“Instead of thinking of meaning as something to find, let’s think of it as something to create.”
Ellen Dissanayake, author of Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why, takes an anthropological approach to defining the purpose of art making and its role in human survival and evolution across cultures. Her perspective includes the idea that the act of making art is an innate human behavior that serves as a way to “make special” various experiences in life, such as, funerals, and rites of passage. Dissanayake views song, dance, and visual art, as a way to mark the significance of a particular ritual or ceremony. We see this in how we adorn burial sites with gravestones and flowers, or in the practice of singing “Happy Birthday” to someone on the day they were born.
Dissanayake’s concept of “making special” is a foundational theory that supports the practice of art therapy. When we make art, we make things special. Meaning, we draw specific, mindful attention to an experience—we do this to either celebrate and relish in it, or to provide a context for our suffering, to honor it or to make it more bearable. Within this process of “making special” we embellish or emphasize the meaning behind something. When we choose to celebrate someone’s birthday by singing to them, we make this day more special than other days because it means something to us; we are using art to signify meaning. But art can also be used to create meaning, rather than to signify or enhance pre-existing meaning.
When something happens to us, whether it’s a traumatic event, a transition, the passing of a loved one, or the end of a relationship, we search for meaning in the experience. We do this because knowing what the experience means to us helps us makes sense of it, which allows us to integrate it into the larger picture of our lives. So, we search, endlessly. We search as if meaning is something we happen upon, that already exists somewhere waiting to be found. A quest such as this can lead us to find answers in spiritual, philosophical, familial, or cultural definitions of what things mean. But these don’t always fit with our individual, unique experience. When we find answers that don’t fit, we experience shame, frustration, and an enhanced sense of powerlessness. Instead of thinking of meaning as something to find, let’s think of it as something to create. We cannot change the past; we cannot control all that has yet to happen to us. However, we can decide what it all means to us. In this process, lies our power.
When painful things happen, it’s natural for some of us to create meaning that is unhelpful, for example, “my partner broke up with me; I am devastated, and it must mean that I’m a bad person and that I deserve bad things like this” or “it must mean that my partner is a terribly selfish person who never cared about me in the first place.” Making meanings like these can halt our progress and may even lead us to want to give up. However, we don’t have to commit to the first bit of meaning that we create. In our art making, we have a space to workshop our meanings. We can challenge this initial belief, edit it, create on top of it, or transform it into something more helpful. We can use the creative process to stimulate our imagination. What other beliefs can I hold? What else might this mean to me? What might that look like? It’s likely that there are other ways to make sense of what has happened.
Art making provides us with the power and the flexibility to decide rather than to default. As we make deliberate decisions about the materials we use, the marks we make, the gestures we incorporate into our artwork, we are being active participants in the perspective we construct for ourselves. Witnessing our completed artworks affirms the meaning we have created, emboldening our conviction and our trust in ourselves. Reframing meaning as something we create rather than something we find moves us from a passive/helpless place to an active/capable place; here we will find the will to go on and the knowledge that we can survive.