Taking the pressure off

October 28, 2005

There's a bit of excitement in the medical world these days. It
seems that Britt-Maj Wikstroem of the Ersta Skoendal University
College in Stockholm, Sweden has had twenty elderly women
gather once a week to discuss different works of art. "Their
attitudes became more positive, more creative, their blood
pressure went down and they needed fewer laxatives," she
reported. As a control she used another group who discussed
their own hobbies and interests. This second group of ladies
did not experience these beneficial effects. In the meantime
everybody is jumping up and down and agreeing that talking
about art is good for you. Whoa, hold on here!
I've noticed that if I ask a group to discuss their own hobbies
and interests--including their own work--only a small
percentage will relish the idea. They may do it, but they're
uncomfortable. This reaction may be because a lot of people
feel they are inadequate and perhaps undeserving--or that they
feel there's not much to say about what they do. However, the
few who do jump at the opportunity are gung-ho. This verbal
minority is often more than verbal--they can go on and on. But
here's the interesting part. When that same group is shown the
work of someone else--perhaps a well-known Van Gogh or the work
of one of their peers, nearly everyone is itching to put in
their bit. Because of the more neutral nature of the request,
the pressure is off. People feel empowered, at ease, eager to
advise, give opinions and to generally help out. Fact is,
giving out gives happy feelings. People leave these sorts of
encounters feeling better about themselves. My guess is that
their bowels might work better too.

Wikstroem's research may shed some light on this dichotomy. In
order to feel good about yourself through art, the idea--for
many of us anyway--is to separate ourselves from our work. That
gung-ho, verbal minority I was talking about, are often folks
who have done just this. In a way they are an odd bunch.
Creative people need some sort of an alter ego--some might say
a split personality. Many successful artists tell me that they
have trained themselves to separate their working persona from
their public persona. On occasions they are unable to take
themselves seriously. At other times they take themselves very
seriously indeed. In any case, distancing yourself is probably
good for your art. It might be good for your health as well.