Faith Ringgold's "Coming to Jones Road: Under a Blood Red Sky #8 from Femfolio" (2007) : art that turns ‘all the ugliness of spirit, past and present into something liveable.’ instagram/artitouchedtoday

​Content Note: This article contains discussion of racial trauma, cancer, homophobia, suicide, mention of sexual assault, gender based violence, bereavement, panic attacks.

I am stood in front of a Daniel Richter painting of the refugee crisis at the Whitechapel Gallery’s Radical Figures show. The tour guide tells our class that Richter uses the expressionist idiom to raise awareness of social issues, quipping that this is ironic given that this style is most associated with the (implicitly egotistic) work of the so-called ‘tortured’ artist. It is a remark that has become so commonplace in my experience as a history of art student that I barely bat an eyelid. In scholarship today, there is a tendency to dismiss this trope. And rightly so. The idea of the typical artistic “genius” as a white man with a fair dollop of melancholy, the historic equivalent of the “soft boy”, is one which is outdated, cliched and exclusive. Moreover, the idea that turmoil is an essential creative fuel often allows the unhealthy structures of the art-world, including low-paid and unstable work, to remain unaddressed. But should any art that addresses mental health problems elicit groans from cultural professionals?

Daniel Richter's "Tarifa" (2001) : "an emblematic image of suffering," as described by The Guardian.twitter/paintbritain

Surely the notion that the depiction of mental health issues through self-reflection constitutes the privileged narcissistically wallowing in their own self-pity (and is therefore of little social benefit) actually has far more to do with a cultural misunderstanding of the symptoms of mental health difficulties than it does with the work. Whilst I’m sure most scholars or gallerists do not mean to be dismissive of all art which confronts this topic, they are being complicit in a societal lack of awareness and stigmatisation of these conditions. Such ‘tortured’ artists and the features of their work seem to be adopted and appropriated into the dominant discourse when in vogue, and cast out as a fast-fashion fad, along with the adult colouring-books that failed to offer the impossible reprieve we so desperately yearned for in late stage capitalism. But the therapeutic potential of art to provide voice, visibility and a platform for those who suffer from conditions which are still trivialised by the wider social structure, is surely too beneficial to erase. It’s not just canonized white male artists like Van Gogh who benefit from the restorative power of art.

The therapeutic potential of art to provide voice and visibility to those who suffer from unjustly trivialized conditions is surely too beneficial to erase.

A couple of weeks later, I’m reading Faith Ringgold’s accompanying text to her story-quilt series Coming to Jones Road in preparation for giving a short talk on her print in the Femfolio exhibition at Murray Edwards. She describes the ‘traumatic experience’ of her neighbours’ racist hostility after her move to New Jersey, and how she used art as a ‘healer’ in order to explore the history of slavery, the local black community and her own ancestry. To turn ‘all the ugliness of spirit, past and present into something liveable.’ The story intertwines more personal narratives such as that of her grandmother, with the wider chronicle of colonialism, to create a powerful account of the journey to freedom which is at times harrowing, but intensely hopeful and inspirational. I’m not suggesting or assuming Ringgold herself has a mental health condition – but I am reminded of the potential art has to combat racial trauma. Given that many BAME groups have a higher rate of PTSD which is linked to racism according to the American Psychological Association, the idea of art exploring mental health only benefiting individualistic white men seems fairly ridiculous.

Flash-back to a supervision on photo-theory. The conversation turns to the Marxist-feminist Jo Spence’s phototherapy and A Picture of Health, her series dealing with her experience of cancer. I argue that that her work, Where Do I Begin? is almost akin to a form of exposure therapy, or a reclaiming of agency over her body. Here, she repeats the act of a surgeon who mechanically branded her breast with an X, an experience which was de-humanising and traumatic, and especially ignorant to the experiences of women within the healthcare system. We turn to her collaboration with Rosie Martin, Unwind the Lies That Bind, which combines medicalised imagery with homophobic slurs from both Martin’s personal and public spheres.

Dismissing any artist on the basis of references to mental health or personal trauma is to perpetuate an offshoot of ableism.

As discussions develop, I am compelled to point out that the effects of trauma are often delayed. I am forced to leave the supervision for a moment to collate myself. Whilst my trauma is in no-way comparable to Spence’s experience, triggers often work via unexpected association; I am currently in the process of recovering from sexual assault alongside years of accumulative gender-based violence and harassment. I use photography and performance art as a form of therapy. The effects of these incidents were delayed onset. In fact, my practice has helped, in the course of my lifetime, deal with bereavement, suicidal thoughts, dissociation, sexism, class alienation, homophobic micro-aggressions and dysfunctional relationships. I often joke that I needed a lot less therapy when I was making art full-time.

"'The Scream' made me feel a little less isolated." [Edvard Munch, "Der Schrei der Natur", commonly known as "The Scream", 1893.]twitter/elusive_moose

But it’s not just the maker themselves that feels the therapeutic benefit. Regardless of identity discrepancies between the artist and viewer or participant, art operates via empathy and association. The audience reception can place its own meaning on the work of art. My fifteen-year old queer, working-class self looks at an image like "The Scream" and sees not the artist’s difference from my own situation, but a visceral reification of what the sleep-paralysis induced panic attacks I’ve recently started to experience feel like. Whether the artist intended this is somewhat irrelevant – the effect the work had was to make me feel a little less isolated.


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And yet, all of this is perhaps missing the key point – mental health problems transcend boundaries of identity and affect people of all classes, races, genders, sexualities, abilities and ages. It’s true that certain identity characteristics give an individual a higher chance of developing certain types mental health conditions, for instance gender dysmorphia within the trans community or racial trauma. But, in an age where suicide is the single biggest killer of men under 45, which is linked to stifling gender expectations of men to be “strong” and not admit emotional vulnerability, art therapy could provide a vital means to vocalise that which is taboo. Dismissing any artist on the basis of containing references to mental health or personal trauma, regardless of identity, is to perpetuate an offshoot of ableism.

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