My Perspective-Shifting Experiment with Art

I contemplate life and death in this painting by Rousseau

I contemplate life and death in this painting by Rousseau

Though music and philosophy have been shown to help change perspective as a route to well-being (see Art and the Humanities Shift Our Perspective), the visual arts may be particularly adept at helping viewers modify perspective to improve their well-being.   Art plays many roles which potentially contribute to well-being including remembering, providing hope, managing sorrow, rebalancing ourselves by providing clarity of our good qualities, self-understanding, growth and appreciation.   Several of these roles may use perspective-shifting:  we get to know ourselves, we re-evaluate experiences, we see new reasons to move forward with hope, we learn that we are not alone in our suffering, and we become aware of the beauty in our everyday life.  Art is a reflection of ourselves and the human experience, and viewing art through the eyes of the artist provides us a different perspective of ourselves and our world (see de Botton, 2013).

This perspective shifting concept came alive to me at the Barnes Museum as I was forced, no required, to sit in front of one painting that I found compelling.  I chose Scout Attacked by a Tiger, by Rousseau.  Though I didn’t think I would gain much from investing 20 minutes staring at a painting, I quickly began to associate the painting with various aspects of my life and world.  First, I realized the dark theme of the painting paralleled my preferred choice of novels – suspense and mystery novels.  I have been told by a professional writer that such books help the reader feel in control of a scary world.   The killer is caught.  Justice is served.

Next, the composition of the painting also spoke to me during my contemplation.  The central focus of Rousseau’s painting is the dead scout, recently mauled by the tiger.  However, his companion survives and is poised to kill the tiger:  Man triumphs over the cruelty of nature.  Surrounded by this macabre scene is the beauty and order of the jungle, lavish and richly colored with a lovely symmetry to the plants that surround and seem to emanate from the death.  The jungle itself and light of the sky above also provide a rich contrast to death, and reminds one that life and death are inseparable and are integral to the natural order of the world.   I re-evaluated and was reminded of reasons to move forward with hope.  In other words, my previous sense of need to control a chaotic and scary world shifted to a more accepting posture after completing the assignment.

The Barnes Museum itself was an exercise in shifting perspective.  The museum eschewed the linear, two-dimensional portrayal of art, instead opting for a multidimensional, multimedia approach (see article by Panero, 2013).  Barnes’ art arrangement is also an art form and a means of artistic expression;  Barnes happened to use masterpieces as his medium.  Like my experience with Scout, after an initial “huh?” I was blown away by how this shift exploded my perception of art, and in several ways, my world.

The ability of art to shift the perspective of the artist and the viewer provide interesting possibilities for the study of well-being.  Since the humanities is a form of human expression, then humanities and the arts can be studied across time, distance and context.  For example, traditional psychology involves use of undergraduate psychology students participating in a contrived experience where they are told they are being tested for X but are really tested for Y.  However, psychologists may instead study alternative forms of human expression.   For instance, the World Well-Being Project (see references listed on http://wwbp.org/publications.html)  studies human expression in the form of social media to unravel the nature, prevalence and frequency of positive emotion across the world.  Likewise, one could study the work of an artist such as Renoir over time to understand how life circumstances such as chronic pain and illness influences artistic expression.  Thus, one could study art, literature, music, philosophy or other works from the humanities to study well-being.

In this context, the Barnes Museum provides an evocative exploration of human expression.  The nonlinear arrangement of art illuminates relationships, ideas, stories, and images that would have been previously unknown.   To the degree that the art on a single wall of the Barnes spans the globe, time, theme and media, Barnes is connecting previously unseen but nevertheless important dots for the viewer.  Those connections, now evident to the patient observer, provide changes in perspective and renewed understanding of ourselves, either to improve our personal well-being or for new avenues of scientific exploration.

In summary, the humanities are a form of human expression that allows both the creator and observer of the art to improve their well-being.    Perspective change can help the artist repair mood, constructively ruminate and build positive emotion.  The observer can benefit from the broadened perspective and positive emotion conveyed by the art by simply improving their mood or health, or by shifting their own perspective.  That change of perspective may foster hope, help manage sorrow or isolation, inspire, educate or provide new avenues for research.

Resources:

de Botton, A., & Armstrong, J. (2013). Art as Therapy. London: Phaidon Press.

