2014 / Sunday

The Looking Cure: How Art Can Make You Happy

Greta Stonehouse

Betty Churcher

Betty Churcher

“The Joy of Art both means nothing, and it can mean everything.” Rachel Kent, senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, was chairing a discussion on why art is important at Pier 2/3 at Walsh Bay on May 24. What art means is a contentious question. The panel members all have clear views on the benefits of creativity, of studying and making art: they were venerable critic, author and commentator Betty Churcher, OA; philosopher John Armstrong and British jeweller and author Alex Monroe. Their discussion centered around the nature of passion and curiosity, and its relation to art.

If the joy of art were to be embodied, it would look like Ms Churcher. With her hands gently clasped and her eyes always smiling, the former director of the National Gallery speaks fondly of her world and its intrinsic link with art, even as a young child. She clearly remembers her first passion being Rembrandt – and says he will be her last. “Tears were streaming down my face,” she said, recalling her first encounter with a Rembrandt painting in the National Gallery of Victoria. It was here she first glimpsed the power of art, which she believes has a universal quality that reaches through time, and touches in us the very essence of being human.

Ms Churcher’s most recent book is Notebooks, a sketchbook of her favourite paintings. She was inspired and propelled by her failing eyesight to travel the world to cement those images in her mind, before she loses her vision completely.

Mr Monroe, who lives in the Sussex countryside, said he felt like a fish out of water at the Sydney Writers festival: “I’m a maker, not a writer.” His jewellery is inspired by nature, and his necklaces, earrings and rings feature bumblebees, owls, feathers, foxes, swallows and flowers. His first book is Two Turtle Doves: a memoir of making things, is an examination of the nature of creativity. He said the task of writing did not come naturally, due to his practical nature.

However, a few catalysts happened in his life that created a need to write the book. His wife works as a masseuse for breast-cancer patients, and he began to notice a discrepancy between her day and his. Her days were long, and often taxing. His were often spent melting various materials down, into the shape of a little mouse. “Yes honey, my day was exhausting too,” he said, making the audience laugh at his feigned sincerity. Yet, this was the beginning of an internal question for him, of why he spent his whole lifetime at a bench, making jewellery.

Making things was his way of communicating, he realised. He came to understand that his jewellery is the only language in which he can express himself, and get at the truth of what he is trying to say. His conclusion: “We do all need people to tell and share their stories through art”.

The Scottish-born philosopher and academic, now living in Melbourne, Mr Armstrong spoke about his childhood feelings of loneliness. While externally his younger self appeared well socialized and conventionally normal, internally he could never shake the sense that his passions in life were outside the box of what most people cared about. Now a prolific author, his works include examinations of money, civilisation, love and happiness. His latest book, Art as Therapy, is a collaboration with fellow philosopher Alain De Botton. From an early age he was overcome with a desire to understand why people would fight with each other, this led to his passion for philosophy. “My parents used to fight a lot, and I wanted to be able to strip it back for them,” he said.

Mr Armstrong said art has helped him understand many things.   “It speaks to my soul.” he said. However, he also brought up another part of the art world: a sense of snobbery that surrounds it. Those who lack a detailed understanding of art may be interested, but in the art world feel they would seem a fool.

“If you were to say you love a painting, there is a good chance someone will turn around and tell you that anybody who knows anything about art, hates that painting,” he said. Ms Churcher and Mr Monroe agree that snobbery gets in the way of many people accessing art, replacing their interest with fear.

In this fast moving world we live in, it sometimes feels impossible to stop. Imagine if the time we spent to view a performance, or watch a movie, we spent looking at a painting. Ms Churcher said the answer to appreciating art and life, comes from being still. “I watch my grandchildren flick digital images over and over and I think ‘Oh God, just sit and look. Let it come to you’.”