Lippin Papers > A Case for the Arts



Reprinted from The IAMA Newsletter
Volume 7, Number 1, March, 1992
Philadelphia, PA

A Case for the Arts: As or In Religion

Richard A. Lippin, M.D.


Over the years, in several of these essays, I have stated my belief that arts-medicine is more than just another medical specialty, but rather a social movement which embraces a renewed cultural emphasis on humanism, holism, and globalism in both medicine and the arts. It wasn't, however, until I heard renown psychoanalyst Rollo May deliver an address at the November, 1990 conference of the National Coalition of Art Therapy Associations (NCATA) in Washington, D.C. that I began to think about arts-medicine as one of many "neo-religions" -or at least new philosophies -- which appear to be emerging. In his poignant address, Dr. May referred to the personal sense of belonging and pleasure that he felt among the thousands of arts therapists assembled, calling them "the harbingers or sparks of a new world -- a new religion based on man's endless search for beauty and the joy of human beings helping other human beings" which he referred to as "jolly activity." Dr. May closed his presentation by quoting a poem written by world-renown dancer/choreographer Martha Graham in which she refers to the "blessed unrest" of the artist. My thoughts on this subject were further stimulated by reading chapter nine of John Naisbitt's 1990 Megatrends 2000 book. The basic premises of this chapter, entitled "Religious Renewal of the Third Millennium," are that mainline and highly organized religions are in decline, but spirituality and what Naisbitt calls "individuality of faith" where "only individuals can experience transcendence" are growing. Naisbitt further states that the bond we share today with the people of past millennial eras is the sense of living in a time of enormous change and that when people are buffeted by change (or crisis ... Lippin added) the need for spiritual belief (and meaning ... Lippin added) intensifies. A third reason for writing on this topic was the encouragement recently given to me by a remarkable young artist, Todd Siler, founder of Neurocosmology, whose writings, art and new-found friendship provided the stimulus and courage to address this highly sensitive but important topic.

My own personal dissatisfaction with the excesses of organized religion is based on my own early childhood experiences surrounding the intolerance of family members when my father chose to marry outside his faith. As I read about, witnessed, and experienced the excesses of organized religion, its deficiencies became increasingly obvious to me. Among these were my observation that organized orthodox religions were often linked to both individual and group acts of violence, the worst manifestation of which is warfare. To me the ultimate hypocrisy is the taking of the life of another in the name of God. Furthermore, certain sectors of organized religion continue to fail miserably in their treatment of women and homosexuals. The failure of some organized religions to act responsibly in addressing one of man's most pressing 21st century problems, overpopulation, is obvious evidence of their inability to perceive and act upon reality. I have often thought that creation of a society based on the principles of mental health of individuals -- and, through individuals, of human families, communities, and societies -- might improve our chances to survive as a species. Organized religion's continued rejection, however, of the principles of modern psychology and psychiatry and of the responsible pleasures of the human body has wrought significant ill health among many. Unfortunately, the core tenet of too many dogmatic religions is that man is essentially sinful or evil, thus preventing what is now accepted as a basic pre-requisite to mental health: the development of individual self-esteem. Inflexible organized religious positions, however, are based on a neurotic need for power sustained by a rigid dogma. Many organized religions, because of the failure to adapt to an everchanging world, have sown the seeds of their own destruction and are showing definite signs of decay. Among the manifestations of this weakness are the embarrassing displays of serious financial and sexual misadventures of leaders of the religious right and the recent shakeup in the Christian Science Church. The severe and worsening schism in the Catholic Church on issues such as birth control, women, homosexuals, and, most important, the poor -- both in the industrialized and the third world -- is another example. The seemingly intractable failure of among the world's most brilliant negotiators to achieve peaceful resolution in both the Middle East and Ireland -- although admittedly very complex political situations -- has, it seems, at its core the problem of religious intolerance on all sides. Even the recent firing of Chairman John Frohnmayer of the U.S. National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) was a cowardly act of desperation by a weak U.S. political administration to appease the religious right. This shameful act is a sure harbinger of the impending collapse of both the religious right and an administration which panders to it -- an administration which wants to de-regulate everything but art and ideas, any country's most important "industries." I might add that, like the decline of "religious dogma," reductionistic science (another dogma) is dying before us with new paradigms ready to re-emerge. Marilyn Ferguson has gone so far as to state that we should stop beating the dead horse of reductionism. Scholars have addressed relationships between the arts and religion since the ancients. My own view is that dogma, religious or otherwise, or blind faith is the opposite of creativity. As artist/writer Todd Siler says, "art is an infinite open-ended system of infinite possibilities." But, engaging in the arts as an active or "passive" participant has true spiritual qualities. Participation in the arts can be a timeless experience permitting reflection and connectedness to mankind and the universe. D'Arcy Hayman has said "When a man is intensely involved in his craft, he is at one with it and thus he is at one with the universe and himself. An aesthetic awareness will help us reintegrate, 'rehumanize' society. In our search for new meaning, new direction, new harmony for our lives, we can turn to the arts, for the plan and the model are there." Also, engaging in the arts builds self-esteem and as Benjamin M. Shaefer has stated, "arts is our outlet, the creator within ourself, the reason we have values." I believe we desperately need a society now based on the principles of mental health which will permit us to perceive reality more accurately and to reach out to others. I believe we can no longer afford not to do this. Artists, who often refer to their personal need to love and to communicate to others, can lead us. This neoreligion, the pursuit of beauty, is based on a love of life (and hence of man) and not on a fear of death and embraces a moral imperative to be optimistic.

