Many of us have been saddened in recent weeks by the sudden death of celebrity chef Jock Zonfrillo. Even if we have never watched Masterchef where he worked as a judge, the idea of a life seemingly full of potential ended at such a young age is disturbing to us, especially as he leaves behind a young family. While it hasn't actually been said in as many words, it is clear that anxiety and depression played a part in this man's untimely death.
These two mental illnesses are maladies of our age, as much a risk to health as the dreaded COVID, not just to individuals, but society as a whole. There are lots of reasons why a person may be susceptible to anxiety and depression. We know there is often a genetic component - if someone in your family suffers, the odds of you suffering are higher. Many people in today's society are dealing with trauma of one kind or another due to what seems to be a constant barrage of "unfortunate events". There is very often a chemical imbalance in the brain - something that can often be helped with medication and even diet. And, it is also my belief that the way our society operates prevents people from developing resilience and coping mechanisms, with its focus on competitive capitalism rather than qualities such as kindness and empathy.
Artists are very often all too familiar with the black dog. That is because they are generally sensitive souls; that is part of what makes them artists - sensitivity and empathy are pretty much prerequisites to making good art. Indeed, as Cezanne famously said “A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art.” So if you are an artist who is more about expressing emotion than technical brilliance, odds are you have first hand experience of anxiety or depression or both. I know I have. Then there are the other pitfalls of life as an artist - the regular rejection, the self doubt and the imposter syndrome we often suffer from, as well as the courage needed to continually put yourself "out there."
On the flip side of that, for most artists, regardless of what kind, making their art is what keeps them grounded and able to deal with the daily difficulties of life. Often, making art, (whether it is good bad or indifferent) is as important to us and our continued survival as eating, sleeping or breathing. And there is a good reason for that. Studies have shown that art activity is good for you. But beyond just being therapeutic, it has amazing impacts on the brain.
Scientists believe that artistic activity can effectively “rewire the brain”, helping victims of trauma, but also developing tolerance, compassion and the ability to accept and consider “shades of grey”. It does this by allowing people to extend and apply what they have learned to other domains (Eisner, 2002, p.30). Art education expert, Elliot Eisner maintains that art education “fosters flexibility, promotes a tolerance for ambiguity, encourages risk taking and depends on the exercise of judgement outside the sphere of rules” (Eisner, 2002, p.35). In other words, it facilitates divergent thinking; the ability to solve problems and to critically engage with the world around us. In a world where we are constantly bombarded with the opinions of others, being able to think for ourselves is key to our well being.
Besides all of that, art has the power to change ideas and ideology. I’m sure we can all name films, books, songs or even paintings or sculptures that fundamentally changed our world view. We learnt something from them, and we looked at life differently after we had experienced that art work.
Alain de Botton and John Armstrong have written a book with the same name as this blog. They talk about how we can understand the world and our position within it far better by considering and appreciating visual art. Countless books and papers have been written about how involvement in the arts can help us to unlock new ways of thinking, new ways of seeing and new ways of being.
So all that means that arts activity should be front and centre of all of our lives, not an optional frippery that exists on the periphery of society. It also means that artists are essential to the positive progression of our species. Yes, that's a big claim, but never has there been more of a need for people to be more tolerant, empathic and kind. Or to start thinking critically. And I believe art is a key ingredient in making it so. As Nike likes to assert "just do it." Don't worry about whether your work sells, wins competitions or even whether it is "good". Just do it. So we can all reap the benefits of what arts activity will do to your brain, most especially you.