The languages of care: art therapy. The case of the Museé des beaux art at Montreal, Canada

It was due to serendipity, that fortune to make happy discoveries by pure chance, that from narrative medicine I approached the language of art: I was looking for those words “intelligently kind”, not those of the empathic noise like “I understand you”, “I am with you”, as defined by the wise John Launer and I was looking for the effect the words had on the brain. In short, we are talking about language and neuroscience. And so by chance or synchronicity, that principle defined by Jung as “a link between two events that take place simultaneously”, connected to each other, that I came across in the research of Professor Rizzolatti, the discoverer of mirror neurons, which connects brain and art, and development of empathy. The same goes for Semir Zeki, founder of neuro aesthetics: and so, I discovered that in addition to body attitudes and the language of words, empathy is developed and strengthened by being immersed in what we perceive as beautiful, cosy, the art masterpiece.

So far too easy, thinking deeplyof it: Botticelli’s Venus like the Mona Lisa have been drawn according to the canons of human proportions, following the golden section, the constant of Phidias or divine proportion: 1.618, that proportion that goes from our top of the head to our navel and from our navel to our toes. Rizzolatti tells us that if we see art masterpiece designed according to the proportions of the golden section, we immediately identify with them and feel being close to Venus, or Mona Lisa or some other Greek sculptures, and since they smile lightly, it happens to us too to smile. So what can we do with all contemporary art, the decomposed faces of Lucien Freud, the asymmetries of Picasso, the caricatures of Grosz? According to the speeches of Zeki and Rizzolatti and their scientific evidence, it is true that they disturb us. They take away from that safe zone of the classic beautiful, the constant of the sculptor Phidias, with those measures that are comforting us because they are repeated also in nature, and probably copied from nature, in the petals of flowers, in the branching of trees, in shells, in human faces, in the bodies of animals, in the flight of insects, to the macrocosm of galaxies and to the microcosm of DNA. This happens when nature is “perfect”: the flower has all its petals, the DNA does not undergo mutations, and the shells are not eroded by the sea.

When diseases, difficulties and aging come, the symmetries often fails, the body “betrays” the rules of the golden section, because it is in the body that “bad events” are recorded, as in a container of memory beyond our hippocampus in the brain, whose tail, by the way, follows the same rules of the golden section. The body atrophies, is unbalanced, breaks down, due to pain, fatigue, fear, and it is reflected in art with those nightmare visions, from the monsters of Bosch, to the heads of Caravaggio’s Medusa (still very sculptural on the canvas), to the Quartered Ox by Rembrandt, which does not put us at ease, at the grim scenes of Guernica, and at the streets full of accidents of Bansky.

Speaking with Stephen Legari, art therapist and family therapist who works at the now very famous Fine Arts Museum in Montreal, on the press almost every day because in this museum patients come to visit it for free through medical prescriptions, since the doctor prescribes the art as a cure, I understand that in addition to classical art, the one whose cornerstones are regulated by the mathematical laws of 1.618, his interest goes to contemporary art.

At the museum there are one million visitors a year, and thousands of people with histories of illness or violence or social exclusion: according to the vision of the Museum Director, Nathalie Bondil, the museum with its art must contribute to both individual wellbeing as to social cohesion. How to achieve the goals? With art therapy, a rhetorical answer. And what does it mean to do art therapy? Stephen Legari tells me that about Trauma, with a capital T, a violence, an abuse, a serious illness, as trauma, the one with a small t, a series of small everyday traumas that are then “encoded” inside the body, is very much difficult to talk about directly, “question and answer” with a social or health professional. The social mask, the one that Jung calls Persona borrowing the word from Latin, is too cumbersome, shame is massive, and frames the individual in a social role. Even in health care facilities, in the out clinic, in the hospital, we wear too often the social mask and very little is revealed. Often we are not given the opportunity to reveal our identity, which in situations of fragility, instead, must be taken care of as much as the body.

I explore the definition from art therapy: art therapy is a helping relationship through artistic mediation. Art therapy is defined as the set of techniques and methods that use creative artistic activities as a means of helping the recovery and growth of the individual in his emotional, affective and relational sphere. It is used in rehabilitation, pedagogy, psychiatric and prevention of discomfort.

During the visit at the museum the sick or traumatized person – in short, the one still wearing with the social mask – chooses a work, and we understand, amazed, that they are interacting more with the paintings of suffering faces, mutilated bodies, grey canvases where the colour was removed, that not the Giocondas or the Venuses . Here through the “third”, represented by the picture, the person removes the mask and begins to tell of his own Ego, of how he or she feels in front of the picture, the emotions first, then the thoughts, and then the memories. The therapist stands first in silence, poses some evocative questions, no empathic noise, just ability to feel_ the Trauma is told and communicated, and life slowly resumes its meaning, or even those choices “considered morally reprehensible” occur, such as asking assisted death when it is no longer to live after twenty years of war against cancer, to still be at war. Rarely but it happens.

It is a sacred moment, the masterpiece has dissolved the silence, with the thoughts that were previously piled up and not shared, and it was a catalyst because even people with autism can go through a twenty-four-week journey at the Canadian museum, and speak for the first time of the emotions they feel in front of the artistic artefacts. Art as rehabilitation, just like in the definition. And then? Once the past is articulated, we come to the present, and here the artistic creation workshops begin: a subjective revision of the chosen work, a collective mural, embroideries, masks that show the true face of the person, painted paths with meetings of the many hands who tried to help the person. And here the art therapist, in addition to making available the materials together with those brought by the individuals continues with the maieutic, “but what does it mean what you do?”, through the history of the art handcraft produced by the individual, here the true meaning, hidden before by the mask, takes its place. Not just one individual but the group also functions as an “energizing and vital” agent: social cohesion starts from sharing one’s stories with the group. Here too narrations, and the circle is recomposed for us narrative medicine scholars.

Symmetries, proportions and even bright colours fail at the beginning of this journey: we are not talking about Beauty, but about Ugly and Painful. Slowly, with the beauty of the frequency of these meetings, every Thursday afternoon for people over 65, the day for people with eating disorders where the ritual is also the moment of the lunch all together, the colours and proportions return and lightness. Even the Beautiful is not given to each of us, but it is a continuous rediscovery.

In fact, in our human history, we have always experienced an ‘alternation of trials, successes, losses, lights and shadows, Beauty and Ugliness. Impossible to separate: like the artists trained at the academy, the older we are, the more we leave the imposed canons, for finding our individual Beautiful. Even beyond the rules of nature, following the waves of the personal soul.

Maria Giulia Marini

Epidemiologist and counselor in transactional analysis, thirty years of professional life in health care. I have a classic humanistic background, including the knowledge of Ancient Greek and Latin, which opened me to study languages and arts, becoming an Art Coach. I followed afterward scientific academic studies, in clinical pharmacology with an academic specialization in Epidemiology (University of Milan and Pavia). Past international experiences at the Harvard Medical School and in a pharma company at Mainz in Germany. Currently Director of Innovation in the Health Care Area of Fondazione ISTUD a center for educational and social and health care research. I'm serving as president of EUNAMES- European Narrative Medicine Society, on the board of Italian Society of Narrative Medicine, a tenured professor of Narrative Medicine at La Sapienza, Roma, and teaching narrative medicine in other universities and institutions at a national and international level. In 2016 I was a referee for the World Health Organization- Europen for “Narrative Method of Research in Public Health.” Writer of the books; “Narrative medicine: Bridging the gap between Evidence-Based care and Medical Humanities,” and "Languages of care in Narrative Medicine" edited with Springer, and since 2021 main editor for Springer of the new series "New Paradigms in Health Care."

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