An expressive arts manifesto
This is my manifesto.
1. Expressive arts is intermodal
Not just multimodal. Intermodal. That means we use the different modes to see our images, thoughts and yearnings through the different lens each offers, in combination with each other.
Our cells express hidden wisdom through expressive movement.
Spontaneous image making is a form of active imagination - dreaming while awake.
Improvised writing and poetry allow us to blurt and flow impractical words that touch on our true inner experience.
Improvised dialogue and monologue allows us to scream, to relive a memory, to act out a goal, a fantasy, a dream, to be a clown.
Drumming connects us to a universal heartbeat, and singing, oh how everyone dreads to singing front of others, but our singing moves our trusted friends to tears with its raw emotion.
2. The expressive arts approach is spiritual and intuitive
Expressive arts creates a big open space. Things happen in this space. Connection. Meaning. Synchronicity. Catharsis. Visions.
I spend a lot of timing worrying about how people who are atheists will experience this. I grew up as one. So I know first hand the discomfort of being confronted with the spiritual energy of expressive arts. But to deny it is to take away the power and magic of this approach to creativity. Be willing to exist in a liminal space of not knowing or explaining it away. Just experience it. There is nothing to believe.
Guided imagery, tarot cards, dream analysis, prayer, meditation. These are all used in expressive arts to get us into a deeper state of mind, more receptive. For some, connecting with archetypes, animal messengers, angels, source is symbolic. For others they perceive a real energy that is supernatural. It doesn’t matter. We don’t have to believe myths actually happened in order to enjoy their magic, we don’t have to believe that tarot cards tell the future. We use them as a framework to look at our own lives.
My goal is to use creativity to experience artistic, spiritual and expressive ecstasy.
When we can let go this deeply, it is cathartic and healing. It is an experience I live for.
3. Expressive arts is process oriented
This is not an approach to art that cares about skill, galleries, selling, public performance, making a living. It very deliberately focuses on “low-skill, high sensitivity” methods so that we don’t get caught up in being good or better than others.
In fact, those that are trained in a particular mode often have the hardest time spontaneously creating in that mode. Their inner critic relentlessly advises them on how to make it good instead of just letting them play, experiment, experience the moment of improvised expression.
In art therapy, it is believed that people don’t benefit if they hide behind their skill. Some of the most moving experiences I’ve had with the creative expression of others was totally raw, unpolished, untrained. Unable to impress with technique, the real, authentic person comes through. This is supreme risk-taking, and it results in connected, compassionate interactions between the artist and the receiver. It is the most powerful part of the expressive arts approach.
4. Expressive arts is improvisational
Preconceived plans are of no use in expressive arts, and attempts to control the spontaneous flow of creativity by only sticking with your plan results in shallow, trite, self-important work. This happens all the time of course, but the goal is to go deeper to where your fresh and vivid creative abilities are.
We begin with no clear idea of what will be created, regardless of the medium. This doesn’t mean there is no framework. It just means you must be in the moment, in that uncomfortable and vulnerable frame of mind where you don’t know what you are going to say, do, paint or write, to face that unknown.
Sometimes the result will be bland or safe when we can’t quite let go and relax into it. That is part of the dance. But often there will be the rush, flow, and exhilaration of something said, a mark made that came from no where. Something you could never have planned or predicted.
5. Expressive arts uses dialogue
Dialogue appears in many forms. The most important is the creator dialoguing with his or her creation. Not while it is being made. We don’t want to backseat drive while we create, declaring ‘oh this means that’ or demanding an on the spot interpretation. That is controlling the process, and it inhibits. But at some point, explore what you created by dialoguing in another mode. Writing from the point of view of your painting. Dance it. Try different ways to experience the differences. When you dance to a painting, you experience it very differently than if you write about it, or talk about it.
Another form of dialogue is with others in a group. A danger in creativity is getting lost in the process, and not, as Jane Goldberg calls it, “resurfacing”. Sharing your work with others, and talking about what you've created helps you to integrate the message of the creation into your day to day life. This doesn’t mean we overanalyze, nor are we satisfied with canned or obvious statements. It is too easy to say, oh I used red, I must be angry. We can’t look up the meaning of our images in a dream dictionary. We can’t allow others to tell us what it means. That is our work, to discover what it means for us, at this time in our lives. We might need to sit with a while.
And why should you care about expressive arts? Expressive arts fosters transformation, healing and spiritual connection. That is the reason to explore it.
The goal of expressive arts is to help individuals change, grow, heal, stretch. Using the arts in this way is powerful. Creativity is risky. Expressing yourself is risky. We can use the arts to rehearse and practice new ways of being. We can take dreamy, incoherent desires and needs and ground them, see them, and begin to integrate them into a new sense of ourselves that is less limited, and more full of hope and purpose.
The ability of the arts to do this is powerful. We sense this power when we feel scared to sing, to move, to make a mark. So instead, we often only consume our art. We live vicariously through the professionals. And then we compare ourselves to them, and use this to stuff our own expression.
Expressive arts started out as a therapeutic method, but can be used in education, coaching, spiritual direction and for personal purposes.
Expressive arts is on a continuum. How it is used in a therapeutic context differs from how it used in education, coaching or for independent personal growth. Creativity is a type of risk, and it is important to know and honor your boundaries. You are in control of what you explore and express. If you want to use expressive arts to heal from trauma, you need to guidance of an expressive arts therapist. If you wish to use expressive arts to go deep into your own artmaking, like an artistic inner adventure, it is advisable to have a list of therapists available in case you trigger underlying issues. If you are already seeing a therapist, share with them the results of what you make. The saying “how you do anything is how you do everything” is true for the creative process. If you need support, take care of yourself and get that support.
That being said, it is totally appropriate to use expressive arts independently or with a group without the guidance of a psychotherapist. Each person will develop their own sense of what they want to share with others. If you do this, it is important to set guidelines for how to comment on each other's work. No one should be telling others what their creations mean, or telling them how to improve.
Although it is important to know your boundaries, it is also important to step outside your comfort zone. Creativity is not always a joy filled process. It is not always peaceful, or relaxing. Taking a calculated risk by painting a taboo image, or writing a raw truth, can be exhilarating.
Now go create.