Thursday 9 January 2014, 12:26 | By

Bridging the gap between art and healthcare

CSL Invites

In my travels in 2013, I came across nothing more remarkable than the extraordinary works of the 14th Century Anchoress, Julian of Norwich.

David Gilbert

In her book Revelations of Divine Love written in 1413, she records her journey from near fatal illness to recovery, which she describes in terms of a series of mystical divine revelations, at the heart of which lies a radical religiousness in which she sometimes sees God in female rather than male terms.

As a statement of her commitment to God she commits herself to incarceration in a solitary cell in the church of St Julian in Norwich. This is known as the practise of an Anchorite.

Here is her most often quoted saying:

‘And all shall be well. And all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be exceeding well.’

I visited the church, which, though now reconstructed following bombing during the war, retains an air of mystical veneration even though it now lies in a housing estate.

It is through her writings that Julian’s fame was created and in particular by virtue of her being the first recorded female author in the UK.

In her writings you sense that two forms of healing are taking place. One is her mystical revelations of God which she refers to as her source of healing. The other is the act of committing her thoughts to writing and thus sharing them with the world.

Julian of Norwich was healed by virtue of her religious visions which she venerated through her anchorite existence, in concert with her radical proto feminist writing.

It strikes me that this dualism is precisely at the heart of the healing power of art.

I believe we can move beyond the realms of 15th century history and into 20th century philosophy to discover a modern take on this dualism.

The philosopher Martin Buber’s celebrated book I and Thou (Ich und Du in the original German) published in 1923, explores our relationships with things, and then other people, as two different modes of encounter.

Our encounters with things are straight forward in that they do not depend on a consideration of the consciousness of the object.

Meanwhile our encounters with people involve a contemplation of consciousness beyond ourselves, upon which he builds a philosophy of interpersonal and religious authenticity.

This in turn leads to a contemplation of the nature of community as opposed to organisations in which he argues that it is the community with the implicit shared responsibilities and empathy which is at the heart of our humanity.

This then becomes the basis on which he develops a new model for religious thought.

In my view it is the sense of community, empathy and responsibility which underpins the engagement of the arts in healing. It is not that artists set out to create literary medicine, like witches’ spells to cure boils, nor do they necessarily create with a community in mind. Rather they develop interpersonal ‘I and Thou’ exchanges which enable a healing process to proceed.

A striking example of this is the work of the French artist Sophie Calle which was shown at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2009, called Take Care of Yourself.

In it she asked 100 women to set out their response to the email sent to her by her partner, telling her he is ending their relationship. Sophie Calle asked a whole range of different women to comment on this email, from a psychologist to a ballerina. She uses the artwork as a kind of therapy by using the power of the community to observe and analyse the behaviour of her partner thus dealing with the associated trauma.

I think this is very close to Martin Buber’s idea of ‘I and Thou’, with the community acting as an agency for creating a deep relationship between people, as a powerful alliance which amongst other things facilitates healing.

Julian of Norwich and Sophie Calle have each in their own ways found expression for the healing power of art.

Julian’s writing does this in the form of 15th century religious mysticism, while Sophie Calle does so by constructing a communal art work.

Both are remarkable examples of the capability of art to mend and heal.

Read CSL founder Ian Spero’s take on Bridging the Gap Between Art and Healthcare in his latest CSL Insights piece here.

David Gilbert is formerly MD of Waterstones Booksellers and currently heads up Creative United, a collaborative venture with Arts Council England.