondary benefit.

So, as artists, (that’s all of us), we should not pressure ourselves to create a masterpiece when we step to the canvas. Perhaps instead we should aspire to use art to master our understanding of ourselves.