In researching how science is catching up to Indigenous knowledge, I often come across the idea of art as medicine. Today, mainstream science uses art therapy to improve communication and social skills, academic skills, motor skills, and attention span. Art can help you manage pain, reduce stress and improve your heart health.
At my core I understand that art medicines impact us spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically. However, knowledge holders often talk of art as “sacred”, and I wonder what separates “sacred art” from other forms. It might be important to think about the question because it has implications for cultural appropriation and theft. In this three-part article you’ll be treated to some of my findings on this issue.
In the first of this three-part post I discussed expressive and transformative art. I also promised to explore the science of art medicine later in Part III. Here in Part II we can look more in depth at the idea of sacred art.
Though some people regard all art to be sacred I’m going to define what I mean by that in these articles. SACRED ART is to be about creative works that have been tested and used in cultural/spiritual communities over centuries. They are used to call on specific beings or energies in order to perform some function in the world. This kind of art is not well-understood or respected in mainstream society. Secularism and Christianity have both regarded the creation and use of sacred art as idolatry (the worship of objects). It has been misunderstood, devalued and ridiculed for centuries. Nevertheless, whether a song, dance or visual work, sacred art embodies a spirit that has power in our world.
For example, in many of our communities we find that there are ceremonial or sacred songs that aren’t sung by anyone at anytime for any reason. While all songs carry a spirit or energy there are special songs that are sung at specific times in concise ways for explicit reasons because they are recognized as having power. They heal, condole, give authority or otherwise act on living beings in the world. Some songs are considered sacred, and anyone who teaches, sings or receives such a song takes on a serious responsibility.
Navajo sand paintings are another example of sacred art. Specially trained healers create sand paintings for a specific healing ceremony. After their work is done, sand paintings are destroyed so that their energies cease to act on the world.
We find this idea in other Indigenous traditions as well. Among the Yoruba of West Africa, specific drum rhythms call on specific Orishas (Ancestor spirits) each of whom have their specific roles, skills, energies and areas of expertise. Drums, dances, colours and masks also correspond to specific rhythms and relate to specific Orishas. These ceremonial “tools” are used in concise ways to invoke or “call in” Orishas for work that needs to be done. Hence they fit the definition of “sacred art”.
Another example comes in the form of Yogic Yantras. These visual artworks are specifically designed from shapes that are symbolic of particular ideas and have concise meanings. Creating, possessing and using Yantras is considered a very serious endeavour because you are calling in energies, spirits and Gods that have impact and influence in the world, including your body and mind. When New Agers come back from holiday with a Sri Yantra tattoo on their ass or a Kali statue they bought at a bargain price, I wonder if they understand that those artworks carry specific energies that impact their feelings, thoughts, words and actions.
For people who would like a more scientific discussion of how sacred objects function in the world, you might want to consider the work of a variety of scientists who are studying relationships between objects at the microscopic level. Researchers have found that each molecule in our world vibrates at a unique, precise energy frequency – a kind of molecular theme song. This chatter among molecules goes on beneath our awareness but of course our own bodies are part of the symphony. Recording and playing back the frequency of a particular molecule can initiate a chemical reaction. This is the case even when the molecule itself isn’t present. The vibration of a particular protein molecule can turn on a gene, for example, even when that protein isn’t actually there. The chemical reaction needs only the frequency of the molecule to occur.
This science is still under investigation at the moment but even if it all boils down to nothing more than the placebo effect (the name given to a scientifically recognized mind/body relationship that gives rise to healing and wellbeing) it’s reason enough to pay attention. Whether science proves it or not, our healing practices which relied on the mind/body/emotion/spirit relationship have served our nations for millennia and they cannot be easily dismissed. This is the wisdom behind Art Medicine. We’ll discuss this science more in Part III of this post.
In any case, there is a huge difference between expressive (see Part I) and sacred art. Sacred art has limits, boundaries and teachings around its creation, form and use. While sacred art can be created and used by individuals or groups it is not about expression. It’s about connecting to a spiritual realm in a specific way for a specific purpose. Hence, it is no wonder that sacred art is not known about or much respected in mainstream society, which devalues so many spiritual practices.
On the other hand, the line between “sacred” and “transformative” art is not solid at all. Creating, using or experiencing sacred art can certainly transform yourself and others. Also, you can be transformed by creating, experiencing or using original art that is not “sacred” as I have defined it here. Still, it’s useful to think about how they are different, particularly if you’re going to create, buy or otherwise use art in your life.
Stay tuned for Part III where we’ll see how science might be catching up to our concept of art medicine.