The culture cure: how art can be a powerful healing experience

Humans often find catharsis through creating art, while looking at paintings and sculptures can light up the pleasure centre in the brain and release dopamine

From delighting in the creativity of others, seeing something from a different perspective, sharing that experience or forging connections, I know I always leave our galleries feeling energised, inspired and uplifted,” says Karin Hindsbo, the director of Tate Modern – and she’s certainly not alone. According to a recent study, looking at art can light up the pleasure centre in the brain and release dopamine, the feel-good chemical – which is why visiting a gallery can be a valuable act of self-care, especially in the cold, dark winter months. 

East London-based art therapist Alex Monk says viewing art in-person in a gallery, rather than virtually, elevates the experience: “It might be the smell, or even seeing the shine of the paint. You might even be able to interact with the art on another level,” he says. “There is also a community aspect to walking around the gallery and looking at paintings or sculptures, which is very important.”

It helps that many galleries and museums are works of art in their own right; from the Tate Modern’s colossal Turbine Hall – a space so spectacular that it inspires its own creations, such as El Anatsui’s Behind the Red Moon, a monumental sculptural installation made of thousands of metal bottle tops and fragments, which is currently on show there – to the Grade II grandeur of Tate Britain, with its opulent circular balcony and domed atrium. These are public spaces with pizazz – a break from the everyday.

Nottingham-based art psychotherapist Sofie Dobbelaere agrees that going to a gallery to view art can be a powerful healing experience. “When we look at art, we connect with our humanity, and therefore are pulled into dialogue with something outside of ourselves,” she says. “This can help us feel connected and like we are part of something important.”

We live in a fast-paced culture, often consuming great works of art as quickly as we do content on our phones. But the act of engaging with art often defies our own deadlines and boundaries of time, inviting us to look a little longer. Next time you go to a gallery, try practising “slow looking”, spending several minutes or even hours contemplating just one piece. Galleries are full of amazing works, but observing just one on a deeper level can be incredibly meaningful. “We find it more difficult to stay with images or paintings for longer periods of time, but it’s a really good antidote to the culture we have now where everything has to be really fast,” says Monk, who likens slow looking to Pauline Oliveros’s theory of deep listening.

According to a recent study, although 95% of UK adults agree that visiting museums and galleries is beneficial, 40% of us visit them less than once a year – which is especially regretful as so many of these incredible spaces and artworks, including the main collections in the Tate galleries, are completely free to view and open to all. “These gloomy winter months are the perfect time to get lost in our free displays, especially if you’ve never visited before,” says Hindsbo. “From fluid contemporary sculpture to calming landscapes, vibrant abstract paintings to awe-inspiring installations, you’ll find something in our collections for everyone.” Now that sounds like our kind of self-care.

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Photograph: Seraphina Neville/Tate

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