The Art of Shame

Thanks to our highly evolved brain we order our existence through an overlay of symbolism – most commonly language. This means that our world is shaped and expressed through a filter that falsifies and simplifies every aspect of reality.

The right brain remains largely unattended in modern life, still receiving all the input it has been so finely tuned to sort through and make sense of. The output from this silent, non-linear partner can be felt, if we attend very carefully to our thoughts and physical sensations. Very, very carefully. The ancient limbic system still processes messages using a mirror technique. In the same way that very young babies, without an online prefrontal cortex, mirror the facial expressions of their parents and learn about emotions, the right and left brains exchange information through physical and emotional sensations.

Our Corpus Callosum is the modern super-highway between the left and right hemispheres of the brain but since each half is so specialised plenty of information never crosses the border. This is why many of us can’t sing a note until we can distract our analysing left brain (which is basically deaf to melody) and make way for our right brain to work its musical magic. And what does cross over passes through the shredder of inept interpretation like a game of chinese whispers. Finally we force it to fit into our system of symbolism in the prefrontal cortex and then wonder why life never quite seems to make sense.

We use symbols to express ourselves – music, art, movement, language. But these are all, ultimately, incomplete, unable to fully express what is going on in the moment. Furthermore the symbols remain static while the moment changes. So no matter how close we come to successful self-expression through our art the ‘self’ changes and the expression is left behind, pathetically out of date.

So we face a paradox. Art, in its many forms, provides us with an essential outlet to express what is going on beyond the noisy narrative of the prefrontal cortex. The deeper in the flow we are, the closer we can get to authentic expression or the better we can represent our entire being. The more hightly attuned we are to the endless procession of physical and emotional sensations, the closer we get to understanding the truth behind that expression and, in turn, expressing a greater truth. But we will never paint the perfect picture or write the perfect words because the nature of our symbols is in conflict with what they try to represent.

Now shame is the fear of being exposed in an unfavourable light. Guilt is a feeling of unworthiness at the core of your being – the shame of being exposed unfavourably to yourself. When an artist reveals themselves as completely as their art will allow them we often feel strongly about their work. This is the point of art, it challenges us to work on developing our understanding of a more complete truth. The ultimate aim of art may well be nothing short of fast-tracking evolution. A noble task for which our tools are inherently inadequate. And the artist knows this. At their core they can feel that they haven’t yet hit the nail on the head and no matter how much acclaim their art may inspire (or not), many artists still feel fraudulent, unworthy, ashamed. Others feel guilty that they are even trying to be artists and many more feel too afraid to admit that they are artists, calling their creative passions hobbies.

Yet we are all artists. Each one of us has access to basically the same exquisitely complex brain as the next human. So why have we created a society in which to sing out loud right there on the footpath, full of inspiration and heart, is a sure sign of mental illness? Or one in which most people claim they cannot draw, or write, two things most of us learn to do tolerably well by the age of seven? And don’t even get me started on dancing. Have you ever seen a three year old dance? Where do you think all that raw talent goes when we grow up? Nowhere, it remains right where it always was, increasingly shrouded by shame, guilt and fear as we grow up.

Isn’t it time we began to encourage expression in ourselves and in others so that we might learn a little more about what is hiding behind our fabricated reality?

I would like to challenge you to do whatever form of creative expression works for you – and don’t be stingy on the definition of creative expression. Gardening, walking in nature, pottery, building stuff, fixing stuff, whatever gets you exploring other parts of yourself, and watch the self-talk come and go. Waste of time, doesn’t make money, nobody would be impressed by this, I am not good enough, I don’t know what I am doing… the discomfort, thoughts and emotions will go as fast as they come if you don’t hang onto them. And don’t cling on to any pride or joy that comes of it, either, that is as unhelpful as the rest of the chatter and one of the reasons artists often get ‘good’ and then get stuck.

Just keep doing your art for the daily practice of doing it because the great secret is that it is the practice that is more important than the art. Art can be as effective as anything else at oppressing, alienating and shaming us if we let it. And always, always, encourage others who are practicing their art. Whatever you think of their skill, motivation or presentation they almost certainly will not benefit from your criticism. Honour their intention and their courage as you would a child learning to walk. Because who knows what other problems might be solved once we collectively ditch the shame of art.

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