Panero, J. (2011). Outsmarting Albert Barnes. Philanthropy Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.philanthropyroundtable.org/topic/donor_intent/outsmarting_albert_barnes

Art and the Humanities Shift Our Perspective

The good life or well-being, also known as eudaimonia are described by Seligman (2011) as consisting of PERMA (positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and accomplishment).   The attainment of this complex but important state can be argued to be one of man’s central life pursuits.   To the degree this is true, then man’s attention and expression will reflect this pursuit.  Thus, since the humanities are a form of human expression, and our expression will reflect our pursuit of well-being, the humanities can help individuals develop a better understanding of well-being.  Lessons in how to live a meaningful and good life are evident and pervasive in great works of literature, art, religion and philosophy (for example, Pawelski, 2013; de Botton, 2013).  However, visual art forms such as paintings often use an important and effective mechanism to foster well-being, i.e. through improving perspective.

 Using the arts to change perspective may take many forms.  First, creating art can change the artist’s perspective.  As summarized by Ivanhoe (2013),  joy and self-transcendence are available to the masters when they lose themselves in their work when the work becomes of a second, acquired but spontaneous nature according to Kongzi (Confucious).  That self-transcendence broadens the artist’s perspective beyond themselves and their daily experience.

Second, while an artist is engaged in the creative process, positive emotion and mood repair may result.    Mood repair mediated by positive emotion is more effective than pathways that employ venting or distraction (Dalebroux, Goldstein & Winner, 2008).    Dalebroux also states that rumination can extend the duration of negative emotion, but when used properly, rumination can help one move forward and grow when facing a challenge.

When positive emotion such as joy and self-transcendence exist as often occurs during the creation of art, an individual’s perspective changes via a phenomenon called Broaden and Build.  According to Fredrickson (2009), with positive emotion comes a more expansive perspective, creativity and integration.   The latter creates excellence and achievement thus creating more positive emotion, resulting in a positive upward spiral of well-being.    To the degree that this wider perspective and creativity can then be conveyed through the art form itself to the viewer, listener or reader, then the artist can subsequently grow and enhance the well-being of others.

Though much remains unknown about the impact of the humanities on the viewer, reader or listener, the recipient of an art form can benefit in many ways from the broader perspective of the artist and enhance their well-being.    According to Ivanhoe (2013), Konzi says that listening to music has an enchanting power that “arises from our underlying desire to discover, fit into, and give ourselves over to something larger and more meaningful than our personal pleasures and desires.”     Västfjäll, Juslin, & Hartig (2012 ) describe how listening to music can improve physical health, create positive emotions , diminish negative emotions, and help one feel energized.   In other words, the observer’s well-being may be enhanced by art because of increases in meaning, positive emotion, feeling energized and a net improvement in health.

The broadened perspective of the artist or writer may also help the observer broaden their own perspective.  For example, cognitive reappraisal is identified as one possible mechanism by which music mitigates stress (Västfjäll, Juslin, & Hartig, 2012) . Similarly, an important philosophical tool called reflective equilibrium requires one to use an iterative approach to consider multiple perspectives in explaining as many of the facts as possible (Tiberius, 2013), thus widening the perspective of both philosopher and reader.

Perhaps this perspective shift and subtle changes in wisdom is what draws us to participate in the humanities.  How will you shift your perspective today?

Reources:

Dalebroux, A., Goldstein, T. R., & Winner, E. (2008). Short-term mood repair through art-making: Positive emotion is more effective than venting. Motivation and Emotion, 32, 288-295. doi: 10.1007/s11031-008-9105-1.

de Botton, A., & Armstrong, J. (2013). Art as Therapy. London: Phaidon Press.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking research reveals how to embrace the hidden strength of positive emotions, overcome negativity, and thrive. New York: Crown Publishers.

Ivanhoe, P. J. (2013). Happiness in early Chinese thought. In S. David, I. Boniwell, & A. Conley Ayers (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of happiness (pp. 326-336). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pawelski, J. O., & Moores, D. J. (Eds.). (2013). The eudaimonic turn: Well-being in literary studies. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011).  Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and wellbeing. New York: Free Press.

Tiberius, V. (2013).  Philosophical methods in happiness research.  In  S. A. David, I. Boniwell, A.C. Ayers, (Eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Happiness.  (pp. 315-325). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Västfjäll, D., Juslin, P. N., & Hartig, T. (2012). Music, subjective wellbeing, and health: The role of everyday emotions. In R. MacDonald, G. Kreutz, & L. Mitchell (Eds.), Music, health, and wellbeing (pp. 405-423). Oxford: Oxford University Press.