Art as Therapy: Self-Understanding

We are not transparent to ourselves. We have intuitions, suspicions, hunches, vague musings and strangely mixed emotions, all of which resist simple definition. We have moods, but we don’t really know them. Then, from time to time, we encounter works of art that seem to latch on to something we have felt but never recognized clearly before.

Cy Twombly, Panorama, 1957.

Contemplating Cy Twombly’s dark, scratchy, suggestive surface is rather like looking in a mirror in which you notice an aspect of your appearance you had never paid much attention to before, except that what’s at stake here is not a row of molars, but your inner experience. There are moods or states of mind (or soul) that are perplexingly elusive. One has them often, but can’t isolate or examine them. Twombly’s work is like a specially designed mirror of a part of our inner lives, deliberately constructed to draw attention to it and to make it clearer and easier to identify. It homes in on what it’s like when you almost know what you think about something, but not quite. It pictorialized a moment in reflexive life suggestive of ambition and confusion; the thin, light marks on the surface might be rubbed-out words chalked on a blackboard; the smudges might be clouds through which we glimpse distant stars. Whatever they are, what matters is that we don’t get to see them precisely, so we are held in the moment of being on the cusp of something. We are about to understand, but have not yet understood. This moment is important because it generally does not live up to its promise. We abandon the process of reflection. Not much of a decision about the personal meaning of love, justice or success is achieved and we move onto something else. Looking at Twombly’s painting assists us in a crucial thought: ‘The part of me that wonders about important questions and then gets confused has not had enough recognition. I have not taken proper care of it. But now I see this part of myself reflected in the mirror of art; now I can make more of it.’

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