The Therapeutic Potential of Art and Play
22 Dec 2021
As we witness a rise in mental health challenges pervasive in society, finding ways of not only coping, but of alleviating such crises is integral. Perhaps art has more relevance to this conversation than we might first expect, as it could enact similar therapeutic outcomes to that of playing. Playing, or play theory, has been present in therapy since the beginning of the 20th century, with child psychoanalyst Melanie Klein developing theories and practices around the use of play technique as a form of therapy for child patients. According to Klein (1997), children playing with toys enables the transference of inner feelings to external objects, which in turn can be unpacked and addressed by the psychoanalyst. The use of objects allows children to articulate their conscious or subconscious emotions non-verbally, so that these potentially traumatic or painful emotions can be addressed and solved somewhat by a psychoanalyst, showing the power of play and objects on the mind. So, if play can elicit cathartic, therapeutic effects, then how does art fit into this realm?
Aristotle spoke of the ability of music and plays to provide relaxation and rest due to experiencing pleasure, and, as Nahm (1942) posits, the same effects can be identified within art also. In his work Politics, Aristotle is somewhat disparaging about the trivial and ‘childish’ nature of play, but attributes play with having the same relaxing effects as music or theatre (Aristotle, 350 B.C.E/2020). The pleasure that can be garnered from playing, listening to music, or engaging with art, is thus, a powerful tool for the mind. The connection between play and art stems in part from the development of aesthetic theory. Whilst art is most traditionally associated with aesthetic dimensions, it can arguably occupy a non-aesthetic realm. It is here that we can align play and art as both having non-aesthetic and active, practical aspects.
Looking out on the landscape of contemporary art today we can see a conceptual turn has occurred, perhaps starting from Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 piece Fountain, which raised questions of censorship and authority on art. Conceptual art later became an established artistic movement in the 1960s, signalling a shift from the importance of specific materials used in the formation of an artwork, and instead focusing on the concepts and ideas of the artist. In this conceptual turn we can see quite clearly the complex relationship between art and aesthetics. To take the conventionalist approach, art can have non-aesthetic ends, see the work of Duchamp or Robert Barry for example, and may instead have a greater focus on religious or political motivations, than on aesthetic qualities. Artists use this creative medium to address more than just the beautiful, for Duchamp in Fountain he questioned what constituted art, and who possesses the authority to decide. Salvador Dalí’s The Metamorphosis of Narcissus was a quest for self-interpretation, inspired by Sigmund Freud’s work, and whilst it undoubtedly engages heavily with aesthetic conventions, Dalí had a non-aesthetic aim and outcome of the work - to help him uncover his own unconscious mind. Art can therefore enact therapeutic outcomes, particularly in Dalí’s case.
© Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation/DACS, London 2021
© Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021
From as far back as Plato, conversations surrounding art and aesthetics have been taking place, with the philosopher arguing in the Republic that art is merely mimetic, and thus dependent on physical objects to imitate (Plato, 375 B.C.E/1988). If art, according to Plato, is dependent on borrowing materials or ideas from other areas of life such as the sciences, then we can arguably see a non-aesthetic origin within art. Philosopher M.C. Nahm (1942) posits that art has the capacity to be defined in both aesthetic and non-aesthetic terms. This non-aesthetic dimension can be seen in the boom of conceptual art from the 20th century until present, and Platonic ideas of art as mimesis, both evidencing a non-aesthetic origin or outcome of art.
Given that art and play both have non-aesthetic aspects, with potential to uncover subconscious emotions, Nahm goes further to argue that ‘fine art is structurally and teleologically identical with play’, as both concern objects ‘ordinarily associated with life’s less serious ends’ - think toy trains and paintbrushes. Plato speaks of the relationship between play and art in terms of play being propaedeutic, or introductory, to art. This means that something must be added to play before it can be perceived as art. Perhaps this is an added knowledge, such as the skill of painting accurate depictions, or, as Groos (1899) suggests, play goes from ‘instinctive’ to ‘artistic’ only with the addition of a ‘disinterested esthetic attention’ within players. So, if play is in some way a stepping stone towards art, perhaps art can have the same therapeutic qualities as play, both enacting helpful consequences for one’s mental health.
Another way in which art can be seen as possessing similar outcomes to play rests in psychoanalytic concepts of object relations. Klein (1997) documents two phases within a child’s life, the oral-sadistic phase which concerns destruction or aggression, and the depressive phase which denotes a desire for reparation and remaking things to be whole again. This transition from destructive impulses to the desire to remake, to create, can be seen in art, since it gives the potential to inhabit both the destructive and reparative realms. This is further developed by Winnicott (2017) who speaks of the transitional object as a prototype for art, another argument that connects play to art as some sort of introductory, preliminary activity. Within the production of art, objects and materials are both destroyed and created - think of sketching and then rubbing it out afterwards, or the destruction of a pencil as you eventually eradicate the lead. It is then remade on the paper in a different formation of lines and gradients, instead of in a cylinder form encompassed by wood. If playing can help us work through our inner emotions, our destructive and reparative impulses, then perhaps art has that same power.
I therefore put it to you, dear reader, to pick up a pencil (or a crayon, a paintbrush) and see how playing with it, playing at art, might make sense of some things whirring around in your head. In the midst of these trying times it’s certainly worth a shot.
Aristotle (350 B.C.E/2020). Nicomachean Ethics Book X: Translation and Commentary. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
Groos, K. (1901). Die Spiele der Menschen 1899. trans E.L. Baldwin, New York: Appleton.
Klein, M., & Segal, H. (1997). “The Psycho-Analytic Play Technique: its History and Significance”, Envy and Gratitude and other works: 1946-1963, London: Vintage.
Nahm, M.C. (1942). “Some Aspects of the Play-Theory of Art.” The Journal of Philosophy 39, no. 6,148–60. https://doi.org/10.2307/2018416
Plato (375 B.C.E/1988). Republic 10. Italy: Aris & Phillips.
Winnicott, D.W. (2017). “The Location of Cultural Experience”, Playing and Reality, London: Routledge.