In August I began a course, Art and Individuation, held online by the Centre for Applied Jungian Studies in South Africa. This was an in-depth look at the psychology of art from a Jungian perspective. Jung maintained that if we can artistically represent our emotional reactions, and our emotional states, then we are better able to reflect upon them. For me, the course functioned as a kind of online art therapist, and I produced six pieces of psychological art as part of my journey.

We focused on Jung’s idea that our lives – and psychological states – each have an unchanging kernel. Some might call it a psychological life-partner. Others a spirit guide, a mojo, or – from a more psychological perspective – Jung called it a daemon. And the daemon has a mission in mind – the process of individuation. Could we bring out our psychological daemon through a process of figurative art? And if so, what might that daemon suggest?

Individuation and the Psychology of Art

Individuation is Jung’s idea that the trajectory of a life follows a pattern. Through observations from his clinical practice, Jung noticed that peoples’ psychological exploration followed a similar path as their lives progressed. Jung was especially interested in middle age, when a transition, often full of emotional distress, often occurred. This is often called a mid life crisis. From a psychological point of view, at this point people are often faced with the hidden, shadowy side of themselves, often remnants of childhood experience. If you can navigate your way through this process then you are on the path to individuation.

This can be a sometimes be lonely and isolating time. Indeed, it has similar characteristics to mental illness. No one approaches their hidden psychological depths with any particular relish. Indeed, it’s striking that many of the artworks produced when people first start this process are of dark, shadowing, looming figures. An octopus, perhaps, or hunched, oppressed figures, shrouded in darkness.

But there is some hope. Jung’s idea was that there is our individual daemon is also interested in our therapeutic process. Individuation, in other words, has an ally. It could therefore be that the daemon is trying to show us what is there inside, what we must face.

During this time I did a series of figures. I found dark angle that appeared to be both threatening and welcoming at the same time. It seemed to be saying ‘follow me’.

Art and Individuation

Jung believed that art was a great way to understand what people were experiencing. The interesting thing was that producing artworks seemed to have a positive effect. Suddenly, people were able to reflect upon their unconscious processes. And their psychological well-being improved; it’s a lot easier to experience something if there is a representation of it. You can pick it up, consider and reflect upon it – much simpler – and more concrete – than the slippery memories created in the mind.

Jung himself was also an artist. His subject matter was impressive and varied. In the 1920s Jung focused on producing a series of mandalas, illuminating his realization that the individuation process led to the unity of the personality. This was the direction of individuation – a person could come to see that they were part of a whole that transcended the simple ego; and the science of psychology that he built became about helping the individual get there.

Jung also was a sculptor. At his home on Lake Geneva, the wall as still covered with his sculptors, including that of his daemon, Philemon. Indeed, carving in stone helped his through the tremendously difficult period when his wife died.

Art as creative expression – and the reduction of psychological disorders

In this he was not alone. Mark Rothko and the abstract expressionists also held that art could be a useful in generating positive emotions. Abstract paintings were not simply a mess, but they showed us something about the human psyche, something that didn’t exist in real life, but could exist in an art form. Other great artists agreed. Abstract art practitioners such as Jackson Pollock held a similar view. Artistic talent had little to do with it; in the new field of art psychology aesthetic pleasure was valued by its ability to alleviate mental health problems.

Art was held to be in different criteria. It was not just about whether one piece was a better work of art than another. Neither was it about a pieces monetary value. It became about whether wall art improved an individual’s state of mind. Appreciation of artworks was almost secondary; instead, artistic works became valued not by the intrinsic qualities of the aesthetic objects but by their positive social impact – particularly on the individual themselves. Good art was a form of therapy.

This was the real benefits of visual arts education – support of visual art was not simply about bright colors and their resulting pleasure, but emotional processing and the related psychological impact.