About one year ago I had what Myrin and Joan Borysenko call a "magic moment" with my then seven year old son. One day he came to me visibly shaken and very fearful. He began to cry, saying that he couldn't believe that some day he would not be here. I believe this was literally the moment that he became aware of this own mortality. I held him and let him weep and carried him in my arms to a framed poem I had written about musicians. I told him that a real part of me, his father, was inside that poem which would live forever and that expression through the arts is a way to achieve immortality. He accepted this view and just last month presented to his mother and me a poem for which he won a county-wide prize, thus beginning his own lifelong artistic march toward immortality. We have since reiterated to him that life is short (but good) and that art is everlasting. Also, I became aware about a year ago that I was "going to a special church" on Sunday morning by watching the TV program "Sunday Morning" with Charles Kuralt. This 90 minutes of outstanding television features sensitive reporting and intellectual discourse on the arts and the beauty of the planet earth and its people.

Man's need for meaning in life or confronting his own mortality is central to the creation of all religions. As reported in the most recent edition of New Sense Bulletin (February, 1992), Maryland psychologist John Gartner and his colleagues concluded after reviewing some 200 studies that religious commitment is positively related to mental health. Among the issues reviewed were suicide, drug use, delinquency, divorce, general well-being and mental illness recovery. Gartner states that despite the controversial nature of his findings, "for many people it (religious belief) appears to be a solid floor for mental health."

I believe appreciation of and participation in the arts can serve this role even better than most current religions. Even if pursuit of the arts is not a "new religion," clearly the fact that churches are reporting more successful utilization of the arts and increasing integration of the arts with religion supports my belief that the future has already arrived and the paradigm has already shifted. Furthermore, I believe we should no longer sustain the hypocrisy and inefficiency of a dualistic approach of the pursuit of the arts versus the practice of religion. We no longer have the time, resources or money for this neurobiological or cultural disconnection. There need not be a dualism here for it is very likely that most great religious leaders from Jesus to Moses to Buddha were individually spiritual and creative in their outlooks and good works. Many spiritual leaders have rediscovered that beauty and truth are indeed one and that man's never-ending quest to extract these two from life remains ongoing.

While man has been through these historic cycles before, it appears to me that never before, due to technology, population growth, the existence of nuclear weapons, and modernity, have the stakes been so high. I am confident that man will choose life over death and a new spiritual optimism will prevail, that he will choose beauty and truth over his own ugliness and self-destructiveness and will increasingly turn to the arts for trust and inspiration.

back to top