Aesthetic vs Didactic: Curating mental health and trying to change the world

Recently I’ve been celebrating the conclusion of my first year as a PhD candidate (where the hell did that time go?). This first year I have been propelled forwards at a rate of knots by the exhibition at FACT and exciting collaborations with my colleagues on an innovative research method that has just received major funding from the Australian Research Council. I’ve also edited a book and presented the fruits of my labor with FACT at numerous talks and conferences.

This semester, apart from a fairly hefty teaching load and early preparations for Group Therapy Australia, things have become a little less manic and I’ve been able to reflect on my work with more freedom. A crucial question I’ve barely had time to ask until now is about my own deeper motivations for doing this PhD. It’s easy to have a sense of direction when co-curators, book contributors and fellow academics are all blabbing excitedly at you about the great things you are going to do together. But what is my deeper intention in among all of this productivity? How do I make sure that I spend three years working on a project that resonates with my own deeper ethics and motivations? In other words, what will success look like FOR ME?

At the recent postgraduate conference held at UNSW Art & Design I noticed so many of my colleagues are addressing deeply incisive issues like climate change and classroom pedagogy through their creative and artistic practices. There is often a healthy and commendable desire to change the world (or at least make a measurable difference) among artists, curators etc, which in my case manifests in an aspiration to challenge prevailing mindsets about mental health. While some in the arts might commend this project as timely and necessary, many others will find the didactic intent problematic (this really came through in the response to my own presentation at the UNSW conference). As I have frequently expressed in the past, I believe that something of what is unique and powerful about the artistic experience is lost when we imbue it with overly instrumental agendas. Simultaneously, I retain a powerful inclination that artistic experience has enormous capacity to explode conventional thinking about mental health and illness and to produce alternative perspectives on wellbeing that challenge the doctrines of medical science. So how do I harness this power of art as a communicative strategy without compromising its integrity as a complex aesthetic experience? What will success look like FOR ME, both in terms of the aesthetic quality of the experiences I curate and the messages they communicate about mental health?

Featured image: Madlove, the vacuum cleaner in collaboration with Hannah Hull, as part of Group Therapy: Mental Distress in a Digital Age @ FACT, Liverpool, March- May 2015. Photograph by Stephen King

5 thoughts on “Aesthetic vs Didactic: Curating mental health and trying to change the world

  1. Yep these are good questions that are always somewhere in the back of my mind too as I work with art as a means of exploring ideas and actions around climate change.

    A few essays, by Jay Griffiths, Antony Gormley and Tim Jackson in this publication
    were really good for helping me think about what I was trying to do, especially the idea that “Art and artists can help move the climate change agenda from intellectual understanding to emotional engagement, and then on to action”. Perhaps this is not what’s most important if your subject is mental health — I don’t know — but encapsulated in the idea is that art can access or approach a difficult or invisible subject in a way that nothing else can.

    A great quote from Griffiths in the above:
    “It is hard to allow oneself to be drawn by overt dogma, which is delivered in the daylight areas of the mind. Art works in the shuttered twilights where darkness bestows a tenderness and protection, a secret place where the psyche feels safe enough to alter. It is always easier to change one’s mind in the dark. Artists know their place is the edge, fertile, enigmatic, tricksterish … a place of maximum tension, a place of paradox, creative by its own geometry; a place of apparent contradictions which art explores and transcends.”

    Anyway, as I say, good questions!

    1. Thanks Adam!

      You are absolutely correct that there is a well documented ‘tacit’ level on which art is said to communicate. Recently I’ve quoted lots of writers to help support an argument about the contribution art can help to make to public understandings of mental health, including Jill Bennett (whom I believe we both know). She argues that aesthetic experience is a ‘means of apprehending the world via sense-based and affective processes – processes that touch bodies intimately and directly but that also underpin the emotions, sentiments and passions of public life’.

      I love the quote you site from Griffiths and how he talks about art creating transformation in the ‘shuttered twilights’ of the mind. But I guess the problem with a shuttered twilight is that you have to really strain your eyes to identify any transformation that takes place there!! As practitioners wanting to derive personal satisfaction from making some kind of change (which so many of us clearly do) how do we know we have done our work well? When we can write a nice essay about all of the ‘tacit’ knowing we have created in the minds of whoever it was that came to see our show…?

      I should stress that I am not critiquing the process of art making, simply questioning out loud its suitability as a vehicle for my own grandiose obsession with doing something that has impact (and I think this obsession with impact has something to do with getting older, sadly). Believe it or not I’m seriously questioning whether I ought to do some training as a therapist on the side to create a bit more space to just let my creative processes be…

  2. Perhaps it’s a good thing that it can’t be measured? If God refuses to prove that She exists because Proof would deny Faith, perhaps being able to quantify affect would likewise cause it to disappear in a puff of smoke?!

    1. Of course you are correct Adam, although I have a feeling I may need to keep pondering the question a while longer. Thank you enormously for humouring me 🙂

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