Creative Interventions: Art against trauma

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The past decade has been characterised by a combination of natural, economic, political and epidemiological crises, which seem to have reached a sort of apogee in 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic. The pressures of war, strongman national leaders, environmental strain and related financial pressures have combined to produce global experiences of human suffering.

A significant number of artists have responded to this concatenation of crisis by making relevant artworks and engaging in cultural and political activism. Marsha Meskimmon has identified the capacity of contemporary art to allow empathetic and sensory connections between people across cultural, linguistic and social borders, with the result, she argues, of ‘transforming our relationship with/in the world’. While she is referencing recognised artists, it is evident that many people without training or a practice in art are using art to cope with the disasters they face, and making home videos, singing, producing podcasts and both reading and writing poetry. Creative practice, it seems clear, is a critical element for recovery when suffering the effects of crises; perhaps because, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues, ‘When we are involved in creativity, we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of life’.

This chapter focuses on how non-artists are using the practices of art as a mode of recovery from suffering, and to engender hope, empathy, and resilience. During the pandemic lockdown, this has in many cases been self-directed, but in cases of severe trauma an outside intervention is usually necessary. A major feature of trauma is that the brain finds it difficult to use expressive or associative language: a key symptom of PTSD is voicelessness, or what is often termed ‘speechless terror’. Sufferers struggle to communicate in ways that articulate their story and allow them to see a future, or to break free from the endless repetition of the disaster that caused the traumatic injury. For Judith Butler, really profound damage is that the sufferer cannot ‘persist in their own being’, because there is no ‘outside’, only a permanent interiority; and no way forward, only a present that is utterly haunted by the past.

Yoshiko Shimada’s work with victims of the Japanese army ‘comfort women’ is an example of a creative intervention against suffering, and it both supported the women in their recovery, and demanded of viewers that they recognise the event and acknowledge its impact. Other examples are from art programs conducted with severely traumatized individuals. The effect is to interrupt the endless reiteration of trauma, and turn the speechless terror into story through creative practices that allow the sufferer to imagine a different self, and craft a way out of the trauma and into a future where they can be recognised as a full self by themselves and by others.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationArtistic Representations of Suffering
Subtitle of host publicationRights, Resistance, and Remembrance
EditorsMark Celinscak, Curtis Hutt
Place of PublicationUnited States
PublisherRowman & Littlefield Publishers
Number of pages8
ISBN (Electronic)9781538152928
ISBN (Print)978153815911
Publication statusPublished - 2021


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