When we think of art in the Western world, we normally think of it in terms of its aesthetic appeal to people and not in terms of any healing properties it may have. Granted that there are branches of Christianity that have visual representations of Christ or the saints to whom a believer prays for health, but there the focus seems to be more on Christ or the saints behind the visual representation and the medium of art does not in and of itself seem to contribute so much to generating healing. Then, of course, there is art therapy in the modern world, which is a form of psychotherapy that can make a person feel better when making or appreciating art. But this is a form of symptomatic relief that does not directly attack core mental health issues.
The Navajo Indians of the Southwestern United States have created a form of art that is exclusively constructed to be used as a part of a process that focuses on total healing of a person who is sick. The process referred to is a religious ceremony in which a person is reset in many ways: physically, psychologically, socially and religiously. The process is called a chant although this does not refer just to the repetitive almost unconscious songs that people sing as part of a religious ceremony. And the art that is created for this chant is made out of sand. Sand of different colors is used to make a painting that occupies a very important role in the healing process.
The subject matter of the paintings is scenes from Navajo myths. They are scenes that are meant to attract the presence of Navajo gods to the ceremony. After a painting is completed, something very unusual happens. The patient is called into the presence of the painting. At one part in the ceremony, sand from the painting is strewn over the patient’s almost totally naked body. Later in the ceremony, a patient is asked to sit on the painting. The very act of sitting on it destroys the painting. In all cases, the remains of the painting are carried away from the site of the ceremony in a sack and gotten rid of in a ritual manner. Several paintings are created during one days-long ceremony, and each of them is destroyed by the patient in the same way.
With each one of these sand paintings, the patient absorbs a different deity and, in so doing, absorbs the healing power. This is the purpose of the sand painting. It is not meant to be in its traditional use an object of ongoing aesthetic appreciation (although there are people today who do collect sand paintings). It is to make an imprint in the sand painting and then to preserve an imprint not in the artwork itself but through its transformative effect on a patient. Through the sand painting, a patient becomes healed and strong, because he becomes internally empowered like a god. The preserved imprint is intense in terms of the dramatic changes it creates in a patient’s life, even though the effect does not last, at least directly, beyond a patient’s life. This is very different from a work of art made for aesthetic purposes. This kind of work of art is itself a preserved imprint physically, and although it can have long-term effects in the lives of its viewers, the viewers never become anything within the subject matter of the work of art. Although there are different degrees of impression left by an aesthetic work of art on a viewer, and some works leave an impression that is even more moving, even spiritually moving, the impression of an aesthetic work of art is more shallow than the impact of a Navajo sand painting on a patient.
But the sand painting is certainly useful in helping us to understand not only that there are different kinds of preserved imprints, but also in helping us understand that there are different levels of the effects of imprints. A sand painting is a preserved imprint that doesn’t have to survive indefinitely as a physical entity in order to continue to survive as an imprint. When the patient sits on the sand painting, the imprint leaves the physical entity of the sand painting and inhabits the patient’s mind as an experience that is remembered. It is a deep-impression imprint, because as a transformative imprint, it remains with the patient for the rest of his life.
This is very different from most art objects that don’t attract spirits that then inhabit the viewer. A good interesting art object can certainly move a viewer, but that emotional influence is more temporary, and more than likely, it is not going to transform a person’s life. It will leave an impression that is more shallow on the viewer. When all is said and done, it is not destroyed after being viewed. It is not destroyed in a way that its very essence can enter the viewer.
So there are different patterns for how an organic imprint is preserved. For a sand painting, the enduring part does not reside in the material presence of the art itself, but rather in one viewer. And in the positive healing transformation of that viewer – the patient – there are ripple effects benefitting family members, friends and community members. To the extent that a patient is healed, it is going to lead to more healthy interactions between the patient and the people around him. One can think of it as a ripple effect, whereby the health of the patient reverberates with the people around him, and even indirectly with future generations. This is how the imprint of the sand painting remains preserved.
With most art, the artist creates a work of art in which he makes and preserves an imprint in the work itself and this preserved imprint makes imprints on viewers. Sometimes these imprints are preserved in the viewer, if the work of art is truly memorable. With a sand painting, the artist makes and preserves a very intense imprint on one viewer precisely because the work of art is created and destroyed in one sitting. It is a work of art that is made to go on living in the form of an intense memory.
The sand painting is a unique kind of art, and its presence forces us to think through what it means for a work of art to leave an imprint on a viewer. And, in effect, there are actually two preserved imprints involved on the path from artist to viewer. There is the imprint that the artist makes and preserves in a material work of art for his own sense of accomplishment. And there is the imprint that the work of art emits to be received by the outside viewer. And if the imprint emitted by the work of art is transformational enough in its effect on the viewer’s mind, it becomes preserved there. Most artists in Western culture focus on both imprints. They want to create something of enduring artistic value of which they can be proud. And they want to have a meaningful impact on viewers. Now there are also some people who focus on the first preserved imprint and make works of art just for themselves. Navajo sand painters are much more focused on the second preserved imprint. The viewer knows that the imprint is made for him, to help heal him, and that makes the impact of the sand painting imprint so much more powerful.
There is nothing like the sand painting in modern technological society. Particularly in modern technological society, the notion of purposely destroying a beautiful organic imprint rather than preserving it is alien to the notion of the creation and preservation of art as a vehicle to add to one’s surrogate immortality in order to prepare for death. But through the Navajo, we see that non-physical preserved organic imprints such as memories can also be an appropriate means for creating a surrogate immortality.
(c) 2017 Laurence Mesirow