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Art as Medicine: Drawing Trauma Out(side)

Heidelberg 360° Conference
Detroit, Mi.

Richard Raubolt Ph.D., ABPP

‘We must never forget art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth,”

John F. Kennedy

Kennedy’s quote is true enough to a point but one attributed to Paul Gauguin describes a quite different emerging truth:

“Art is either plagiarism or revolution”

This is an important description of an artist such as Tyree Guyton who works subversively with the medium of graffiti art in the service of social justice.

Characteristics of Tyree’s medicinal art that support this definition are as follows:

1) Using indigenous artifacts, cast-off objects and various forms of detritus the art of Heidelberg reflects, mirrors and gives back to the community earlier representations of their world. Art’s visual images bypass defenses that are both psychologically restrictive in nature such as denial and projection and instead stimulates implicit rather than explicit memory. A brief distinguishing definition may be useful here. Implicit memory entails emotional activation not requiring conscious recall and where there is no verbal language only sights and sounds. While explicit, coming online later is recalled memory where language is present and problems are identified, worked with to form meaning and interpretation and as such are higher forms of remembering.

2) Implicit memory is the memory of trauma demonstrating brain plasticity where brain connections and the structure of neural pathways are changed and diminished. The art objects Tyree uses re: toys and simple household items counter these occlusions because they carry memories from a different, earlier time period. Their current usage in novel and startling ways redefine how art is viewed through our eyes as “adult-children”. This is a process of continually remaking and re-membering the past in the present rather than a stilted process of discovering objective historical facts. For example, shoes of various kinds are strategically draped on overhead wires. These are shoes but they are something else registering just below the level of consciousness. Shoes have soles as everyone knows but they also signify souls upon looking up and considering the history of lynching. The observant viewer might make the additional implicit association to Billy Holliday’s “Strange Fruit”:

Southern Trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

In Tyree’s art everything is something else and we, often unconsciously, respond to his invitation to surrender what we think we know about art’s
meaning and purpose.

3) More specifically HP creates cognitive dissonance that demands and finds resolution when cast off “junk” becomes whimsical treasures and abandoned homes serve as outdoor art galleries and living museums. Our perceptions are turned inside out. Walter Benjamin reminds us that memory is not just information that individuals recall or stories being retold in the present. Rather, memory is the self-reflexive act of contextualizing and continuously digging into the past through place.

4) The re-utilization of everyday artifacts disturbs the viewer by creating a “crisis of meaning.” This art is not the art we have come know as adults instead it harkens back to memories of childhood in objects, materials used and color applied. An internal challenge is issued to make sense, assign meaning and describe relevance to reduce discomfort by making the implicit explicit and worthy of exploration. HP demands we recall that we invent as much as we remember our history. From a slightly different perspective the art historian Ernest Gombrich makes mention that art is not art without the viewer’s collaboration.

5) Vinyl records, stuffed animals, and clocks are all common household objects but when fixed to urban dwellings in disrepair they highlight an urban dilemma – these material objects inject a titrated, dose of the infected agent causing harm – that is we see and feel the despair in haunted abandoned homes and on the streets in economic wastelands that still maintain “otherness”. Guyton’s art is meant to provoke, incite and enlighten. Actually, experiencing these physical objects shakes off our complacency, invites greater awareness, enhances consensus for problem-solving and promotes emotional resiliency. Sadly, not all are able to metabolize these injections of disquiet, for some, it is too disturbing and enraging. Michael Eigen tells us this kind of rage…” substitutes for growth, fill holes in the self, masks deficiencies. It is allied with a sense of helplessness, disability, frailty. It attempts to hammer others into helplessness.” In futile attempts to blunt their pain, this radioactive rage seeks to destroy the offending objects. The fires that have plagued HP may be understood as plaintive acts of violence against art that subverts the status quo, cannot be silenced and will not play nice. Some illnesses of the soul cannot be treated by even the most powerful medicines.

6) The damage and scope of destruction on display in Guyton’s work exposes the cultural intergenerational results of urban trauma. Poverty, so immense in size, reveals historical, social and economic forces operating over decades that have laid waste to large swaths of a once vibrant American city. Through the human faces of familial and communal displacement trauma is revealed to be at its core a shutting down to life, a closing off and a retreat to helplessness. Medicine as art works to provide opportunities for health, both physically and emotionally, by providing recognition and validation to the deadening effects of odious yet licensed racism while offering hope and stimulating “witnesses” who can no longer deny the problems.

7) Art demands self – reflection, imagination and reassessment of the individual’s place in his or her community. As a “gathering place” HP fosters intellectual/ social engagement for people who might otherwise suffer “lived-in mistrust” as they reside in communities hostile and antagonistic to each other. Gathering places are fluid mosaics offering moments of matter, metaphor, scene and experience that create and mediate social spaces and temporalities. Such places are sites where people can join in conversation, make contact with loss and confront injustice. Through Guyton’s art respect for differences deepen, allowing fixed roles to soften and change informing a new coming together based on spontaneous desire not forced legalist dictates. This is what I believe Tyree Guyton means when he calls for “flipping the script.”